Director: Li Qiyuan 李啟源
Studio: Chi & Company
Language: Taiwanese 台語, Mandarin 國語
Running Time: 107 minutes
Recommended. Good performances and interesting characters are always a solid combination.
In Southern Taiwan, Barbie 金芭比 eeks out an existence pole dancing on Taiwan’s infamous electric flower cars. Her abusive, drunkard boyfriend races pigeons, until one day his prize pigeon Tango goes missing. Enraged that he’ll be unable to pay his debts, he dies in a fatal car accident while Barbie is working.
At the scene of the crash, Barbie is approached by a mysterious man, who offers to buy her deceased boyfriend’s organs. Faced with being hounded by the loan sharks her boyfriend borrowed from, she reluctantly agrees. This is how she meets the quiet Malacca, who performs the operation.
Elsewhere, local gang leader Ronin 肉仁 hopes for a kidney donor for his ailing sister. But her blood type is rare, and the only match found — an autistic girl in his church — is not a relative and so cannot undergo a live transplant according to Taiwanese law.
Then he’s approached by veteran detective Yang Kaiming 陽開明, who has been searching for Malacca for many years. He has a plan to catch him, but who are they willing to sacrifice to get what they want?
We have to admit, when we saw the poster we weren’t optimistic about this film. We had in mind some low-budget horror tropes, but Pigeon Tango does a very good job of confounding those expectations. Indeed, despite the ominous look of the poster, the gore shown in the trailer below is the sum total in the film. The organ selling is but one part of the story, and arguably not even the main one. Thus we have a film who’s Chinese title 盜命師, Life Robber, is far removed from its English title Pigeon Tango, which refers very literally to the pigeon Barbie inherits from her deceased boyfriend.
Using animals as plot devices and metaphors is not unfamiliar territory for director Li, whose previous film, 2011’s Blowfish 河豚, used the titular fish in much the same way. In this case, Barbie’s pigeon is the link between her and Ronin, who happens to run the local pigeon racing club. We thought it worked well enough as a thread to link their stories together. One scene — where Malacca ends up feeding the boyfriend’s ashen remains to the pigeon by mistake — drew plenty of laughter, and was a very good example of the way the director used comedy sparingly to break up the long segments of tension building. It’s likely Li had a deeper meaning behind his decision to use pigeons in this film, but we’re not entirely clear what that might have been.
Despite the pigeon being effective in tying Barbie and Ronin’s stories together, overall the film still suffers from a narrative that is a little too large for its run time. There are a lot of interesting stories presented to us: Barbie, Ronin, Malacca, Detective Yang and Miu 貓丫are all characters that we were interested to know more about. Unfortunately, we are mostly just left guessing at details and motivations. At one point near the end, a rather large explanatory monologue is given by Yang, presumably as the director felt that the story was not clear enough. Whilst we had guessed at most of what was revealed from previous scenes, the fact it was needed at all is not a positive.
With that said, to craft a film with many interesting characters is something to be respected, even if they ultimately fall short of what they could be. This is aided by universally strong performances from the cast, with special mention to Hsiang Hsi 喜翔 as Ronin and Annie Chen 陳庭妮 as Barbie.
This is Li’s best work to date, and another good film to add to what is a growing list of quality releases coming from Taiwan in 2017.