Writer and Director: Chun-Hua Lin
This quirky buddy movie from Taiwan centres on the friendship between a grumpy elderly trans man and a grumpy teenage girl. Neither is easy to like; the trans man spits copiously on public buses while the teenage girl shouts at everyone she meets. They, presumably, are the nobodies of the title, but Chun-Hua Lin’s ultimately over-ambitious film, now receiving its UK premiere, strays from the main relationship to focus on other forgotten people.
Tellingly the trans man has no name in the film, but in the credits he is referred to as ‘Weirdo’. This is the name his neighbours give him, and the name the bus-drivers call him. The fact that he spits on the buses that he takes across the city is so well known that some bus-drivers close their doors before he can alight. The film begins with one driver forcibly ejecting the trans man from his bus.
He comes home one night to find Zhen-zhen, a teenage girl, in his flat filming her father in the apartment across the road. Zhen-zhen shouts but without his hearing aids the old man is deaf and says nothing to the young intruder. He goes to his wardrobe and carefully lays out a dress on the double bed.
As the old man and the girl slowly become friends, Chun-Hua Lin finds time to linger on the other nobodies in the city. Zhen-zhen’s mother cleans her spotless apartment, a robotic vacuum cleaner skimming the floor beside her, while she dreams of working and of doing more in her life than giving the occasional piano lesson. Below the elderly man lives a family with a Down’s syndrome girl, and we are given glimpses into her life, and see her walk through night-time streets alone. These scenes are never hurried, but they distract from the main relationship.
The film never gives too much away, and we are left in doubt to what Zhen-zhen’s mother sees when her daughter pulls down her jeans to prove that she is not menstruating, but there is a suggestion that Zhen-zhen could be intersex, revealing another identity, otherwise hidden in society. While there is ambiguity around Zhen-zhen, the film’s closing minutes attempt to explain the old man’s behaviour and the result unnecessarily moves the story towards melodrama. It may have been better to leave some strands untied.
As the old man, Jian Fu Sang is excellent, and quietly expresses the old man’s humanity despite his vulgar habits. When Jian Fu Sang smiles, the whole film teeters on the edge of hope. Likewise Wu Ya Ruo has a difficult role to play as Zhen-zhen, and she too provides slithers of decency underneath her character’s teenage rage. But as they criss-cross the city together on buses people begin to misinterpret their relationship, and a climax beckons.
Despite the broad perspective, Nobody is like a chamber piece, and it could easily be staged for the theatre. Perhaps in this medium the screenplay’s bleakness would be a better fit. But Chun-Hua Lin’s film certainly has atmosphere helped by the sound that picks up everything from the cellophane that keeps the old man’s dresses like new to his shoes tip-tapping on the cement stairwells of his apartment block. Nobody is almost an immersive experience.