and calculated, Keeping Watch seduces the viewer
while also challenging them to suspend their disbelief.
Set in lovely rural Taiwan, the film concerns Ching
(Haden Kuo), a quirky young woman who runs her father's
clock shop all by her lonesome. The shop is located
next to the railroad tracks, but Ching never rides
the rail, because many years ago, her mother got on
the train and never came back. Since then her father
has been a dopey drunk, who's always waking up to
ask if his wife has returned. Ching has given up all
hope that such a thing will ever happen, and continues
to bide her time, waiting in the clock shop. But just
what is she waiting for?
Keeping Watch asks
the above question. Literally. As is usual for a Taiwanese
film, Keeping Watch is told in slow, opaque
style without benefit of voiceover, obvious exposition,
or very active storytelling. However, director Zheng
Fen-Fen does use an overt narrative device: a series
of dreamy intertitles between scenes, effectively
acting as Brechtian subtitles denoting virtual chapters
in the film. The intertitles narrate the film in almost
children's book-like format, giving us big cues that
the dialogue and exposition aren't handing to us.
The device certainly helps, but it also renders the
onscreen happenings as less demonstrative than they
could be. The audience no longer thinks for themselves;
instead, the titles hand the film to them, reducing
interpretation to mere questions that receive almost
Still, despite the film's
obvious intent, there's enjoyment in Keeping Watch,
especially in its gradual, non-verbal development.
Ching's wait ends when she meets Han (Joseph Chang
of Eternal Summer), a near-sighted fellow who
carries an obvious torch for the willowy Ching. He
arrives every day after 3pm to ask her to fix his
watch, which always becomes waterlogged between visits.
At first she dutifully fixes it, asking for payment
each time, but slowly the connection between them
is made. Han reveals that the he and Ching were once
classmates, and before long, a minor romance blooms.
But Han is also Yu, who resides in a psychiatric hospital
and goes on furlough every day at 3pm, whereupon Yu
becomes Han and goes to visit Ching. How is it that
Yu and Han can inhabit one body, and what kind of
psychiatric hospital lets its patients come and go
as they please?
That last detail is one of
the unbelievable aspects of Keeping Watch,
and there are many others, including intertwined past
connections, convenient situations, and some stuff
that's difficult to completely buy. The film possesses
plenty of odd details, and many of them are charming,
especially when performed by the lovely, photogenic
Haden Kuo. Still, some of the quirkiness is more cutesy
than actually quirky, and seems glaring in its needlessness.
The characters don't always convince; Ching warms
to Han far too quickly, which is odd given her aloof
character (the film takes place 10 years post-high
school and she seemingly has no friends at all). What's
more, the revealed backstory between she and Han/Yu
is very, very involved, and though the facts are dispensed
seriously and even reverently, some of the details
don't convince, and are even a bit silly. Ultimately,
the film reveals a potent, but also convoluted backstory
that requires plenty of verbal explanation. When everything
finally gets explained, the situation is so labored
that whatever magic director Zheng Fen-Fen has created
loses a little luster.
This isn't to say that the
film is bad, because it's not. The film is simply
enjoyable to watch; the performances are involving,
and even its cloying devices manage a certain sort
of charm. Haden Kuo has a refreshing screen presence,
and Joseph Chang is quite good as Han/Yu, managing
to create two distinct characters through more than
just a pair of glasses. Ultimately, there's much to
like in Zheng Fen-Fen's approach, from the minor details
to her depiction of the rural Taiwan setting, which
seems to exist as an idyllic, remote hamlet reachable
only by train. The film would have been improved had
they tightened up the script and story, perhaps limiting
the more quirky elements and reducing the amount of
intertitles providing exposition. The whole film is
a little too calculated in its meaning and intent,
managing to affect more by design than actual execution.
However, the unfolding situations and minute details
make for a charming and even touching little film
that can still engage one's emotions, if only superficially.
(Kozo, Reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2007)