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Movie Review

A Spirited, Unpredictable Search of 'The Personals'


A number of films have suggested that Taipei is an especially lonely city in which it is difficult for people to connect and develop relationships. In his unpredictable and remarkably accomplished "The Personals," director Chen Kuo-fu adds a refreshingly wry humor to this view and then deftly throws in some wrenching moments and an ultimately astounding final twist. The result is one of the liveliest and most accessible films yet from Taiwan, which along with Korea has been responsible for much of the freshest and most challenging films from Asia over the past decade or so.

In a singularly demanding role, Rene Liu, best known for Sylvia Chang's "Siao Yu," beautifully plays a 30ish ophthalmologist, Du Jiazhen, a trim, attractive woman who has become so dissatisfied with her life that she quits her hospital job to focus on getting married. She bravely takes out an ad in a personals column stating forthrightly that she is seeking a suitable husband.

The response is swift, resulting in approximately 100 phone calls, and the bulk of the film consists of her meeting the respondents in an elegant teahouse. Not surprisingly, she attracts a plethora of unsuitable types but develops a certain degree of resilient good humor in dealing with them. Most of the men are ordinary-looking guys mainly in their 30s and 40s--and mainly looking only for sex.

She attracts a shoe fetishist with a suitcase of shoes he insists she try on right then and there; a personal protection-device salesman who gives her his sales pitch for his Mace-like sprays and stun guns; a homely guy who extols the joys of porn videos; an elderly man, accompanied by his son, in search of a replacement for the wife who has left him and probably will never return; and a real-life noted Hong Kong-Taiwan actor, Niu Chang-tse, playing himself and stringing her along as a seedy bohemian painter. In the early portion of the film, the most presentable and poised man turns out to be a pimp eager to recruit the doctor for his stable. A lesbian in male attire makes a cool pitch too.

Of course there are the pathetic types. A middle-age woman arrives with her handsome young autistic son in the desperate hope that Jiazhen might somehow be the person to break through to him. Most haunting is a lonely 45-year-old grade-school teacher (Chin Shih-chieh, one of the film's co-writers) who has put off getting married for 20 years and before our eyes realizes that he's waited too long.

Each meeting is a test of Jiazhen's spirit as well as her sense of humor. She discovers rapidly that she must develop a detached attitude of polite self-defense, taking a firm stance against assaults on her dignity, extending a compassionate but noncommittal concern when it's called for. Stylish and easy-flowing, "The Personals" never becomes monotonous: first, because each meeting is so acutely observed and so fully sketched; second, because at just the right moments Chen unobtrusively starts adding other elements such as Jiazhen's meetings with one of her former professors, a calm, wise, hippielike Buddha of a man who gives her a tough-minded perspective expressed with a kind concern.

In her worst moments, however, Jiazhen pours her heart out on the phone, her anguished words clearly directed at a married former lover from whom she is struggling to free herself emotionally. Her messages, however, are invariably received by his answering machine--and never returned.

In retrospect it's clear that all along Chen, a noted former film critic, has been heading into an entirely unexpected direction that culminates in shattering irony. Yet Chen adds a brief, tantalizing coda that holds out a sliver of hope.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: Language, adult themes and situations.

'The Personals'

Rene Liu: Du Jiazhen

Chin Shih-chieh: Yu Wen, the schoolteacher

Chen Chao-jung: Chow, the ex-con

Niu Chang-tse: As himself

A First Run Features release of a Zoom Hunt International production. Director Chen Kuo-fu. Producer Hsu Li-kong. Screenplay by Chen Kuo-fu, Chin Shih-chieh, from a story by Chen Yu-hui. Cinematographer Ho Nan-hong. Editor Chang Dar-lung. Music Steve Liu Sze-wei. Production designer Wang Yi-bai. In Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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