email print share on Facebook share on Twitter share on LinkedIn share on reddit pin on Pinterest

KARLOVY VARY 2024 Competition

Review: Pierce


- In her psychological thriller, Nelicia Low showcases admirable control of cinematic language and storytelling

Review: Pierce

For her first feature film, titled Pierce [+see also:
interview: Nelicia Low
film profile
, Singapore-born and Taiwan-based director Nelicia Low has won the Best Director Award at Karlovy Vary. Throughout this psychological thriller, Low indeed demonstrates admirable control over the cinematic language and storytelling. 

Zijie (newcomer Liu Hsiu-Fu) is a 16-year-old fencer living in Taipei with his mother, Ai Ling (veteran actress Ning Ding), who sings American oldies in elegant restaurants. As Zijie is training for a tournament, his older brother Zihan (Tsao Yu-Ning) is released from prison six years before the end of his sentence. A three-time national champion in fencing, he had killed an opponent with a broken blade. The question of whether it was an accident or the 20-something man could in fact be a psychopath is the key issue around which the film revolves. 

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

Or rather, it revolves around Zijie’s own perception of his brother. Ai Ling wants to keep him away, but the boy idealises his sibling. At a dinner with the family of her boyfriend, businessman Zhuang, Ai Ling struggles to hide her family history when the topic of fencing comes up. Her cover story is that her older son is studying medicine in the United States. 

Zijie firmly believes his brother was unjustly sentenced. Zihan works in a supermarket, and as he repeatedly insists, life is difficult for an ex-convict in expensive Taipei. When Zhuang wants to bond with Zijie, the kid uses the opportunity to steal his wristwatch, sell it and give money to his brother. 

As preparations for the championship progress, Zihan often appears out of nowhere, inexplicably dressed in club colours, and teaches Zijie the finer nuances of fencing, which helps him get a spot on the first team. The big brother also encourages him to accept the advances of a teammate, a sensitive boy who is apparently a huge fan of a heavy metal band. Zijie, in turn, likes his mother’s oldies, such as Neil Sedaka’s “Oh Carol” or “You Mean Everything to Me”. 

The recognisable melody of the latter song is often incorporated in composer Piotr Kurek’s otherwise sharply suspenseful score, pointing to a nostalgia for the childhood the two brothers shared. The film opens with a hazy memory of the younger kid being saved from a river by his brother, but is what he remembers true? Or is it a modified memory, born out of a painful desire to prove, primarily to himself, that his brother is normal and that the killing was an accident? 

Throughout the film, Low plays with this ambiguity and even if Zihan is obviously a master manipulator, as exemplified by his relationship with his lawyer, the closeness she strikes between the viewer and Zijie makes us also doubt what we are seeing. Yu-Ning is convincingly creepy and DoP Michal Dymek’s pointed use of close-ups strengthen his potential psychopathy, but Zihan's tenderness is what might be preventing us from seeing it – just like it does for him. 

The film is shot in a disciplined 1:66:1 ratio, with frequently employed symmetry and colours that clearly reflect the mood of various segments, plus two scenes in which the camera circles the characters in moments of tension. Dream-like pieces that blur the line between reality and perception are fine-tuned through immersive sound design and direct visual pointers, not least the divisive twist ending that truly transcends this border and tells us clearly that the key theme of this film is love, not truth. 

Pierce is a co-production between Singapore’s Protocol and Elysiüm Ciné, Taiwan’s Flash Forward Entertainment and Polish companies Harine Films and Fixafilm. US company Magnify handles international sales.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.

Privacy Policy