In Yang Ya-che’s 2017 masterpiece “The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful” there is an impulse for meticulous perfection rarely seen in the industry. Presenting an elaborate labyrinth of a storyline sometimes just as captivating as it is enigmatic, the film’s Chinese title is more telling of its ruthlessness: “The Bloody Bodhisattva.” Unlike other films in the crime drama genre, “The Bold” eschews the ubiquitous themes of guns, exile and intimidating masculinity for a far more understated, yet just as potent, evil, presented with an appetizing elegance and style.
A masterful study of ruthless political jockeying soused in Machiavellian horror and suspense, “The Bold” is a gangster/crime drama set in 1990s Taiwan featuring an unlikely trio of a mother and her two daughters. The story revolves around the Tang clan, headed by the ostensibly charismatic matriarch Madame Tang (the Golden Horse-winning actress Kara Wai), a southern socialite and widow of a prominent Kuomintang general well-connected through her late husband’s associations. Beneath their quiet country living were threads of unspeakable family history and discord with her two daughters, the trepidatious Tang Zhen (Vicky Chen) and the vivacious Tang Ning (Wu Ke-xi), each of whom present a decidedly different image of daughterhood.
As a lucrative business opportunity emerges, Madame Tang’s business and political connections help her weave together an irresistibly thrilling quest to power featuring indelible actions like blackmail, collusion, murder and betrayal. Throughout the true-to-form performance from Wai and the rest of the ensemble cast, Yang manages to offer not only a satirical look at the central themes of controlling mothers, grotesque romance, the pursuit of power, unrequited love and government corruption, but also to prop up memorable scenes of high society pretension and all its insincerity, captured through well-timed close-ups.
The film is Yang’s directorial tour de force, showing his sophisticated craft of fruitful motifs and suggestive symbolism. Yang makes full use and juggles the dizzying import of the lush disco subculture of ’90s Taiwan, as well as the island’s unique confluence of Japanese, Hokkien and Madame Tang’s own Cantonese language backgrounds, in addition to its predominantly Mandarin script.
Drawing his inspiration for writing/directing the film from a slew of political scandals and high-profile murder-assassinations in Taiwan across the decades, “The Bold” is an amalgamation of these elements with the same chilling horror and popular flair that resembles American works dramatizing such well-known crimes as the Manson killings or the O.J. Simpson case. Building on, but twisting, a familiar thriller formula, the film draws out viewing pleasures from a looming suspense, banking on its coy treatment of Madame Tang’s layering schemes and culminating in an ultimate showdown.
At times, the symbolism is laid bare for all to see. The recurrent image of the apple as a stand-in for human greed is a not-so-subtle nod to the well-known biblical story. The emotional arc is so subtle that any analysis requires at least two viewings to do justice. For a film bent on exposing the casual evil in humanity—be it handed down in the pretense of motherly affection or raw self-interest—the menacingly presented ending epigraph says it all: “The most terrifying thing of all is not a punishment so near, but a future so loveless.”