TIFF 2015 Review | Low Pulse Drags Down ‘Murmur of the Hearts’
Philip Larkin was right: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” But at some point, everyone has to take responsibility for their own happiness.
That happens much too late in the Taiwanese triptych drama Murmur of the Hearts, in which a trio of 30-year-olds ache for answers from their deceased parents. Painter Mei (Isabella Leong) wonders if her late mother (Angelika Lee Sinje) really loved her, even though she was the twin her mom chose to take with her when the latter fled her husband. Left behind was Mei’s brother Nan (Lawrence Ko), who’s haunted by the possibility that his mom loved his sister more than him. Mei’s conflicted feelings about her mother make her hesitant to become one herself when she discovers she’s pregnant with her boxer boyfriend Hsiang’s (Hsiao-chuan Chang) child. For his part, a medical condition leaves Hsiang bereft of his last connection to his father — a ghost the pugilist has dedicated his life trying to impress.
Murmur’s melancholy is occasionally interrupted by dream or fantasy sequences that sprinkle dews of magical-realist clarity to the sedate proceedings. In the most moving of them, Nan falls into a drunken reverie and reunites with his mother, a creatively stifled restaurant worker, whom he last saw two decades ago. As kids, Nan was the practical child who refused to believe his mother’s mermaid tales, but it’s clear from his dream that he’s the one most in need of a happy ending.
Director Sylvia Chang slowly unfurls her characters’ family histories, which explain how Mei, Nan, and Hsiang came to be such lonely, mournful people clinging to past hurts. Their stories should throb and thrum with yearning, but our connections to the trio are diluted by sluggish pacing, plot contrivances, and too-neat character development. Most disappointing, though, is how petulant and resentful Mei and Hsiang are about her mother and his father, respectively, who sacrificed so much for their children. Rather than recognize their parents’ renunciations, the expecting couple inexplicably consider the worst of them, which render their journeys toward wholeness one of oblivious and repellent self-pity. Mei, especially, is bizarrely unsympathetic toward her mother, whose reasons for abandoning her son are damn near unassailable.
Nan, on the other hand, provides the emotional core of the drama, as a tour guide who introduces his misunderstood island hometown to dozens of strangers, but doesn’t seem to have any family or friends to call his own, other than his comatose father. Eventually, though, Murmur of the Hearts glides toward a moving reunification between Nan and Mei through the last gift they have from their mother. The sea between them is deep and dangerous, but the storms in their chests are far more dangerous to ignore.