August 26, 2015 Film ReviewsUpdates

'Partners in Crime' (2014)

‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,’ writes Albert Camus (1913-1960) in his celebrated essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), ‘and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest ⎯ whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories ⎯ come afterwards.’

If the Nobel Prize winning author, journalist and philosopher is correct, then the gravity and magnitude of such a problem is not exclusive to philosophy but broached in other fields, including cinema. In a zeitgeist marked by genre merging and border crossing, where strict demarcations between styles and disciplines become increasingly porous and permeable, the question of whether life is worth living finds ample screen time in the work of film-makers from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

In Partners in Crime (2014), director Chang Jung-chi situates the sensitive and divisive issue of suicide in the context of the manifold challenges of adolescent life. When three male teenagers discover the body of a fellow secondary school student they are offered counselling as a way of dealing with the traumatic encounter and as a platform for discussing, reflecting on and coming to terms with the topic of mortality.

While the girl’s untimely death is ruled as a suicide, the trio remain unconvinced and undertake their own clandestine investigation, resorting to such extreme measures as trespassing on her family home and gathering clues by pilfering fragments from her diary and perusing her most recent activity on social media.

As the film’s tensely devised narrative unfolds, distinctions between fact and rumour, evidence and fabrication become mutually contaminated, hazy and ambiguous. What starts as a search for truth soon mutates into a witch-hunt; bullying is suspected, blame is apportioned, a perpetrator is identified, punishment is painstakingly plotted and chillingly administered ⎯ all with fatal repercussions.

Combining elements of the coming-of-age drama with the murder mystery and the crime thriller, Partners illuminates the interpersonal and collective dimensions of death, including its power to forge alliances between individuals with different temperaments, motivations and agendas. This binding force of death and tragedy becomes particularly acute in a social milieu where adolescent angst, detachment and the desire for autonomy collide with the crushing pressure of conformity, friendship and the desire for belonging.

Such tensions are, of course, at the heart of both philosophy and film, and in a telling series of close ups Jung-chi’s camera lingers on a copy of Camus’ seminal novel The Outsider (1941); in one scene, the victim’s diary is even inserted and concealed inside its covers. It is a visual allusion that perhaps transports and recontextualises Camus’ story of alienation, indifference, absurdity, guilt and death in colonial Algiers to the postcolonial and posthuman landscape of modern-day Taiwan, where adolescent relationships are exponentially mediated via touchscreen interactions, virtual communities and social networks.

In the potentially nauseating void created by these technologies, tragedy and death become catalysts for forging and galvanising fraternal ties. But the novelty and poignancy of Partners perhaps lies in showing us what simultaneously conditions and ruptures such male bonding: the intervention, the disruption, the presence and absence, death and survival, sacrifice and resistance ⎯ in a word, the haunting difference of female voices.

—Dr. Varga Hosseini