Synapses (2019)

There’s something elusively poetic about this dementia drama from Chang Tso-chi that elevates it into rich yet nuanced work about a fractured family’s relational dynamics in flux. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Chang Tso-chi
2019 | Taiwan | Drama | 116 mins | 2.35:1 | Mandarin & Min Nan
NC16 (passed clean) for some mature content and coarse language

Cast: Lu Hsueh-feng, Zhang Xiao-xiong , Li Meng, Li Ying-chuan, Lin Yu-chang
Plot: Junxiong is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and his condition weighs heavily on his wife. His daughter is released from a long prison term and struggles to reconnect with her son and her ex-boyfriend.
Awards: Nom. for Big Screen Award (Rotterdam); Nom. for 4 Golden Horses – Best Director, Best Leading Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Visual Effects
International Sales: Swallow Wings Films

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Family, Relationships, Dementia
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Screener – Singapore Chinese Film Festival 2020
Spoilers: No

Screening at the Singapore Chinese Film Festival 2020 – for more details:

Although not quite getting the buzz of his previous film Thanatos, Drunk (2015), Chang Tso-chi’s follow-up, Synapses, is to me an even more remarkable work. 

There is a transient quality to the storytelling, where instead of dictating narrative flow specifically through structure, he lets ‘flow’ come across naturally in a series of ‘vignettes’ marked by fade-outs. 

These mini-episodes are loose enough to suggest the passing of time and a fractured family’s relational dynamics in flux, yet tight enough as building blocks for a ‘structured’ narrative. 

Synapses is first and foremost a dementia drama, with the grandfather’s failing memory worsening.  His daughter, finally released from prison after six years, comes back to him as a ‘stranger’.  The daughter’s young son, borne out of wedlock, grew up without a mother and sees her as a stranger as well. 

The grandmother tries to hold everyone together, if only barely, and often at the dining table—a location in their old, rustic house that could be a visual metaphor for the rather scientific-sounding film title. 

A synapse is a junction where neurons communicate via signals in the body’s nervous system.  There are many of these in the film, hence the plurality of the title, but they do not always function normally, even as they reveal the urge of families (or strangers) wanting to connect and express their feelings toward each other, warts and all. 

Chang and his actors, all in excellent form, elevate the film into a rich yet nuanced work—there’s something elusively poetic about the director’s approach that recalls the likes of Edward Yang and early Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  If you love introspective and leisurely-paced films, Synapses will prove to be rewarding.

Grade: A-


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