REVIEW: I WeirDO (Fantasia 2020)
Change is terrifying. You have no control over it; one day you’re on the same page with someone, and then suddenly you drift away until you’re basically strangers, just two ships passing in the night. You either change and grow together, or you grow apart, and there’s no way of telling or controlling which way it’ll happen. I WeirDO, the feature film debut from Taiwanese director Ming-Yi Liao, is about two eccentric loners whose debilitating mental health issues draw them together, but more than anything it’s about the overwhelming fear of loss that change threatens. If you or I become different, somehow, and we lose what connected us in the first place, will our relationship survive?
Po-Ching (Austin Lin) is a young man who seems to have made peace with the oversized role OCD has in dictating the structures of his life. He spends his days cleaning his apartment over and over again, only leaving his house once a month to get groceries and pay bills. But one day, he sees a girl wearing a similar protective ensemble (waterproof poncho, mask, and gloves) and is intrigued enough to break his routine and follow her to a different grocery store. Chen Ching (Nikki Hsieh) faces similar issues to Po-Ching – she’s a germaphobe who can only venture outside for short periods of time, lest she break out into a rash from sun exposure. Inevitably, there’s a spark, as both realize with amazement that they’ve found a kindred spirit. One of the few people in the world who can truly understand what they’re going through has crossed their path.
At first, they challenge each other. Working together, they try to push out of their comfort zones – they eat street ramen, or pick up trash, or visit a recycling center, all as a form of exposure therapy. But at a certain point, one has to wonder (as Chen Ching does) if they’re actually holding each other back. Is the security they’ve found in one another preventing them from making a larger connection with the outside world? And if one of them were to change and without warning no longer have OCD, what would that mean for their relationship?
I WeirDO is the first Asian film to be shot entirely on an iPhone, although you barely notice it. Director Liao experiments with different aspect ratios throughout the film: in the beginning, the frame is a tight square, physically constricting the image in the same way that Po-Ching’s compulsive cleaning routines suffocate his life. But when he wakes up one morning completely free of his OCD tendencies, the frame widens as if eager to take in all the possibilities of a larger world. It’s fairly on-the-nose, but just because a visual metaphor is obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t effective.
And the entire production is surprisingly impactful, despite the veneer of it being just a light, fluffy romantic comedy. It relies entirely on the skill of the two lead actors and their chemistry together, and both Lin and Hsieh are up to the challenge, building empathy and humor into their performances as misfits who are too often ostracized by society and held up as a punchline. In fact, I WeirDO gives Ching and Po-Ching actual agency: despite their struggles, they are both depicted as independent, capable, and determined individuals.
As the film shifts gears, it also switches perspectives. The first half of the film is shown from the point of view of Po-Ching and feels like a quirky romantic comedy, full of the wacky misadventures of two social outcasts. But when the film reaches its turning point where Po-Ching no longer has OCD, we see the story from Chen Ching’s point of view, and it becomes a much more somber affair. Their relationship, once oddly sort of idyllic, is tinged with melancholy as the two drift further apart – or rather, as Po-Ching joins a larger society and Chen Ching feels left behind. It’s here that Hsieh’s performance is most powerful, as she grapples with the fear of losing Po-Ching or having him grow to resent her for holding him back. Her anxiety is visceral and transcends the narrow scope of this one unique relationship, speaking more broadly to all relationships and the fear of watching your partner go somewhere, whether physically or emotionally, you can’t follow.