THE FALLS (瀑布) (NETFLIX) (2021)
SYNOPSIS: After having to quarantine together during COVID-19, a mother and daughter are forced to confront their personal obstacles and relationship tensions.
It has been two years since the world found itself in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, and whilst many filmmakers have chosen to ignore how life had changed over these two years, some like acclaimed director Chung Mung-hong have decided that it is too significant to disregard such a dramatic opportunity. So even though it is probably not a follow-up one would be expecting after the critically acclaimed ‘A Sun’, Chung’s latest is an absolute gem of a drama that is quite easily one of the best pandemic-set movies thus far.
The logline describes it as an unravelling of a mother-daughter relationship when both are forced to home quarantine together during the early days of the pandemic (note: unlike much of the rest of the world, Taiwan still practices a zero-COVID policy, even though less stringently than Mainland China). Yet, as one quickly finds out, that description is true perhaps only of the first 20 minutes of the movie – indeed, than set the entire movie over the course of their home quarantine, Chung uses the quarantine only as catalyst for what happens after.
The mother-daughter in question here is Pin-wen (veteran TV actress Alyssa Chia) and Xiao Jing (Gingle Wang), who over a single morning getting ready for work and school respectively, demonstrate how fraught their relationship is. That same morning, Xiao Jing is told by her school to isolate at home after a classmate she sits next to tests positive for COVID-19. After her mother picks her up from school, Xiao Jing decides to lock herself up in her room, which not only deepens the hostility between them but also precipitates Pin-wen’s mental breakdown.
Pin-wen’s first episode happens just 15 mins into the movie, when she goes out of the house into the pouring rain to search for Xiao Jing… except that it never rained and Xiao Jing was never missing. That in turn sets off a series of encounters that will lead to Xiao Jing discovering the depth of her father’s infidelity (and hence his consequent divorce from Pin-wen), the state of her family’s finances, and how Pin-wen’s psychological state has affected her at work.
Whereas Xiao Jing is the focus in the first half, Pin-wen becomes the centre of emphasis in the next hour, not only to portray her gradual ascent from a psychological abyss but also her reconciliation with Xiao Jing. Besides Xiao Jing, an instrumental supporting figure in Pin-wen’s journey is her gentle and caring work supervisor Mr. Chen (Chen Yi-wen), and as cliched as it may seem for two divorcees to find solace in each other, the affection between the duo is as natural and moving as it gets. Ditto the healing between mother and daughter, culminating in a heart-stopping moment at the end which we won’t spoil here.
Those familiar with Chung’s earlier works should probably already realise that ‘The Falls’ is easily his most intimate one to date, focusing essentially on how the pandemic lays bare the fragile truth behind their current state of life which Xiao Jing and Pin-wen have either tried to hide from or been hitherto blissfully ignorant of, as well as how both of them come to terms with reality both personally and as family. It is also probably his most sensitive movie to date, dealing with the issue of post-pandemic psychological trauma which society has likely just begun to grapple with.
As director, co-writer and cinematographer, Chung exercises a perfectly sublime control over tone, mood and pace; in particular, the state of the family’s luxury apartment building is deployed ingeniously as metaphor throughout the film, not only as symbol of the state of disrepair of the characters as well as their mutual relationship, but also to provide a sense of foreboding as they come to terms with each other’s secrets. Chung’s intuition of Chia and Wang is also spot-on (he had cast both actresses based on just their pictures), and their excellent chemistry carries the film from start to finish.
Like we said, ‘The Falls’ is our pick for the best pandemic-set drama so far. Whilst its depiction of the aftereffects of the pandemic may be uncomfortable to watch for good reason, it is also an honest and thought-provoking piece about the societal impact of the past two years, as well as an affirmation of the strength of the human spirit to survive, prevail and emerge stronger. That it has won the Golden Horse Award last year for Best Feature Film is absolutely no surprise after you’ve seen it, and in fact we’d say it is an accolade well and truly deserved.
Review by Gabriel Chong