MURMUR OF THE HEARTS (NC16)
119 minutes/Opens tomorrow/**1/2
The story: Escaping an unhappy marriage, mother Jen (Lee Sinje) takes her daughter Yu-mei away from their Green Island home, reluctantly leaving her son Yu-nan with her husband. Years later, Yu-mei (Isabella Leong) is an artist cast adrift by her past, while Yu-nan (Lawrence Ko) works as a tour guide on the island, their paths never crossing. What helps to keep Yu-mei grounded is her relationship with boxer Hsiang (Joseph Chang), who bears the emotional scars of an absent father.
It takes a while to get there, but it eventually becomes clear that the film is about the gaping holes absent parents leave in the lives of their children.
Director and co-writer Sylvia Chang (20 30 40, 2004) jumps between the restless, unsettled present and vignettes from the past, inexorably linking the two.
Jen is a warm and loving presence in the lives of Yu-mei and Yu-nan. She takes them to the beach and comes up with stories about a mermaid that she tells them each night. But she is trapped in a loveless marriage and eventually makes the wrenching decision to leave.
Hsiang is worse off than Yu-mei and Yu-nan. He barely has any memories of his father to hold on to, having merely a father figure in the form of his boxing coach (Wang Shih-hsien). In the present, the three adults are unhappy, struggling to fill the void they carry inside them.
The pacing of the film is uneven, though, as it shifts focus from one character to the next. It plods along slowly and then suddenly lurches into a long scene which comes out of nowhere, as when Hsiang has to confront his failure as a boxer.
The tone is patchy as well.
Chang injects some surrealism with a character who pops up unexpectedly in Yu-mei and Yu-nan's lives, but it sits oddly with the rest of the film, which also attempts to provide a socio-historical context to Green Island to ground the story by making references to a church and prison on it.
More successful is a scene between an adult Yu-nan and the mother he remembers as a child which seems to take place in their home on Green Island. They interact, but she does not know who he is and the entire sequence is moving, mysterious and filled with conflicting emotions.
The film could have had more of such moments.