REVIEW: Sen Sen (2017)

sensen_01A boy named Sen (Wu Zhi-Xuan) struggles to cope with the recent death of his older brother. While his mother works each night at a local convenience store, Sen rides his bike around their suburb. He does homework in a fast food restaurant, hanging out at a manhwa (comics) library, and searching through his later brother’s mobile telephone. Via the telephone Sen learns that his brother was a regular viewer of a streaming videocast.

Through the cast he contacts its presenter, an elderly woman known simply as Granny (Nina Paw). Granny is a taxi driver suffering from stage 4 lung cancer and has been given three months to live. She obstinately insists she will make it to day 100. Together she and Sen make an unexpected connection and develop a stronger acceptance of death between them.

Situated less than 200 kilometres off the mainland Chinese coast, and living in a diplomatic limbo for the past seven decades, Taiwan is a small country that punches well above its weight in the screen arts. It is the home of Hollywood darling Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) as well as arthouse darlings Hou Hsiao-Hsien (The Assassin), Edward Yang (Yi Yi), and Tsai Ming-Liang (Goodbye Dragon Inn). It also has profoundly active commercial and independent film sectors – from which most films fail to secure significant international distribution. Given the generally high quality of Taiwanese cinema, that is a failure that borders on tragedy. While the situation has improved since when I first wrote this film review – Australia now has an annual Taiwan Film Festival, and Netflix are buying up a growing number of titles –  Sen Sen still represents one of many excellent ways to start on learning about the country’s screen industry. It is well-performed and written, and is told in a carefully restrained and gently emotive fashion.

The film is mostly told from Sen’s point of view. Wu Zhi-Xuan gives a strong juvenile performance. It is surprisingly understated, and it is a good direction to take because it makes his rare moments of vocal upset much more striking and effective. Nina Paw – a rightfully celebrated actor in her home Hong Kong – is tremendous as Granny, expressing a wonderful amount of humour and warmth. The chemistry between the two, via acting and direction, is very strong. While they create the focus of the picture, they receive strong support by Yen Yi-Wen and Tsai Hsuan-yen as Granny’s daughter and Sen’s mother respectively. Each get their own smaller, subsidiary storylines: one about a daughter accepting her mother’s stubbornness in accepting death on her own terms, and the other about a grieving mother reconnecting with one son after another has died.

It would be easy for the film to become too sentimental or even maudlin. That it does not do so is down to An Bon’s steady and uncomplicated direction, and An and Cheng Ying-min’s screenplay. A lonely boy forming a friendship with a charming old lady gives the film humour and brightness. That the old lady is terminally ill leavens that brightness and delivers something more akin to real life. The musical score is sparse and restrained. The photography is simple and direct. This is the kind of understated quality film that deserves strong recommendation.

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