“Goddamned Asura” Aims for Humanistic Social Commentary

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 該死的阿修羅 GODDAMNED ASURA/Facebook

TAIWANESE FILM in the last decade seems to have been fixated on depicting random acts of violence committed by troubled youth. This is due to the impact of real-world events such as the “Little Lightbulb Murder” in 2016 and the Cheng Chieh subway stabbing in 2014–but also due to the in-depth media reporting on these incidents that followed.

This, too, is the inspiration of Goddamned Asura, which was Taiwan’s submission to the 95th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, though the film did not win. In this respect, Goddamned Asura follows in the footsteps of Taiwanese television and film works including The World Between Us, Days We Stared at the Sun, Terrorizers, and A Sun.

Film still. Photo credit: 該死的阿修羅 GODDAMNED ASURA/Facebook

Similar to A Sun, Goddamned Asura begins in media res, depicting the act of violence whose consequences the rest of the film unpacks. Protagonist Zhan Wen, played ably by Joseph Huang, carries out a shooting at a night market, eventually killing one victim–local government worker Hu Sheng. This proves another characteristic that Goddamned Asura shares with A Sun–in that one of the individuals that commits the central acts of violence is the protagonist.

The film then takes a step back and unpacks Zhan Wen’s motivations for the shooting, as well as the stories of those who were affected by the shooting. This, too, is shared with Terrorizers, which focuses on a group of people that live in the same building. In this case, however, Goddamned Asura tries to take a social realist approach, in that the cast primarily consists of families living around an underprivileged housing complex, and the night market near it. This aspect of the setting seems to be inspired by some of the longform reports that the film was inspired by. Indeed, one of the central characters is the journalist Mei-jun, who is writing a report about the housing complex.

As it transpires, Zhan Wen was driven to commit the shooting because of his intense feelings of alienation from his peers and parents, with Zhan’s father planning on sending him abroad to keep him out of trouble. Zhan’s only friend is comic artist Ah-hsing, whose comics come to provide some of the narrative frame for the film. Other key characters include Linlin, a troubled but intelligent high school student that Hu Sheng, also a livestreamer, lusts for, and Hu’s fiance Vita, who often argues with him.

Zhan did not intend to kill Hu, however, as this occurred by accident when he was surprised by him. But after the killing, Zhan refuses to apologize, hoping to be sentenced to death. This is what sets into motion the latter half of the film when a mysterious individual calling themselves “Asura” who picked up Hu’s cell phone after his death begins blackmailing the rest of the characters.

It is here that the film takes several experimental turns. But, again, this aspect of online threats is an aspect shared with other Taiwanese television and film concerned with similar subjects, as this is a major plot element of the acclaimed second season of Days We Stared at the Sun.

Film still. Photo credit: 該死的阿修羅 GODDAMNED ASURA/Facebook

Compared to these other works about violent incidents, Goddamned Asura has a more humanistic approach, in that Zhan Wen is the protagonist, and the film seeks to flesh out his motivations. This differs from A Sun, in which the character that commits the primary act of violence, Radish, seems to function primarily as a symbol of irredeemable evil, as he has no sympathetic motivations. It is also the case that Ming-liang, the culprit in Terrorizers, is mostly an alien character. That being the case, a further aspect that seems to be shared with Terrorizers is the view of youth as fixated on comics and video games, and this perhaps contributing to acts of violence by young people.

Still, Goddamned Asura takes the worldview that all people have the potential for acts of violence. It does this through a further turn in its third act, which aims to deconstruct the idealization of victims of violent crimes after death. Yet Goddamned Asura perhaps does this in too ham-fisted and moralistic a manner, undermining aspects of its own message.

Either way, Goddamned Asura is a capable work, which manages to juggle a large number of characters and mostly flesh them all out as having complex motivations. The work is able to tell a compelling story, in spite of its many moving parts.