Another day, another strange little cross-cultural Taiwanese film; Håkon Liu's third film Miss Kicki is the story of an ageing Swedish single mother who tries to rediscover her joie de vivre by dragging her grudgingly accepting son halfway across the world for a wander through the backstreets of Taipei. Only this being the movies, things aren't entirely what they seem.
This is a story carried along by regret, chances missed and opportunities wasted. Alex Haridi's screenplay doesn't spend much time on backstory other than some offhand remarks in the second act, but even before then we can clearly see Kicki is struggling to cope with growing older alone.
We open on the tail end of a webcam chat with Kicki (Pernilla August, best known to mainstream audiences as Darth Vader's mother from the Star Wars prequels) exchanging sweet nothings with an online suitor, Mr Chang (a bizarre, if not unwelcome appearance from Eric Tsang). She'd clearly love to take up his invitation to visit, but the lines etched into her face, the tiny apartment, the empty pizza boxes and the air of resignation hanging over the place tell us left to her own devices, she probably never will.
Then her mother turns up, Kicki's son Victor in tow. The older woman is clearly painfully aware of the pit her daughter's fallen into, and stops just short of badgering her into asking the boy whether he'd like to, you know, maybe accompany her on holiday? Surprised but apparently pleased, Victor says yes, and next thing we know the two of them have touched down on the other side of the Formosa straits.
Pernilla August's performance is by and large the most impressive thing about Håkon Liu's film. Kicki isn't an intentionally freakish role a la Charlize Theron in Monster; older woman or not she's an attractive, decent person for all she lacks direction and self-respect. But the years hang visibly heavy on her, something August expertly conveys countless times through the tiniest gestures, mannerisms or inflections.
The trouble is, clocking in at just under ninety minutes, Miss Kicki neither gives its characters any room to breathe nor develops its plot threads in any kind of compelling way. Characters are beautifully portrayed, but not particularly winning. Others lack the sort of incisive exploration of their backstory they really need to have their behaviour come across as believable.
Without wanting to spoil things unduly, Kicki finds things don't turn out quite the way she'd hoped with her Mr Chang. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but this stretches into one of the most poorly judged 'awkward dinner party' scenes put to film in recent years, where no-one has any good reason for their actions and the scene has no real reason to exist in the first place.
Victor makes a discovery about himself which seems to serve no narrative purpose - his story arc isn't linked to his mother's, or even to Taipei itself, and could have been lifted from another film entirely. Not to mention his ultimate reaction to his mother's growing old disgracefully seems wildly over the top and almost entirely without merit.
Kicki never seems outright malicious, thoughtless or neglectful; she may have crossed far more boundaries in the past than she does here, but we the audience haven't seen any of this, so Victor's blowing up engenders little or no empathy. Weirdly, while an Eric Tsang cameo or supporting role has lately become cause for panic (Kung Fu Dunk, The Treasure Hunter), with his trademark mugging nowhere to be seen the star ends up one of the most interesting of the cast.
None of this makes for a bad film exactly but the poor pacing, constantly glossing over what seems important and devoting excessive stretches of the running time to the superfluous, leaves far too much of it an exercise in frustration. The dreary cinematography doesn't help - there are some images that stick in the back of the mind, but most of the film is seen through the kind of watery orange filter designed to evoke weariness and spiritual ennui, which it does all too well.
Håkon Liu certainly has an eye for human frailty, an admirably objective approach to storytelling, and various characters and set-pieces in Miss Kicki stand out as accomplished and believable enough the film is sure to find some devoted fans. But so short, so lacking in tangible detail and so disjointed it doesn't feel like a coherent, compelling piece of work. There's neither a definite resolution (the climax is stupidly out of place) nor a sense anyone has learnt anything. It's hard to credit too many people being eager to watch the film again, and equally difficult to recommend it to anyone.