Thankfully, 20:30:40 is not – as some marketing material has suggested to the contrary – a Sex in the City replicate with a Taipei backdrop. Unless you are the type of person that gets really upset when films about women are not also films that deconstruct feminism, try to ignore this kneejerk promotional tactic. I certainly wouldn’t climb over mountains to chase down a movie so advertised, but I might be inclined to set up a base camp, fire up a toasty pot of coffee and snuggle next to my partner for a movie that tries to capture a few out of the ordinary moments in the love, work and play lives of three spirited but beleaguered women who hope to work out what it is they really want. (Incidentally, in What Women Want how in the name of Saraswati can Mel Gibson listen in on the thoughts of women and know what they want, when it appears to be the case that most women – and men for that matter – have no idea what they really want?)
Like Gibson, Sylvia Chang is another actor turned director. She’s also worked as a singer, TV and radio presenter, agent, producer, songwriter, screenwriter, and almost certainly as a stunt pilot, microbiologist and equestrian professional, which earns her bigger props than a guy who once attended NIDA and starred in a couple of movies with Danny Glover. (Gibson and Chang were actually co-stars in Attack Force Z. For some unknown reason that scholars are still working furiously to understand, his role was more prominent than hers.)
The story of how 20:30:40 originated goes something like this: Rene Liu, Angelica Lee Sin Jie and Chang were cutting a record, as young, really young and not that old movie stars in Asia are want to do, when Chang challenged the younger pair (who she manages, by the way) to come up with original stories for a proposed omnibus film. The basic idea was to examine and interrelate the lives of three women, each in a different age group, but all struggling to overcome commonly identifiable problems (having to reject the advances of a stunningly cute lesbian who falls in love with you, having too many wealthy and good looking potential lovers to choose from, having nothing better to do than take up tennis lessons with a sex-crazed maniac). As a devoted pair of Chang proteges, Lee and Liu diligently returned from the cafeteria about seventeen minutes later carrying a tower of napkins, each containing scribbles about the kinds of turmoil that amazingly hot, super famous babes have to go through each day in order to find a few shreds of happiness. Tough luck, ladies; Chang finished her contribution to the project in seventeen seconds.
Following a few shuffles of the napkins, the experts were called in. Their first task was probably figuring out how to weave together the favoured narrative structure, a criss-cross of the three stories that keeps them separate yet also interlinks them with each, featuring one or two moments where characters and locations from other stories are glimpsed in the frame. Perhaps writers GC Goo Bi and Cat Kwan were also responsible for inserting at the start of the movie the intricate plot’s unifying feature, an earthquake, which – and I realise this is just egghead speculation – may have been added to represent the instability (nay, unrest) about to be unleashed in the lives of the three women. Let’s hope GC (another actor-and-DJ-turned…something else) and Kwan (presumably a mono-talent) were paid approporiately for such efforts.
Given the opportunity to re-imagine themselves in light of their current circumstances and careers as entertainers, Chang writes and casts herself as a florist in her 40s, Liu as a flight attendant in her 30s, and Lee as a wannabe pop starlet in her 20s (as opposed to a flourishing indy starlet, I guess). Had he directed it instead, Peter Greeenaway might have called this film The Florist, the Flight Attendant and the Karaoke Chanteuse. He did not, and for this we need to get down on our knees and express gratitude to Chang, since, for all the cliche and simplicity of 20:30:40 there is an underlying authenticity and sparkle to her film. There are few lofty thematic objectives stinking up the scene and obstructing the rhythm of the three stories, the set design and cinematography is unexpectedly striking, and just when you think the whole thing is going sink, a delightful comic moment arises to keep things lively.
Finally, perhaps the reason 20:30:40 works (as in, doesn’t make you puke, or laugh out loud during the sincere moments, or doze off), is that it speaks in a suitably casual yet direct way to people who have annoying little personal issues they want to sort out. We’ve all wanted to jettison a cheater, leech, depressing hanger-on, overly anxious freak, inconsiderate slob, or a nice but incompetent person from our lives. This movie gives us the thumbs up. Do it, and you’ll be happier, it suggests.
Yeah, get rid of those little niggling issues. Everyone’s got a few. Look at Mel Gibson.