In the year since Thanatos, Drunk debuted in the Berlinale Panaroma, it’s received both equal measures of hefty praise and respected awards, whilst simultaneously finding itself levelled at as an indulgent and uninspired piece. Chang Tso-Chi’s work seems to fall somewhere in between; stronger than its detractors claims, whilst falling short of the hype from those who sing its praise. The Chinese title of the film “Zuì Shēng Mèng Sǐ” translates along the lines of “drunk alive, dream to death”, which is a Chinese proverb that means “to waste ones life away”, with an implied self-indulgently and aimless manner – and from the outset, then, Tso-Chi’s film is defined by a certain self-awareness.
Taipei is a city that’s been surveyed through cinema more thoroughly and spectacularly than most; with the aura that permeates its nightlife often central to these cinematic mediations. While Thanatos, Drunk doesn’t reach the heights of films that defined the international filmic perception of the city, specifically in the night 1, the atmosphere the film conjures remains one of its most appealing features. By placing Rat and his older brother Shanghe outside of the city, Tso-Chi is able to use contrasts to highlight the temporality – in both time and place – and weightlessness of the scenes that trace the nightlife of Taipei
Tso-Chi’s work focuses itself on a group of characters that are rejected or outside of conventional society in Taipei; whether it’s Lu Hsueh-feng as an alcoholic mother, Rat’s immersion in the city’s backstreets, or the gay nightclubs Shanghe navigates. There’s a constant interest throughout the film in broadening the way in which Taipei is viewed and imagined on screen, one that embraces and humanises figures that are often excluded from popular cinema. The camera shifts between revealing mid-shots to messier pans away from the perceived focus in various moments, highlighting peculiar intricacies within the scenes. All in all, there’s a certain incoherency in the to the cinematography that drags the film down a bit throughout. There’s detailed close-ups cut against handheld long-shots, and while its clear that Chih-Teng Chang and Chih-Chun Hsu are trying to balance an experimental approach with an edgier approach to cinematography, this doesn’t always come across as convincingly as it could.
While Tso-Chi’s film conjures up an image of Taipei’s nightlife, it’s a clearly romanticised version of it. While some of the more beautifully-shot scenes evoke a certain aforementioned weightlessness, the weight missing from the film is the broader ethical issues that surround Thanatos, Drunk –the barely discussed fact that Chang Tso-Chi was sentenced to 3 years in prison for raping a woman in Taipei, “under the influence of alcohol at a party”. The characters in Thanatos Drunk are constantly portrayed with their drunkenness as a catalyst that fuels the poetry of the film. From the opening quote – taken from Li Bai’s ‘Bring in the Wine’, which features the line: “I only wish to be forever drunk and never sober again – to the stupor-like narrative described by reviews as both “hedonistic escapism” and part of directors “genius” (the latter of which is both a lazy and harmful way of looking at Tso-Chi’s role in this work), Thanatos Drunk carries a lot of baggage as a film – which critics and festivals have failed to highlight as much as they should have.
As the mother of the two men, Lu’s character is a stark indictment of alcoholism –but on the other hand, the apathy of Rat and Shanghe’s stories romanticise it. Thanatos, Drunk is carried by convincing and captivating performances from the ensemble of characters that propel it. The acting is engrossing and gives the film a much-needed sense of depth and complexity, with much of the work is carried by their performances. While plenty of films out of Taipei cover the topic, there are far less that capture the temporality, confusion and disassociation that exist within the nightlife of a city. Setting a table on fire with alcohol, a visceral karaoke scene, a carefully cut series of interactions around frequent shots of alcohol, to screaming into a phone in front of a crowded street crossing. The intimacies they play out on screen feel authentic, sincere, and moving; with the stories and dramas feeling markedly contingent on them. That said, approaching this film as a work of genius, viewing the presentation of Taipei’s nightlife as complete, or viewing the drunken pace of the film as a central and impeachable tenet of the film ignores some of the lingering and pressing issues in the film, that are markedly reflective of Tso-Chi’s actions.
Thanatos, Drunk is shaped by these aforementioned performances, and emerges as a strong film by many measures. That said, within the context of ‘Modern Taiwanese Cinema’, especially considering similarities to major works in the country’s New Wave 2. Both newer works from two of Taiwan’s biggest directors – Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin and Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs – set an overwhelmingly high bar for their younger contemporaries; and both demonstrate a direction moving away from angst-driven impressionism. That said, even less prominent works – Doze Niu’s Love (2012) and Monga (2014), Tom Lin’s Starry Starry Night (2011), Hsai-tse Cheng’s Miao Miao (2008), Wei Te-Sheng’s Cape No. 7 (2008), Fen-fen Cheng’s Hear Me (2009), and Giddens Ko’s You Are The Apple of My Eye (2011) – paint a complex filmic landscape for Taiwanese Cinema, which sees Chang Tso-Chi’s Thanatos, Drunk struggling to find a place to inhabit. In the end, it’s a film that wins through its balance of realistic moments and more abstract impressionism; its desire contribute to the cinematic perception of a city. While it doesn’t measure up to the work of Tso-chi’s contemporaries – and carries significant baggage which should remain at the forefront of viewers minds – Thanatos, Drunk remains a worthwhile, captivating, and expansive look at Taipei’s broad social spheres and conflicts.