SXSW 2012 Review: THE TAIWAN OYSTER


At some point in our lives, we all come face to face with a fact that may haunt us for the rest of our days: nearly everything about our existence is impermanent. The best we can possibly hope to achieve, in terms of our legacies, is to live our lives in a way that another can find some meaning in, and exit the world with the knowledge that our time here was more than insignificant.

 The Taiwan Oyster,  co-written by Mark and Mitchell Jarrett and directed by the former, tells the story of Simon (Billy Harvey), who aspires to be a writer, and Darin (Jeff Palmioti), who aspires mostly to drink, have sex, and cut the sleeves off shirts. The two American twentysomethings are kindergarten teachers who lead comfortable if not aimless lives in Taiwan. After fellow expatriate Jed dies in a stupid, drunken accident, the two friends discover that his body lies unclaimed in a city morgue, and will soon be cremated. A plan is hatched, and the body is stolen with the help of morgue employee Nikita (Leonora Moore), who tags along for the journey to Jed's final resting place, somewhere on the picturesque coast of Taiwan.

Though they are cut from the same fun-loving, responsibility shirking cloth, Simon and Darin make uneasy bedfellows. The former is unsure about what he has accomplished in the three years that he's lived abroad, and contemplates moving back home to take a promising job offer, while the latter dreams of the two starting up a literary magazine together. The cross-country journey to bury their "countryman" (as Jed is constantly referred to) initially holds little inspiration for the two other than fodder for this literary endeavor. However, as the trip unfolds, Simon begins find beauty and meaning in the quest, and simultaneously falls for the beautiful Nikita, who serves as an optimistic foil to the jaded and somewhat depressive author.

Performances are all over the map, but the chemistry between Harvey and Moore is at times breathtaking. In one of many inebriated diatribes, Simon explains why he is going to such great lengths to bury a man he barely knew, saying he feels a certain camaraderie with the type of person who can leave their home and live in another country, more or less alone. "The world just breaks my heart," he moans, with Nikita shooting back "I think you are in love with sadness." The romance that blossoms between the two (and the film as a whole) calls up perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of international travel: the realization that you are not alone wherever there are fellow human beings attempting to understand you.

Much of The Taiwan Oyster is playful (and at times hilarious), but the beautiful photography often makes for a melancholy backdrop, as the stunning countryside constantly reminds us that these characters are strangers in a strange land, made all the more small by the ancient otherworldliness that surrounds them on all sides. In one particularly poignant moment, when the trio visits Nikita's family, the two Americans stand a respectful distance from the ancestral gravesite as members of the close-knit household say prayers and make offerings, perhaps reflecting on who might carry on their memory in a similar manner. As Simon confides in Nikita later, "I'm not afraid to die, I'm afraid of being insignificant."

Though at times heavy-handed, The Taiwan Oyster is a meditation on the great, terrible beauty of the world, and our place in it. The story moves deftly between the realms of comedy and tragedy, guided by characters that are at once likeable, and perhaps in the case of many suffering from a bit of the quarter-life crisis, even a bit familiar.

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