Mother’s Day may have passed, but anyone lucky enough to have spent childhood days on a beach with an attentive and imaginative mom will respond to the elegiac tone of Chang’s Murmur of the Hearts (2015), which screens at Metrograph on May 25 and 27. The film’s fondest reminiscences are those of grownup Taiwanese siblings Mei (Isabella Leong) and Nan (Lawrence Ko). Both recall idyllic summer days exploring the coastal rock pools of their Pacific birthplace Lyudao (Green Island) with their mother Jen (the luminous Angelica Lee).
At bedtimes, Jen would tell Mei and Nan mermaid tales so enchanting they put Walt Disney’s equivalents to shame. Sadly, brother and sister have grown up into an adult reality scarred by their sundering and by their mother’s absence. This has been much longer in Nan’s case since he was separated from her when he was a boy.
Aside from being an actress and a star with 102 credits to her name, Chang is a first-rate writer-director. Metrograph is showing five of her 13 directorial efforts, including her latest, 2017’s Love Education. Murmur of the Hearts (unconnected to Louis Malle’s 1971 Murmur of the Heart) is the work of a robust storyteller with a lyrical sensibility. Murmur of the Hearts hinges on an understanding of the depthless bond that exists between a mother and her children when the kids are in the six-to-ten-year-old bracket—still at a tender and dependent age.
The movie begins alarmingly with Mei, its main protagonist, singing dreamily to herself on a rooftop with her hands coated in what appears to be blood—a strange, Ophelia-like moment. It is not blood, but red paint: Mei is an artist living in Taipei. The scene sets up the possibility, however, that she is unstable. Certainly she is unhappy enough to see a therapist, who warns her against her self-destructive habits. Mei’s handsome boyfriend Hsiang (Joseph Chang) is faithful to her but distant, preoccupied with his worsening record as a boxer and incipient blindness in one eye.
Mei and Nan were parted as children when Mai left her bad-tempered noodle vendor husband (Julian Chen) and moved from Green Island to Taipei, taking Mei with her. The hole she dug in her children’s lives was un-fillable, but to stay might have been the worse option. Chang has made specialties of marital and inter-generational conflicts.
The unworldly Nan, who grew up with his father, works as a travel agent in Taitung City, over 300 km from Taipei. He has never sought out his sister or mother. His father died of a heart attack a day after 2009’s Typhoon Morakot. His suspicion of the big city is a mask for his fear of finding out from his mother that she prefers Mei to himself—although he suspects she may have died.
Chang cuts backward and forwards in time, loosely occupying Mei’s consciousness in the first half of the film, then largely following Nan’s thoughts and impressions in the second half. Since what they dream or imagine is part of this tapestry, Chang’s occasional use of magical realism is fitting. Hsiang’s seeking out of father figures—first in the shape of his boxing coach (Wang Shih-hsien), then in an imaginary fisherman—feels like one piece of psychologizing too many for this brother-sister story, but its execution is so accomplished, it is forgivable.
A talented artist as a child, Mei was encouraged by her mother. Nan was less gifted but the mother encouraged him, too, even as his coarse father denounced his efforts as worthless. A piece made by Nan becomes the film’s talisman. It is a small black paper cut-out, stuck to a wall, of the four family members holding hands, the parents flanking the children in the middle. Nan made it when the dream of family togetherness was still possible; the second iteration of the four little figures, which appear when the family is long gone, makes it doubly poignant. Murmur of the Hearts itself as delicately wrought as a paper cut-out, or a filigree—it’s that exquisite.
The Metrograph. 7 Ludlow Street, New York, NY 10002. Tel: (212) 660-0312. Details of the Sylvia Chang retrospective can be found here.