Toronto 2014: 'Partners in Crime' review

★★★☆☆
"If you run into anything unpleasant you must learn to face it yourself," states a kindly counsellor in Chang Jung-chi's sophomore feature Partners in Crime (Gong Fan, 2014). Little could she have imagined just the extent to which the three boys stood before her would take the advice to heart. They become the sleuthing protagonists of a slick brooding thriller after stumbling upon the body of a classmate on the way to school. Asian cinema often finds itself plumbing the murkier depths of youth - teenage violence, anger, disillusionment - but this Taiwanese offering neatly combines exploration of the adolescent psyche with a burgeoning friendship between an unlikely trio. Huang, Lin and Yeh (played by Huang Teng-hui, Huang Tsai-yi and Ko Chia-yen) all attend the same high school but move in entirely different circles.

Huang is the quiet, lonely and bullied type, yet not by choice; Lin is academically talented and popular as a source of test answers; Yeh, meanwhile, is the class bad boy. When they each happen upon the body of a young girl on the way to school, they're unexpectedly thrown together. Shocked and moved by her apparently brutal suicide, they decide to investigate the circumstances surrounding her death, spurred on when evidence surfaces that another classmate may be at fault. Chang's directorial style stands out, especially in the opening act when his dynamic angles and roving camera add an element of interest to the now somewhat familiar aesthetic. It all serves to heighten the sense of intrigue that pervades the overall scenario as the three boys are drawn to one another in the wake of their gruesome discovery.

When the visuals do settle down somewhat, the pace of the narrative duly increases with a series of flashbacks employed to slowly reveal the truth to the conjecture. That an early clue is found on social media is a salient nugget, with the film also playing on the notion of presented truths and Huang's insistence that theories become fact if enough conviction is thrown behind them. An unusually touching bond begins to form between the three amateur sleuths in amongst all of the hormones and angst thrown up by the various adolescents - something audiences may not expect from a film in this sub-genre. As the situation escalates and the boys opt to seek justice against the suspected perpetrator, relations become strained but remain a spot of light in the moral darkness. It's to this end that the final revelations serve a keen purpose, and whilst it may not make for the most thrilling of narrative climaxes, Partners in Crime remains an enjoyable if unremarkable watch.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 4-14 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson

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