Tseng Ying-Ting’s crime drama The Abandoned announces itself with New Year’s Eve fireworks, a pretty little ditty in the form of Yazoo’s “Only You,” and a cop, Wu Jie (Janine Chang), sitting in her car with a loaded gun, ready to end her life. Her plans, however, are interrupted by a young girl banging on her window, crying for help. Initially startled, Wu gets out of her car to see a flock of teenagers running away in terror. She decides to investigate, and comes across the body of a Thai woman that has washed ashore.
Gripped by something like determination (or perhaps obsession), Wu forgets about her desire for annihilation and gets on the case. In true cop movie fashion, she’s stuck with a rookie partner, the curiously named Wilson (Chloe Xiang), and is forced to put her loner disposition aside as more migrant women turn up dead, the specific mutilations — their left ring fingers are cut off and their hearts removed — hinting at the work of a serial killer. The film also introduces us to Lin You-sheng (Ethan Juan), who brokers deals for employers looking for cheap migrant labor to exploit. When a body turns up at a work site employing undocumented immigrants, Lin decides to bury the body — something he ends up doing repeatedly as bodies begin to pile up — and it’s not entirely clear whether he does this to protect his racket, the immigrants, or himself by obscuring his connection to the crimes.
It’s apparent that Tseng’s ambitions for The Abandoned exceeded the restraints of a run-of-the-mill police procedural. The film is as much about Taiwan’s reliance on exploitative labor practices as it is about the murder mystery at the heart of its plot. Likewise, Wu’s tormented psyche is explored through a series of flashbacks which detail how her once-happy life has left her lonely and suicidal. The film bears the trappings of a contemporary noir, but, when contrasted with a film like Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014), Tseng can’t match that film’s oppressive, wintry atmosphere or the depth of the director’s social commentary. Black Coal utilized a genre framework to better articulate its views on contemporary (Chinese) society — something which even the acclaimed social realist Jia Zhangke pivoted to with 2013’s A Touch of Sin and 2018’s Ash Is Purest White — but The Abandoned merely leans into both genre tropes and the melodramatic tendencies that plague much of today’s “socially conscious” filmmaking.
By setting the story in the clandestine world of the illegal labor market, there is a certain element of tragedy and despair baked into the text, further emphasized by the color palette — sickly blues, deep blacks, drab grays — as well as the protagonist’s suicidal ideation. Death is everywhere: dead bodies, dead lovers, and the constant grim reminders of loss, most notably a nasty bloodstain on the ceiling of Wu’s car. And yet, The Abandoned feels bloodless, its drama conventional. Once Wu’s husband appears in a flashback, viewers with any familiarity with screenwriting tropes will likely be able to tell where the film is heading in that regard. The central dynamic between the disillusioned Wu and the eager, wide-eyed Wilson fares much the same; it will likely surprise no one that they manage to work through their initial awkwardness to try and solve the case as a team, and even begin genuinely caring for each other, if you can believe it.
The Abandoned isn’t a terrible work, but it is stunningly unremarkable. Its humanistic outlook earns some points, but as an indictment of capitalist exploitation or the marginalization of immigrants, it’s wholly unconvincing. Tseng’s instincts — both dramatic and political, although the former fares slightly better — are nowhere near as sharp as the cineastes he seems to be looking to for inspiration (aside from Diao, there are also shades of David Fincher, Na Hong-jin, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa), turning its murkier genre flourishes into hollow affectations and its stabs at dramatic heft into television-film emotionality. Tseng is a technician in need of a vision, and until one comes along, audiences are better served by his contemporaries.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 3.