I always love it when we get into Awards Season and I can start tracking down the various films submitted for International Feature. There are usually around 90 entries each year from all over the globe, with an endless array of intriguing stories to tell and techniques to convey them. But also, if nothing else, you get an inspired but daunting set of titles, either by literal translation or sheer creativity in the production. Among my favorites from recent years are Yunana: A Yak in the Classroom and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. I mean, even when it’s being intensely literal, how do you even begin to know what to expect from such headers?
We get another interesting title with Taiwan’s candidate for 2023 — and the first one I’ve been able to find of the 25 announced thus far — Marry My Dead Body, currently available on Netflix. The name alone conjures up an entire universe of possibilities and concepts, and for what it’s worth, what the film ends up going with is compelling. Unfortunately, the execution comes up well short, making this a very noble misfire. It’s entertaining at times, and in others downright hilarious, but it doesn’t constitute nearly enough of the finished product to fully recommend it.
For starters, strictly speaking, the title (at least the English version of it) isn’t accurate. When I first read it, my thoughts went to something akin to Corpse Bride, where a person unwittingly ends up betrothed to an actual cadaver. The opening shot of the film, which plays like a Tim Burton homage, reinforces this idea, as the camera tracks into a large house with its wide angle lens and around an open casket in a single take, watching as an old woman, dubbed “Granny” (Wang Man-chaio) appears to dress and groom the body like a funeral director, including cutting his hair and clipping his nails. It feels distinctly stylized, but it doesn’t hold for the entire movie, or even beyond this opening.
More importantly though, no one is marrying, or even requested/demanded to marry, the actual body of Mao Pang-yu, affectionately referred to as Mao Mao (Austin Lin). Rather, Granny wants to arrange a “ghost marriage” for his spirit, a tradition in some sectors of Chinese culture. The intended target is Wu Ming-han (Greg Hsu, also seen in Taiwan’s entry from three years ago, A Sun, which was shortlisted by the Academy but ultimately not nominated), a police detective working a major drug bust who also happens to be a raging homophobe, evidenced by an early scene where he entraps a suspect in a gym shower before beating berating him for being gay and a criminal. His behavior is tolerated only because he gets results, but his coworkers, particularly the assertive Lin Tzu-ching (Gingle Wang), his obese partner, who he only calls “Chubby” (Chen Yen-tso), and his commanding officer Chang Yung-kang (Ma Nien-hsien), are basically over his macho, bigoted bullshit.
Ming-han’s life is changed, however when, while chasing a different suspect, he comes across a red envelope (a traditional way to give ceremonial gifts) lying on the sidewalk. Thinking it’s evidence, he picks it up, but it was actually planted by Granny and her friends as their way of letting fate guide Mao Mao’s intended husband to them. Initially refusing to go along with the scheme, Granny warns Wu that he’ll be forever cursed if he turns down this proposal. After a series of mishaps, including narrowly escaping getting shot in the scrotum, Wu acquiesces, especially since he’ll only have to go through the motions of the wedding and be “legally” married to a dead gay man for three days.
Wu hopes that going along with things will get him back on track, especially his reputation at the precinct, where he was working to help bring down a major crime lord (Tsai Chen-nan). He finds he’s sorely mistaken when the actual ghost of Mao Mao appears before him. The specter enlists his unintended groom to help him get closure with his life so that he can be reincarnated. Learning that their souls are somewhat intertwined, as Wu was once Mao’s dog in a past life, Wu must aid Mao in learning who was responsible for his death (a hit-and-run crash), reconcile with his father (Tuo Tsung-hua), and bring solace to his boyfriend Chen Chia-hao (Aaron Yan of the Taiwanese boy band Fahrenheit), as the two were discussing marriage before Mao’s death.
Now, this is a fun idea, and it does echo Corpse Bride a little bit, in that a living man is drawn into matrimony with the deceased through no intentional fault of his own. And truly, when the film focuses on the dynamic between Wu and Mao Mao, it is consistently charming and silly in the best way possible. The thought of watching a ghost toy with someone who would openly discriminate against him under any other circumstance is both hysterical and cathartic, a sort of social and poetic justice bit of wish fulfillment. This is at its strongest when Mao possesses Wu and makes him dance naked in the street or threatens him by turning into something out of The Ring to scare him.
