Taiwanese auteur Chung Mong-hong, one of the most infuriatingly underappreciated storytellers of our time, amassed a humble following via his 2020 Oscar-shortlisted masterwork “A Sun,” a blistering, three-hour family saga. With the pandemic-set parent-child drama “The Falls,” the prolific director pulls back from the novelistic scope of its predecessor to anatomize the evolution of an estranged bond made whole again.
An evocative tonal chameleon of a film that shape-shifts up until its very final seconds, “The Falls” begins as an unnerving series of confrontations between Pin-Wen (Alyssa Chia) and her teenage daughter Xiao Jing (Gingle Wang) in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis. Initially the fear is that the girl may have contracted the disease, but that’s only the initial fissure that triggers the demolition of their seemingly comfortable lifestyle.
Not unlike the virus, the film soon mutates into a reversal of roles, where Xiao Jing cares for her mother’s mental health (disturbed by a premonition) and finances while learning about her father’s new life away from them. Thrown into adulthood with no safety net, she begins to discern her parents for who they are: flawed individuals pretending to be invincible.
Exemplifying true singularity of vision, Chung also acts as his own cinematographer, which he’s done for his films before though previously under a pseudonym. Blue light coats the family’s apartment, justified by an oppressive tarp that covers the entire building, adding a steely otherworldliness. Moody interiors contrast with the filmmaker’s tender harnessing of sunlight elsewhere, more in tune with Liming Lu’s placidly picturesque score that, as if taken from a Studio Ghibli film, conveys a calming hopefulness for what’s to come.
In the restructuring of the characters’ world views, with Pin-Wen leaving her corporate career for a job as a supermarket clerk, what seems like rough demotion brings the two closer together. A coming-of-age story and a tale of a person’s second wind blossoming in parallel, Chia superbly performs Pin-Wen’s passage from chaos to balance, just as Wang interprets Xiao Jing’s initial brushes with maturity, first with anger, then with pride.
For all the grief that the leads undergo in Chung’s most recent work, the result yields a life-affirming reminder to look across the room and see the other. By the nature of streaming algorithms and content dumps, “The Falls” might go criminally under the radar but will profoundly surprise those who cross its uncanny sights.
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Playing: Available Jan. 29 on Netflix