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CANNES 2024 Directors’ Fortnight

Review: Mongrel


- CANNES 2024: Chiang Wei Liang’s focused debut inspects migrant labour and organised crime in provincial Taiwan

Review: Mongrel
Wanlop Rungkumjad in Mongrel

In Chiang Wei Liang’s tough, rewarding feature debut, Mongrel, premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, an associate of a human-trafficking ring reassesses his collusion and complicity. As we were reminded most recently by Locust [+see also:
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at this edition of Cannes, you can’t walk a yard in a Taiwanese art film without crashing into a gangster. But Chiang, who was mentored by the now-retired Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a doyen of this national cinema, takes this common motif in a more rewarding direction, meditating on Taiwan’s role in the global crisis of migration and displacement, and how East Asians who’ve landed on the island’s shores are folded into the underground economy, here appropriately depicted with no glamour or romanticisation.

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Mongrel is at once a doom-laden quasi-crime film, and a sensitive and cruel chamber piece on end-of-life care, where impending death is devoid of dignity; both modes are united by cinematographer Michaël Capron’s (who has a background in more challenging narrative films) vivid facility with darker colour tones, where poverty-stricken interiors appear as dank and putrid as the humid nights. Our anti-hero lead Oom (Wanlop Rungkumjad) once illegally migrated to the island from Thailand; now, he operates as a fixer for Hsing (Hong Yu-hong), managing other trafficked migrant workers, whilst he spends the majority of his own time employed as a palliative carer for the elderly Mei (Lu Yi-ching) and her paralysis-afflicted and intellectually disabled son Hui (Kuo Shu-wei).

Whilst it appears that the migrants, who all derive from surrounding South East Asian countries like the Philippines and Singapore, are sent to do other difficult and menial tasks, caregiving for the ailing ageing and sick population of this mountainous part of Taiwan is their primary source of labour. But in a point indicting wider inequality and access to essential services in the country, these untrained workers are thrust into a responsibility they can barely handle themselves. If their charges are suffering and dying, carers such as Oom and his colleague Mhai (Achtara Suwan) are also dying metaphorically, faced helplessly with pain they can’t nurse. Oom wears white, wireless earbud headphones as he potters hesitantly around Mei’s hovel, attesting to his desire for respite and diversion from what he’s also enduring.

The plot trajectory, such as it is, is Oom attempting to liberate himself from this predicament, and belatedly amass moral courage against Hsing and his mercenary superiors. The mise-en-scène and locations are all very contained and hermetic, but this is all a prelude to a superb sequence that’s tempting to conceal, but must be noted indirectly: a spectacular and ruthlessly staged demonstration of how the illegal immigrants land in these traffickers’ hands in the first place.

Hou and Edward Yang’s work in the 1980s and 1990s was prized for its panoramic feel, where its reliance on a small number of “master” compositions, compared to the average film, still brought forth a wealth of narrative detail and exposition. To use the adjective again, Mongrel risks feeling too hermetic, as well as miserabilist with its unceasing focus on the characters’ torment, which they all only communicate nonverbally. To reference the title, the final act’s canine symbolism is also Chiang’s slightly faulty attempt to bring Oom’s arc into a moment of peace and self-recognition. Still, letting in much more light or levity would have risked tarnishing Mongrel’s highly effective grimness.

Mongrel is a co-production by Taiwan, Singapore and France, staged by E&W Films, Le Petit Jardin and Deuxième Ligne Films. International sales are courtesy of Alpha Violet.

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