That said, the film never fully commits to the angle, often diverting the story into any number of tangents and styles that aren’t kept up. For example, Wu’s mission to help Mao reincarnate is presented as a checklist with onscreen titles, but since there are only four, they come and go rather quickly and are never called back once the plot turns in another direction. The underlying mystery of Mao’s death and his falling out with his father is intriguing, but we don’t get to spend enough time on them for the various threads to carry much weight, sadly rendering what should be majorly impactful moments as maudlin melodrama couched in a footnote.
There’s a moment where Wu is staking out one of the crime lord’s henchmen, and is accosted by Tzu-ching working undercover. Getting into his car, Mao is taken aback at the sight of a woman sharing space with him and essentially sitting in his lap. He tries to get Wu to forcer her out of the chair until he angrily lets himself fly into the back seat. That moment of odd physical comedy ends up serving as a metaphor for the structural problems of the script. There’s so much added on top of Mao and Wu’s story that ultimately shoves it to the backburner, and very little of it works. Those of us watching don’t care about the drug kingpin until he’s linked to Mao’s death, and that tissue doesn’t connect until well over halfway through. We certainly don’t need the second mystery of a potential mole in the precinct operations. It’s all just padding, extending what should have been a 90-minute film to 130.
Now, even with the bloated runtime, this could have been stellar, but good god is the production chintzy. There are oh so many horribly-rendered CGI effects throughout the picture. The early car chase that leads to Wu finding the red envelope might as well have been from Birdemic for the quality of the visuals. There are more obvious cartoon rubber models during some of the action scenes than the original Spider-Man movie. Even the shock moment of Wu nearly shooting his bollocks off is “enhanced” by a scratch of blood on his inner thigh and some awful burning smoke. I’ve seen student films that had infinitely more convincing stuff. There is exactly one effect that works, and it comes in a moment where Mao is essentially disintegrating, as possessing people damages his soul. With his vaguely transparent form, seeing particles remove and reattach themselves to his body is half-decent, but only in contrast to everything else being so poor.
There are other problems as well. Several scenes aren’t lit properly. The camera work and editing is all over the place, including scenes where basic color correction didn’t happen. And this may or may not have been an issue, but the subtitling made me think something was off in the translation. Throughout the film, whenever Wu doles out his homophobia, the phrase, “gay guy” appears on the screen. Given his intonation and the context of the usage, something tells me that’s not what he really said. It most often comes up when he’s talking derisively about homosexuals, and in early interactions with Mao’s ghost. Mao jokingly calls Wu, “hubby” when he taunts him about his supernatural abilities, giving Wu the choice of calling him “hubby” back or opting for “gay guy,” the latter of which Wu always defiantly chooses. It just doesn’t have the right sting based on what we’ve been shown. Now, I don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese, nor can I really tell the difference to know which was used for this movie, but I get the feeling Wu is saying something far more akin to a slur, and the powers that be at Netflix decided to sanitize it so as not to offend anyone.
But along those same lines, the biggest issue of all with the movie is that it squanders its fairly unique premise by not having Wu grow as a person. Over the course of the events, he develops an understanding, and even a platonic/familial affection for Mao, but outside of that very narrow space, nothing about him has really changed. He doesn’t act nicer to his coworkers, we see no evidence that his opinions on gays as a whole have progressed, and apart from looking after Mao’s dog from this life, he shows no signs of maturing or accepting responsibility for anything. Even if you set aside the superfluous fluff and the low production values, a story that doesn’t demonstrate an evolution of the main character isn’t going to land. Yes, he has an adoptive family now, and there’s a slight uptick in his empathy, but not nearly to the degree that would be narratively satisfying after such a mad journey.
In spite of that, however, I did still kind of enjoy this. I’ve said before that I’ll always be more forgiving of an ambitious film that misses the mark than I will for a successful film that takes no risks. That’s kind of how I feel about this. I’ll be shocked if this even gets shortlisted, much less nominated, but I’m still glad I saw it, because it did take a few crazy chances, and some of them paid off. If the movie played it safe, this would be a D or lower on my scale, but I do admire what it tried to do, and not for nothing, but the performances are fairly strong, especially Lin and Hsu as the lead pair. This is far from the best I’ve seen this year, but as foreign submissions go, Taiwan has little reason to hang their heads.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you get hyped for the International Feature submissions as I do? What’s your favorite goofy title for a movie? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for more content!