“The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful” – 2018 Taipei Film Festival Review

A matriarch’s swift and ruthless game for the social ascension of her family is the centrepiece of “The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful” (血觀音), the latest from director Yang Ya-che which premiered at  Busan International Film Festival and opened the Golden Horse Film Festival, where it won Best Feature. Part period crime drama and part character study, the film explores femininity as it is wielded amidst the high-class corruption running rampant in ‘90s Taiwan in an intimate, twisted portrait of three generations of women and what they do in the name of love.

The widow of a general, Madam Tang (Kara Wai) spends her days running an antique dealership frequented by top officials and hosting soirées for their wives. Flanked by daughters Ning (Wu Ke-Xi) and Zhen (Vicky Chen), who serve tea perfectly and know best when to keep their silence—a piece of wisdom shared later declares that “those who serve have neither ears nor mouths”—when assisting their mother with her job, Madam Tang’s is the perfect go-to for all sort of high-class events. This is all surface work, of course. As we find out in due time, Madam Tang is far from the humble antique hawker she claims to be: a mediator for crooked politicians and businessmen alike, she brokers deals and fosters relationships, profiteering as the intermediary of a land speculation circle hinging on an urban renewal project mandated by the city government.

After one of her frequent associates has his entire family murdered in a cold-blooded massacre, the whole gang of corrupted folks spooks, reaching out to one another in paranoid bids to secure their own safety. Most importantly, they want to ensure that their involvements and shady dealings will go unnoticed throughout the police investigation of a sensational crime. When a nicely-timed exposé throws a spanner in the works, the gang falls into chaos as the chips fall and the cards are dealt—all the while Madam Tang sits serenely in her parlour and practices her calligraphy, orchestrating the fall of every single opponents from within the shadows, with her daughters as her proxies.

What proves to be more fascinating than this whodunit is the domestic psychodrama playing out behind closed doors. As Madam Tang’s plans unravel, it is revealed that she actually had only one daughter—the boozy, floozy Ning, who turns to substances and sex to dull the emotional trauma she endured since her childhood at the hands of her ambitious mother, who used her as a frequent honey pot and siren to lure susceptible men to their grisly demises. Ning is too broken to be a suitable heiress for the clan and too intrinsically moral to be a good mentor, so Madam Tang takes Ning’s daughter Zhen on as her successor (and new daughter) instead, warping the dynamics between the two younger women as Zhen’s mind is further poisoned by her grandmother’s orchestrations. However, the seemingly innocent Zhen is not blameless either. Crushing hard on Marco, the ostler and lover of her supposed best friend Pian-Pian, Zhen’s hunger for affection takes a murderous turn later on as her skills for manipulation is further refined.

While knowledge of contemporary Taiwanese politics and history may help in shedding light on the events that the plot pays homage to, the universal tale of corruption—and most importantly, love and power—is instantaneously accessible. The tightly written gambits raise the cinematic stakes and surpass what would otherwise be an overwrought melodrama.  The depth of corruption plays out mentally instead of materially. Lusciously designed and perfectly coiffed, Yang’s work is as much a paean to the rise of more cerebral and complex explorations of womanhood and survival in contemporary film culture as it is an inculpation of greed and how rife it is in the elite stratum.

Attention must be paid, and kudos heaped on, to Yang and the talented cast—Kara Wai and Vicky Chen won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Horse Awards, respectively, for their performances.  Wu Ke-Xi received critical acclaim for making psychological warfare much more terrifying than the run-of-the-mill mobster shoot-em-up that such medium-budgeted crime dramas often resort to. With a cast that makes full use of veiled threats and superficial courtesy, Yang has created a feminine war zone where wits and grace are what you bring to a gunfight to win. Blunt threats may be loud, but they are still no match in devastation against quiet, pertinent revelations, as one character who tries to intimidate Madam Tang finds out. Power plays require their participants to be players, not hustlers. A farewell to arms, perhaps, but certainly not charms. Sometimes you don’t need to resort to violence to get what you want; you just need to smile a little bigger.