SDAFF 2016: Maverick (Cheng Wen-tang)

by Jason Suzuki

Watching crime thrillers from around the world, two constants arise: politicians will be corrupt and there is always some newbie with a naïve heart who will challenge the status quo of corruption, usually butting heads with his superiors and stepping on toes in the process. That is the basic gist of this new police picture from Taiwan. In many ways if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all and know the two ways things will dénoue, but it’s reassuring to know that no country is free from their officials, elected or otherwise, using the system to their advantage. In an attempt to go against his country's recent output of pessimism regarding the topic, Cheng Wen-Tang chooses to portray the fight of an underdog as extremely difficult and unfair, but ultimately rewarding.

Enter Yeh (You Sheng), he's a rookie, and the fact that he rides his bike to and from work should have been enough warning from his fellow officers that he was going to be trouble. But when he has a hard time letting go of the fact that he saw both a fellow officer and the city council chairman's son on the wrong side of the law during a drug bust, his sense of justice is now priority number one, placed in the cross-hairs of his superiors. But when given useless paper work doesn't get off the case of the Black Monkey, the gangster pseudonym of the official's son, the disillusioned Ming (Kaiser Chuang) is put on the case to get Yeh to mind his own business and stop being such a good cop.

Once an idealist like Yeh but now keeping quiet thanks to a healthy dose of pragmatism, Ming is the more interesting archetype between him and Yeh. Which is probably why he gets so much screen time as the film goes on and Yeh wins him over thanks to his aid in an impromptu brawl when some debt collectors bother Ming's girlfriend whose junkie brother has gotten her millions of dollars into debt. This troubled love story is what lies ahead for Yeh and his girl but their optimism, and her connections to the chairman, can either get them through it all or end it more tragically than Ming's.

The films really finds its rhythm in these scenes between Yeh and Ming, when Ming's girlfriend forces them all, including Yeh's girlfriend, out to a night club, the bonding is quiet, and the deeper understanding between the two cops is highly watchable. Unfortunately these moments come too late and there is not enough of it. The shift in focus to Ming and company's story-line makes the return to the fight against corruption plotline less effective and more conventional than it might be. Like Yeh, the film has its heart in the right place but we've seen more interesting variations on the formula this year in films like Veteran.

Since day one on the force Yeh's B-plot problem is a nagging tooth ache. It's an interesting analog as it has many ways to run with it symbolically. The common advice given to him is to just have it removed. Yeh wants to fix the corrupted tooth and save it, his conscience, while others say there's no need for it. It recalls the saying "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down," which is what eventually must be done to Yeh. Too bad those doing the hammering are the ones who knock that tooth out, getting rid of Yeh's real problem of almost succumbing to complacency. 

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.