by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Film Poster
This is a No Man is an Island film review written in collaboration with Cinema Escapist. Keep an eye out for more!
OFFERING A FLUENT interplay of the humorous and melodramatic, A Leg is a standout film. A Leg is the directorial debut of Chang Yao-sheng, who penned the script for A Sun, which won Best Film at the 2019 Golden Horse Awards. As such, it may not be surprising that A Leg manages to be a similarly deft work. Chang successfully makes the leap from scriptwriting to directing.
A Leg follows Qian Yu-ying, a dance instructor and retired competitive dancer whose husband Zheng Zi-han dies at the film’s start. Zheng’s leg was amputated shortly before his death in an unsuccessful attempt to save his life. This leads Qian sets out to try and find the leg in order to ensure that Zheng’s body is whole in death. Qian’s search for Zheng’s leg proves humorously Kafkaesque. Qian comes up against the hospital bureaucracy and improperly handled procedures for the disposal of the leg, while proving comically willing to create scenes with the hospital staff or with police.
In the meantime, even if the movie opens with his death, Zheng Zi-han tells the story of his and Qian’s love in flashback. The two were originally competitive ballroom dance partners that became lovers, but Zheng lost it all after becoming addicted to gambling in the hopes of securing a firm financial future with Qian. While Zheng is initially unwilling to face Qian, a poorly thought-out escape from debt collectors by leaping out of a window results in the end of his dance career when he permanently damages his leg.
Though the two successfully transition to becoming ballroom dance teachers, with Qian’s parents bailing out Zheng’s debt, Zheng again imperils his relationship with Qian by having an affair. This leads to the couple’s estrangement. When Zheng’s leg begins acting up again, his doctor suspects cancer, leading Zheng to take out an expensive life insurance policy on his leg through insurance fraud, hoping to at least be able to leave some money behind for Qian to make up for his many flaws.
Among other recent Taiwanese films, A Leg reminds of Little Big Women, in that its plot revolves around the misfortunes of a male main character who may be well-meaning, but is tragically flawed and prone to self-destructive behavior–affecting the lives of his loved ones. Zheng, played by Tony Yang, manages to be a sympathetic loser unable to control his temptations. Qian Yu-ying, played by Gwei Mei-lun, is not exactly the long-suffering wife, as she begins living separately from Zheng after his affair and begins to see other men, but she remains devoted to him after his death.
Qian’s pursuit of Zheng’s leg, then, comes to stand for her embrace of his weakness in life–or even her attempt to solve the riddle of his weakness. Qian finds herself sorting through other amputated limbs, rejecting a costly wooden replacement, and even chasing a waste disposal truck through southern Taiwan in pursuit of the leg—a pursuit depicted as humorously monomaniacal.
A Leg seamlessly transitions between the humorous and the tragic. Ultimately, the story is that of Zheng passing on, and the viewer knows from the beginning that he dies at the end of the story. Yet Zheng narrates his own death in a light-hearted tone and Qian’s grief is also often humorous in nature.
Zheng is the more fully realized character, due the audience being given insight into his internal monologue. Qian’s characterization is more reliant on her actions. This is where A Leg differs from Little Big Women, perhaps, in that the story of A Leg is from the perspective of the male ne’er do well rather than the women that surround him.
The usual difficulty with melodramas such as A Leg is that it is difficult to end them; they can drag on overly long or it may prove difficult to resolve all of the plot threads. A Leg manages this well.
Yet in this respect, A Leg may be the work of a first-time director, but it is highly mature. A Leg is a film which stands or falls on the basis of its characters, but it manages to create a set of well-developed, three-dimensional characters. It is because of this that the film is a resounding success.