Hou Chi-Jan's One Day has to be one of the most beautifully deceptive movies of the past few years. While it starts out like the archetypal slow, elliptic Taiwanese coming-of-age narrative, it slips into something far stranger, moving, unsettling, even a little frightening. It plays out as if it were a Haruki Murakami short story penned after the author had sat through Inception several times back to back, and while it doesn't quite live up to all its aspirations it easily ranks as one of the biggest surprises of 2010.
It's difficult to decide what to explain and what not, in the hope of leaving the plot unspoilt, yet laid out as simply as possible the story begins thus; Singing (Nikki Hsin-Ying Hsieh) and Tsung (Bryan Shu-Hao Chang) are two young people on the ferry service bound for the Kinmen archipelago off the coast of mainland China.
She helps out around the boat, either cleaning up or running the cafe on the passenger deck; he's one of several young men on the way to do their national service. Yet out on the ocean, something happens to bring them together, only their halting relationship doesn't progress in quite the way either would hope.
To teeter on the edge of giving things away, the film is about the couple trying to ascertain what's really going on, and how their individual past histories are relevant to the situation.
To drift briefly into spoiler territory for one sentence - you were warned! - even before the first big plot twist the attentive viewer may well notice the film is implying its narrative is not entirely linear.
While the story is fantastical, it's more magical realism than full-on genre fiction and it builds up largely at a relaxed, confident pace. Almost every scene is a piece of the puzzle in some way, however minor. And however you choose to read it, it's a gorgeous piece of filmmaking. The steady dripfeed of magnificent moments of still framing that begin in the first act is one indication One Day is something rather more special than might have been expected.
The big reveal is not entirely original, though some things about it might still surprise even the cynical, and the story itself is fairly simple. While there are definite emotional undercurrents, and even when the film explains itself there's still plenty it leaves unstated, the basic premise has been used enough times in recent popular culture many audiences will feel they saw it coming.
At the same time, Hou is clearly not trying to ape M Night Shyamalan. Even when you're well aware of what's going on his film more than stands up to repeat viewings. Sans the mystery, One Day is still an achingly gorgeous, melancholy examination of a boy and a girl falling tentatively in love and wondering What It All Means, and the genre aspects enhance this central theme as much as they obscure it in entertaining ways.
Both leads give fairly strong performances. Neither seem completely comfortable with all the enigmatic skirting around the truth, but Hsieh and Chang manage a compelling, awkward chemistry that proves believable on each of the different levels the film is working on. Few of the supporting roles have that much to do, though Gwen Yao as Singing's mother proves a warm and patient counterpoint to the girl's adolescent confusion.
Hou does betray some first-time jitters behind the camera (One Day is his debut feature). There are several absolutely stunning high points to the cinematography and pacing, but other passages which feel somewhat less assured. On balance the drifting narrative seems more intentional than not, with some striking repeated motifs and images that carry a slow-burning emotive weight that sticks with the viewer after the credits have rolled. At the same time, parts of it engender more frustration than the director likely intended, and the payoffs can occasionally seem a little out of kilter with the sense of importance Hou (who co-wrote the story and screenplay) tries to give them.
Nonetheless One Day is a fantastic debut, and a quietly inventive way to construct something surprisingly novel on a limited budget. Taiwan has long struggled with fantasy, horror or science fiction, with its more successful productions still relying on well-worn tropes or suffering from a distinctly amateurish feel.
Again, One Day never attempts to be a full-on genre film, yet in many respects it still feels far more otherworldly than any number of Hollywood attempts, and frequently every bit as polished. Haunting and memorable, elegant despite its flaws, it's the tropes of Taiwanese classic New Wave co-opted for something far more strange and magical, and comes hugely recommended.