“Goddamned Asura” is a somewhat accessible but frustrating Taiwanese drama about disaffected young lives brought together in a random act of violence — a mass shooting at a night market filled with street vendors, street food and customers.
Director and co-writer Yi-an Lou (“A Place of One’s Own”) tells this story in the time-honored “strangers linked by tragedy” fashion. Only they’re not strangers. They’re all connected in a variety of ways before a miserable incel (Joseph Huang) celebrates his birthday with a social media post — “Eighteen, and already fed up.” — and a deadly, walking and shooting spree that kills one and wounds many.
It’s a hard film in which to find your moorings, as the script takes its sweet time naming characters, for starters. And after the second act climaxes with a mystery, a mystery’s solution and more violence, the third act promptly undoes all that with a “What might have been” alternate storyline, which is fitting, because our central figures have created an online comic, inspired by a third character, and “Raging Zero” impacts the lives of everyone else in this story.
One can appreciate the ambition and the tinkering with formula, while grinding your teeth at the filmmaker’s obscurant gimmicks. Which I did.
Jan Wen is the shooter, sullen and stereotypically sociopathic, even when he’s dealing with is pal, classmate and artist Xu Axing (Devin Pan). They collaborate on the comic “Raging Zero,” building it out of people and settings they know, taking it into the dark corners of Wen’s psyche as they do. He stops at the same shop every day to video a beautiful dog he names “Oreo,” an animal going stir crazy in a tiny cage.
One day, he finally does something about it and frees the dog. Yes, that’ll make the comic. But given all that we’ve seen happen in the film’s first scene — the shootings — we fret over the fate of Oreo and everyone else.
Xu Axing is Wen’s sounding board, the one guy who hears out his lost-child-of-rich-divorce’s darkest thoughts and turns them into art. Xu Axing is also gay, hitting the Taiwanese version of Grindr for hook-ups with his fellow skinny gay teens. There’s a hint of homoerotic attraction between the leads, as well.
Linlin (Yu-Xuan Wang) is a math savant and a bit of a punk, working at odd jobs and street level drug-dealing to keep a roof over her head, and that of her alcoholic ex-mobster-moll mom.
Vita (Peijia Huang) is a video game ad exec weary of her life of abusive clients and the clingy, civil servant/game-addict fiance Hu-Sheng (Hao-Zhe Lai) who pesters her day and night, and is only truly himself as Shine, a gaming/vlogging kingpin of King’s Realm, a popular game in his corner of the metaverse.
And Morning Tzu-Yi Mo is “Mold,” an apt nickname for a chain-smoking young badass of local online journalism, a guy who not only pieces together the accounts of the various people who were present or otherwise involved in this mass shooting, he was there and actively involved.
The film is about the culture and the parenting that goes into creating a Jan Wen — living with his rich, aloof and never-home father, kept at arm’s length by his mother — and the other unhappy lives spinning into collision with him on that fateful night.
Yi-an Lou gives us a peek at the sometimes supportive/often toxic online environment in gaming circles, class boundaries and all the ways people can disconnect and take their eyes off of larger goals — life, financial liberty and the pursuit of romantic and creative happiness.
He explores this world mostly through co-dependent, dysfunctional couples — Jan Wen and Xu Axing, Jan Wen and each parent, in turn, LinLin and her mother, Vita and Hu Sheng.
The comic book tie-in to the storytelling isn’t likely to delight any viewer, even if Jan Wen’s father seems out-of-step and foolish as he ridicules the form’s lack of value as “literature” and the film all but suggests comic vengeance tales as being the manifestation of what Jan Wen ends up doing.
That third act flip-the-script business serves little purpose aside from suggesting the randomness of life and the ways any of us could be the victim or a perpetrator, given the right circumstances. Yes, and?
But “Goddamned Asura” — the title comes from a game character and online gamer’s handle — taps into the same sort of existential angst we’re seeing in a lot of films these days, especially those from Asia. The rise of various economies there has led to a leap from Third World to G-20 status, and left a new generation grasping for meaning and connection and ways to tell its own stories other than social media “attention” posting.
This isn’t my favorite among the Best International Feature submitted titles I’ve seen this year. But it’s always interesting to immerse yourself in a culture we only skim the surface of in news stories and travel programs, to poke at the friction beneath the surface and see that, as the wiser among us always say, “Everybody’s going through something.”
Rating: unrated, violence, sex, profanity
Cast: Joseph Huang, Devin Pan, Yu-Xuan Wang, Hao-Zhe Lai, Morning Tzu-Yi Mo and Peijia Huang
Credits: Directed by Yi-an Lou, scripted by Singing Chen and Yi-an Lou. Distribution TBD
Running time: 1:54