From Nov. 12 to 14, the Pacific Arts Movement screened seven Taiwanese films at the Price Center Theater, free for all UC San Diego students. The films are part of the 18th Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival, one of the leading platforms for Asian cinema in North America, showcasing Pan-Asian hits, documentaries, and independent voices. I was lucky to watch and fall in love with the tragic The Last Verse, which ventured into extremely difficult themes. Set against the backdrop of Taiwan’s 2008 Cross-Strait (Taiwan-China) political turbulence, Ying-Ting Tseng’s romantic melodrama tells a heartbreaking but stunning story of lives destroyed by fear.
The film begins in the early 2000s, when nearly every young Taiwanese citizen has been swept off their feet by idealist nationalism. Here we find Ren-jie (nicknamed “Poet”) and Xiao-ping in love, eager to start their lives together. But as the reality of Taiwan’s recession hits, their dreams begin to shatter, and a relationship once filled with hope descends into a nightmare. Divided into five chapters: “Freedom (2006),” “Storm (2008),” “Proposal (2012),” “Homecoming (2016),” and “Courage (2016, later),” The Last Verse is ultimately a mix of Cross-Strait politics and failed personal relationships. Though the two lovers’ tragic circumstances are overwhelmingly the fault of Ren-jie’s extreme insecurities, the economic hardship that comes with Chinese market liberalizations factors in crucially. In some moments we sympathize with, or at least understand, Ren-jie’s destructive irresponsibility.
Early in the film, Xiao-ping and Ren-jie are forced to pay a two million dollar debt to the mafia. After the mafia kills Xiao-ping’s dog and tortures an uncooperative Ren-jie, Xiao-ping enlists her aunt to help with payments. After four years, the debt is paid off, but the lingering emotional trauma prevents them from achieving peace to start a family. Ren-jie falls deep into disillusionment, unfaithfulness, and jealousy, and in one heart-wrenching sequence, he rapes Xiao-ping after she accuses him of jealousy.
The story grows even darker, with Ren-jie moving to China and its better economy while Xiao-ping spirals ever downwards. Rumors circulate that an unloving and financially unsuccessful relationship with a previous wealthy friend prompted Xiao-ping to commit suicide. Ren-jie finally returns, and when he does, Xiao-ping welcomes him into their old apartment—but the past damage is irreparable.
One morning, following a bleak marriage proposal to Xiao-ping, Ren-jie awakens to finds his love lifeless in the bath with open wrists. A month passes before Ren-jie decides to execute her ex-boyfriend, whom he holds responsible for her death. Ren-jie learns, however, that the rumors involving Xiao-ping’s affair were false. Upon finally realizing his role in the destruction, he prepares to shoot himself. Gazing into a painting left on the wall of Xiao-ping’s apartment, he reminisces his first date with Xiao-ping in an idyllic forest. Images of the two laughing and holding hands are accompanied by a sweet acoustic ballad and shots of a flowing stream. Ren-jie recites his life poem on voiceover, the camera pans up to the clouds, and credits scroll against the bright sky.
With this heavy subject matter, associating any political agenda with The Last Verse can feel blasphemous. After we endure two suicides, a torture, and an attempted rape, among other painful scenes, an instinct to look any deeper than visceral aesthetics seems beyond inappropriate. Yet, this may be Ying-Ting Tseng’s point. Regardless of how we feel after a film, there are ideas driving every personal drama, and they deserve as much appreciation as lingering images. Whenever we see Ren-jie and Xiao-ping slowly breaking, the camera invites us to search for reasons things could have been different. During short moments of subtle postcolonial commentary, we feel powerless—but in a more intuitive sense, the way love and financial insecurity is presented in the film tells us something about the nature of our flaws: our intentions don’t matter, but our actions can.
Director Tseng shows us Ren-jie and Xiao-ping’s unimaginable suffering for a reason; he knows we will stay until the end. By not walking out of painful movies, we show our commitment to the possibility of redemption—possibly why we chase romanticism and political ideals, no matter how many times they fall apart. The Last Verse unapologetically shows us brutal tragedy in order to remind us of the strength we’re capable of, and by appreciating this film’s example of creative empathy, we are ready to help others as Tseng helps us.
Nathaniel Imel is a staff writer for the Triton.