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Cannes 2024: 'Mongrel' Is an Unfortunate Case of Style Over Substance

Wanlop Rungkumjad as Oom, standing in a hospital hallway with a bloodied face, in Mongrel
E & W Films / Le Petit Jardin

The number 6 with "TAC Rating" written beside it.

Despite plenty of promising young talent in Taiwan, Taiwanese cinema has struggled to break into the leagues of the “big three” film festivals in the world since the days of Taiwan New Cinema. This year, Taiwan has made a strong showing on the Croisette as a collective, not only with a special Golden Horse event in the Market, but also with two feature films in prestigious parallel sections: KEFF’s Locust in the Critics’ Week and Chiang Wei Liang and You Qiao Yin’s Mongrel in the Directors’ Fortnight.

The above context is important because many of the most successful, award-winning films from Taiwan, even if they are excellent, have been commercial-oriented, genre fare. Taiwan can do a really good gay rom-com or cop thriller nowadays, but it’s still behind when it comes to young arthouse directors who can put their marks on the international stage. This may start to change with this year’s crop: Chiang and You’s Mongrel, despite flaws in the script, certainly shows abundant stylistic confidence.

Mongrel tells the story of Oom (Wanlop Rungkumjad), a caregiver for indisposed people in rural parts of the island country. He is also second-in-command to his brutal boss Hsing (Daniel Hong Yu-hong), who runs an illegal operation of smuggling in and managing Southeast Asian immigrant caregivers. As Hsing once again asks Oom to carry out the dirty work of firing and replacing new immigrants, Oom has to decide whether or not to continue with these ethically demeaning tasks.

As previously mentioned, Mongrel is shot in an en vogue style in international arthouse cinema. It is enveloped in an austere atmosphere of silence in the perennially overcast countryside, with Chiang and You frequently employing sterile long takes. It’s a relief to see that someone from Taiwan knows how to make arthouse cinema that would appeal to the programmers of the top three international festivals.

But does that necessarily make it the good or right approach? It seems like the filmmakers were so preoccupied with withholding an “elevated” distance from the audience and keeping things vague that the basic establishment of the movie is severely compromised. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t want to confirm basic facts about the premise; we can be more than 45 minutes into the film and still be given new information. If you don’t have an ear for the Asian languages, then you might suffer even worse — the English subtitles don’t make any distinction between characters speaking Thai or Mandarin, which is obviously important, for instance, in establishing the characters as illegal immigrants from Thailand in the first place.

Wanlop Rungkumjad as Oom, cradles an elderly patient, in Mongrel
E & W Films / Le Petit Jardin

And despite the confidence in finding a stylistic voice, the filmmakers don’t land on something solid until the closing scenes of the movie. The end-credits reveal this film is executive produced by slow cinema legend Hou Hsiao-hsien, and the final few shots go all-out in embracing a slow cinema style by Hou or fellow slow cinema icon Tsai Ming-liang. These shots are very effective in confronting the viewer and forcing us to think, even evoking the most contemplative passages of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. But it takes an entire movie to get there, and during the search, we have to endure the film falling into the trap of Euro-realist suffering porn from filmmakers like the Dardenne Brothers. Mongrel simply becomes far too punishing and bleak, with the filmmakers not knowing where to hold their line.

Mongrel is certainly about an important topic. Despite the progressive image of the Taiwanese government, the Tsai Ing-wen administration has come under fire for poorly treating immigrant workers, and Southeast Asians in the elderly care industry is a particularly glaring issue of the country. This topic seems particularly personal to Chiang, who is originally from Singapore and has previously made short films about the Southeast Asian diaspora. 

The intentions of Mongrel’s filmmakers to expose this systemic problem are certainly good, but can their message really reach an audience when their film is so obfuscated? Sure, they have successfully secured the hearts of the Directors’ Fortnight programmers through their style, but during this process, they may have isolated everyone else.


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