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God Man Dog
cast: Tarcy Su, Jonathan Chang, Jack Kao, and Ulau Ugan

director: Singing Chen

119 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 16:9
Terracotta DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Max Cairnduff
God Man Dog (aka: Liu lang shen gou ren) is a Taiwanese film, written and directed by Singing Chen. An ensemble piece, it follows the stories of a number of people leading dissatisfied and unhappy lives in contemporary Taiwan, eventually tying their stories together through the machinations of chance or, implicitly, of fate.

The excellent Tarcy Su plays Ching, a young mother suffering from post-partum depression, who works as a hand model - a person whose hands are used for close-up photos or filming for use in adverts. Her husband, A-Xiong (played, also well, by Jonathan Chang) is a successful designer, working on a spa development and so important to his company that even at times of family crisis he is on the phone to his office, unable to leave it behind for even a day. Ching and A-Xiong occupy a modern, expensive and minimalist home. A vision of sterile perfection, through which Ching wanders during the day, obsessively tidying and watching her baby for fear it will suddenly die.

Meanwhile, an indigenous couple live at the other end of the economic spectrum, surviving on recycling, casual deliveries, competition prizes and generally living on the margins of society. The husband, Biung (effectively played by Ulau Ugan), is an alcoholic who is trying to recover with the help of his local priest (the indigenous people are Christian, not Buddhist like the Han majority). Until Biung manages to give up the bottle, his daughter must stay away, she in turn lives with a friend who is a legs model, another character only valued for one of their parts.

Jack Kao plays a one-legged man by the name of Yellow Bull who drives a truck with a giant illuminated statue of the goddess of mercy, Guan Yin Boddhisatva, on the back. In his free time, he finds discarded idols, takes them home and restores and cares for them - apparently guided to them by a voice only he hears and yet that seems accurate. He also feeds stray dogs on the highway, himself then a sort of boddhisatva but one without apparent connection to other human beings.

Other stories include Biung's daughter, working for a martial arts scholarship in the hope of leaving the tribal poverty she was born into, and Hsien, a perpetually hungry young petty thief who survives by entering eating competitions. As the film progresses, all these stories begin to intermesh, characters forming bonds and affecting each other, sometimes unwittingly, as god or gods bring them together to help them in ways unseen.

The characters are each afflicted by their personal tragedies; Yellow Dog needs money for a new artificial leg, but is poor. Biung cannot shake his alcoholism. His daughter is ambivalent about her scholarship. Ching and A-Xiong's marriage is failing, lost between her depression and his dedication to his work. Characters are locked in their own miseries, adrift in their routines.

Along with these imperfect but very human characters are images of perfection. Plastic or gilded gods, moulded and unchanging... Hands or legs so beautiful that only they are photographed, the person they are attached to of no additional value. Ching and A-Xiong's designer apartment... The spa development - which promises unity of mind, body and soul, but - which will be built over the demolished homes of indigenous people, including Biung and his wife. Everywhere, there is the contrast between the people and the perfection they cannot live up to.

Against all this perfection are equally prevalent images of faith. Biung holds his crucifix to the light, hoping for inspiration. Yellow Dog tends his rescued idols and drives his Guan Yin lorry along mountain passes. Ching, lost, abandons her own faith and converts to Christianity, discarding Buddhist figures from the home (to be found, naturally, by Yellow Dog). Religion is at the heart of this film, it is in a sense a story of a miracle, of how through a chain of chance potential redemption reaches into people's lives - present should they wish to take it. Which makes it sound rather heart-warming, but it's much more thoughtful than that. Rather, it is a meditation on faith, on what we are and what we would wish to be. In that, it is a subtle film which is well acted and which takes its time to reveal its secrets.

The difficulty with the film is that it takes a little too much time to reveal its secrets. Often the film itself demands faith. We see Yellow Dog driving his god, but we do not discover why until halfway through the film. Much is revealed only to be explained later, the film's structure therefore becoming itself a demonstration of its subject. That often works well, but not always. At times, pacing is slow, and the philosophical tone lends to a lack of warmth. This is an intellectual film, and as such by the 90-minute mark I was starting to flag slightly and wish that it would try to engage my emotions as much as it was my mind. The consideration of faith was interesting, the interplay of characters, the way people sought the same things from both Buddhism and Christianity (though it is noticeable that Yellow Dog's faith is rewarded and apparently correct, while the Christians essentially are left unhelped by their god), all this was rewarding - but a little more humour would not have gone amiss and perhaps a little more open passion.

God Man Dog is a well acted film with a generally solid cast, at times excellent, which is confidently directed and which treats its subject matter seriously and with respect. Its only failing is that at times it is slightly dull, the greyness of the characters' lives infecting the film itself. At one point, Yellow Dog is dressed as a god, one of a trio of ceremonial dancers in costume. The young thief is asked to move off a bench, told the gods were sitting there first. The film could badly have used more of that spirit, that comic subversion of its own themes. As it is, it takes itself a little too seriously for my tastes. I'm sure it will find, and deserves, an audience. But I don't think it's as good a film as it could have been.

The preview version I watched did not include extras, however I understand the DVD release includes 23 minutes of cast interviews, a behind-the-scenes short at the Berlin International Film Festival, 20 minutes of deleted scenes, a short production featurette and a short CGI featurette (not that I noticed much by way of CGI).
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