Taiwanese film number two of the festival was the frothy Second Chance, directed by Wen-yen Kung. Okay, maybe not frothy exactly, but definitely bubbly. Second Chance is (I assume) one of the only action movies about pool. Yes, that kind of pool, where you stand around a table and firmly poke a series of colored balls. Sure, there’s The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986)—did you remember Tom Cruise is in that?—but those are hardly action films. Although, Poolhall Junkies (2002) does have Christopher Walken, which is reason enough to watch it. Obviously.
Seriously, the man is a national treasure. But I digress. This is what I was talking about:
Second Chance is a sweet and entertaining mishmash of redemptive sports story, redemptive family story, crime story, comedy, drama, and action. Within the first five minutes, it seemed like two different films, with two entirely different tones, had started. The film doesn’t give you a chance to get bored or invite deep contemplation. It’s easily the most fun I had at SBIFF this year—and that’s an oft-underrated virtue at film festivals.
A disgraced former pool champ, played by Jason Wang, is forced back to the table when his independent, spunky orphaned niece has to find a way to hang on to her family’s pool hall (and convince her social worker that she doesn’t need to go to a foster home). Formulaic? You bet. Does it matter? Not at all. Asian films often seem much better at taking formulas and recycling them without making the audience feel like it’s eating a 7-Eleven egg salad sandwich that probably wasn’t very good even before you accidentally left it roasting on the dashboard of your car. Maybe Asian filmmakers choose better formulas than Hollywood studios. (It certainly seems easier to get decent distribution in that part of the world for that sort of film, on which much less money is riding.)
Peijiang Wang plays Shine, the budding billiards champion who finally gets her uncle Feng to stand up and fly right, i.e., quit drinking and find a way to pay off the gambling debts that have brought his old rival to the door of the family pool hall/home, the Outstanding Pool Hall. There are the requisite training montages, which are a lot more entertaining than what is, essentially, golf on a table has any right to be. It’s a tribute to good storytelling that the film doesn’t need a lot of locations, doesn’t need a lot of characters, and doesn’t need a complicated plot to be such a good time.
Also on the agenda was the South Korean “neo-noir” Confession, directed by Do-yun Lee. If the characters from Partners in Crime grew up, they might have ended up like the three boyhood friends in Confession.
Confession is a solid, enjoyable crime thriller, the first feature by director Do-yun Lee. The three friends grow up to be very different from but still devoted to (or maybe just tied to) each other. Slick insurance agent In-chul (Ju Ji-Hoon) has more in common with the greedy mother (Lee Whee-Hyang) of his friend Hyun-Tae than with either Hyun-Tae (Ji Sung) or their friend, the slightly damaged Min-Soo (Lee Kwang-Soo). The center of the film’s plot is the robbery In-chul and Min-Soo stage at the gambling hall owned by Hyun-Tae’s parents. Playing to the surveillance camera, In-chul and his friend’s mother mime a violent robbery while offering directions to each other. (Which is absolutely as silly as it sounds.) The camera can’t hear them, of course, so why not?
What could go wrong with this plan? Nearly everything, as you might expect.
As with Second Chance, it doesn’t matter a whit that we can see what’s coming. Indeed, in a genre picture like this, being able to see what the characters can’t—the absolutely inevitable disaster they have stupidly, arrogantly set in motion—is essential. As Hitchcock pointed out, that dynamic is what creates suspense. It’s not not knowing what’s going to happen; it’s knowing exactly what’s going to happen when the characters don’t that makes us squirm in our seats and talk pointlessly at the screen.
One of the things that makes both of these films better than their average American counterpart (assuming it ever got a distribution deal) is that they both spend quality time developing their characters, so that we care about them. Rather than being told the main character’s backstory in dialogue— “My parents were killed in front of me!”*—or having the plot laid out for us in dialogue— “I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.”**—we watch characters do things and interact with each other. And so the characters seem like people rather than placeholders, and the plot appears to be generated by who the characters are rather than by the dictates of a marketing campaign aimed at 14-year-old boys.
I’m sorry. Did I say all that out loud?
Confession calls to mind another South Korean crime thriller traveling the festival circuit, A Hard Day. Seong-hoon Kim’s film about a corrupt cop having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day is, I think, a better movie (though it’s hard to tell having only seen each once). Nevertheless, Second Chance and Confession are both a good time, and if you’re lucky enough that you can get to and afford a film festival, check these out. If not, don’t despair…they’ll be streaming soon.
Up next from my SBIFF adventures… the Chinese thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014).
* Colombiana (2011)
** Taken (2008) Really? You didn’t recognize that?