Public Toilet (2002)
Written & directed by: Fruit Chan
Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2004:
After a little dip in quality and vision with Durian Durian, Fruit Chan elevated himself to fine heights once more with his black comedy Hollywood Hong Kong only to churn out only real black sheep in his filmography so far directly after. Welcome to a crappy time at the movies in the form of Public Toilet then! Literally bathing this DV shot arthouse in crap, it's you vs. your patience if you decide to take this journey with Fruit Chan.
Trying to recap the plot proves to be difficult as it's so scattershot. Various Asian people are searching for a magic cure in order to salvage the lives of their relatives or loved ones. Dong Dong (Tsuyoshi Abe), also called The God Of Toilets since he was found floating in one as an infant ends up in New York and is the one having to face violence when he's asked to videotape a hitmans (Sam Lee) last job. Surrealism and the hints at the supernatural turn up in Korea as Cho In-Sung (Classic) stumbles upon a beautiful girl (Kim Yang-Hee) that claims she comes from the sea and would rather stay inside a toilet than experience the real world. And so it goes...I'll tell you...I've never made as many question marks in my review notes before.
Apparently armed with a bigger budget but one that was spent on travel expenses as the filmmakers set the narrative in China, New York and India amongst other places as well as employing slight CGI (a Chan first), it makes sense that the rough look of Digital Video was employed in favour of film. In all honesty, it doesn't look better or worse than prior Chan efforts as the gritty, loose style has always been there but put to better use. Despite the many problems Public Toilet possesses, I should put up a disclaimer regarding my own thoughts. I'll readily admit that I'm far from the intellectual movie goer or even the ultimate attentive one so my dissatisfaction perhaps stems from the fact that Chan doesn't aim this at me. Perhaps...but most likely not as Public Toilet structures itself as a series of vaguely connected vignettes of a more muddled nature than anything Chan's ever done.
Filled with symbolism and abstract tangents, I did manage to decipher some of Chan's intentions here. It helps to know what roads Chan went down with when making his 1997 trilogy and even watching Durian Durian makes for good homework. There is therefore definitely a strong whiff of the unification theme once again, symbolized by such things as the endless quest for miracles abroad and the journey certainly tells us that people should belong and search among their own for their magic cures. Even if it means finding them (or not) in the dirtiest of places...the local hangout also functioning as the public toilet. With all the sick people the movie mostly briefly covers, Chan once again emphasizes the hope youth will bring to a needed brighter future and while all this has never been an invalid thematic or symbolism, Fruit Chan definitely has made the study more compelling in the past.
The indie style this time around isn't so much worn out but with so many amateur faces and no real central figure akin to Moon in Made In Hong Kong or our titular character in Little Cheung, Chan can't seem to connect. Nor perhaps does he want to in a similar sense as those movies did as the structure doesn't point towards such a desire, one of the main flaws of the film despite. The raw indie energy doesn't find a place to park itself and basically, Chan speaks of a bunch of worthwhile subjects but none of them translate well on film (or video) this time around. It's almost an experiment gone wrong we're watching which is why it was comforting to see Chan taking on his biggest project yet in the form of the acclaimed Dumplings subsequently. The few ventures into quirky comedy in Public Toilet shows a razor sharp wit though but you'll have to wade through a whole lot of crap to get there.
The people out of the crew that actually does the fine work is the cinematography team, consisting of Chan's usual DOP of choice Lam Wah-Chuen in addition to Henry Chung and Wong Man-Wan. Lam's expert voyeuristic eye and his almost always compelling created views, be it dirty, gritty, quirky or sweet is felt while the geography across the locations gets ample time to shine even though the images themselves tend to be among those puzzling ones sometimes. The Cho Sung-Woo score also adds suitable atmosphere for some of the more compelling images.
Talking acting amongst such an mostly unknown ensemble (to me anyway) that comes and goes all throughout, it's difficult to single out anyone but I'd say this despite all the film's other missteps, the amateurs and newcomers are directed to simply exist and be, something that has a tendency to work as an advantage for a Fruit Chan film.
Fruit Chan certainly has flip flopped in quality throughout his filmography already but none more so than in Public Toilet. This often muddled and abstract exercise (but thankfully not conventional) obviously means a lot to Chan but translates less well for many possible reasons at least during a first screening. Chan has always has something valid to say and none is different here but I doubt you'll find many who are willing this time to wait around for rewards. Or maybe I'm just too thick to get all this? You be the judge.
Asia Video Publishing has handled the majority of the Fruit Chan catalogue but only issued this and Hollywood Hong Kong on dvd. The print, letterboxed at 1.69:1 approximately is transferred from DV to 35mm and registers mostly as soft and muted as an effect of this.
The mixed language track (Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and English) in Dolby Digital 5.1 mostly uses music to open up the front stage and for some poorly inserted foley effects. Dialogue isn't always fully audible but does its job generally.
The English subtitles feature little errors and are of high standard throughout. They translate all English dialogue which is helpful due to some of the some poor sound recording and thick accents. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
AVP has also put together a decent extras package that thankfully comes with English subtitles (permanent ones though). Making Of (13 minutes, 24 seconds) mixes movie clips, behind the scenes footage and mainly interviews with Fruit Chan (Jo Kuk and Sam Lee pop up briefly). We hear about the genesis of the project, pros and cons of Digital Video as well as working with the pan-Asian cast. Most subjects are only covered briefly but nonetheless it's an appreciated glimpse.
The interview segment has separate sessions with Fruit Chan, Sam Lee and Jo Kuk, lasting 4 minutes, 30 seconds in total. Chan covers some brief production issues with the use of DV cameras (good in bitter cold, bad in water) and the different approach to Public Toilet compared to previous films of his. Sam Lee, apparently filmed doing a radio interview at the same time, only gets time to mention the movies he's done with Chan as well as his desire to work with him again. Finally Jo relates to her first role in Chan's The Longest Summer, how the newcomers in Public Toilet feels to her as well as divulging her dream role in a future Fruit Chan film. A short program lacking in depth but a few points of interest crop up.
The Great Wall Shaman, New York Public Toilet and Journey To The Gauga River options are simply clips lifted from the film but not yet blown up to 35 mm. Odd inclusion. Final extra is the trailer.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson
Thanks to yinique for providing the Best Song credits and Chinese title.