Movie Review: The Taste of Betel Nut (2017)
Have I ever seen a revenge tale in which the revenge comes first? In “The Accused” we see the crime at the end, rather than the beginning, but that one’s hardly a revenge tale in the traditional sense. Jodie doesn’t take the law into her own hands; she gets a lawyer.
Here we see the revenge first. Li Qi (Yu Shen Shi) is a gentle man who works with dolphins and seals at a small Sea World-type show in Hainan, China. We watch him wordlessly go through his paces. Now he feeds the critters; now he puts on clown makeup; now he takes it off like Glenn Close in “Dangerous Liaisons.” It’s nighttime and he gazes at the ocean. What is he thinking? There’s viritually no dialogue. Then it’s daytime and we watch him follow a fat man with dyed blonde hair from a crowded marketplace to a broken-down area where Blondie hangs with peers and chickens. Qi hangs back with ... is that a steel pipe in his hand? Or a long knife? When Blondie goes to investigate a squawking rooster, Qi makes a move.
At this point, director Hu Jia cuts the action and the screen goes dark for a second. When it returns, Qi’s face is covered with Blondie’s blood. No more clown makeup.
That’s the act of revenge. The rest of the movie is why it was necessary.
I didn’t much like “The Taste of Betel Nut,” by the way. The lack of dialogue at the beginning? That’s throughout. The movie is mostly quotidian atmosphere. We get few clues as to what is happening when. And why. Like what’s going on with the guy walking in the ocean? Periodically, we get underwater shots of his legs. Is something going to happen to him? Is he the reason for the revenge? Only later do we realize these are like chapter breaks—but why underwater shots, and why of a man’s legs, I have no clue.
The story comes by and by. Qi lives with Ren Yu (Zhao Bingrui), a brash, handsome, generally half-naked kid who runs a karaoke biz on the beach at night. He’s told he looks like Leslie Cheung, the movie star, and he kind of does: full lips, lidded eyes. He’s also generally irresponsible. Qi quietly plays the wife role in their relationship.
Into their little community comes Bai Ling (Yue Yue), the daughter of the woman who serves meals on the beach at night. Qi kind of lights up around her, she kind of lights up around Ren Yu. Classic love triangle. Does she know about Qi and Ren Yu? That they’re a kind of couple? One night, after a wedding, the three get drunk, chew betel nut, whose properties, they’re told, make your body tingle and make it tough to breathe. “Like love,” Bai Ling says. Afterwards the three have their threeway.
In the aftermath, for a day or so, it’s awkward. Then Bai Ling suggests an adventure, and they take a boat to get lunch. At the bar, while the boys are outside, a group of jerks, including Blondie, come on to her with crude comments, and she tosses a cup of tea into Blondie’s face. He’s about to slug her when Ren Yu breaks a bottle over his head, and off they all run, chased by eight or nine jerks. They get away. But because of the opening, we know they’ll return. We know something bad will happen.
While we’re waiting for it, we get the back-and-forth of the love/sex triangle. Bai Ling wants to be Ren Yu’s girlfriend, he says no, she kisses Qi, then runs off and kisses Ren Yu passionately. She’s about to leave for school again when she and Ren Yu go missing. The cops show Qi footage from a security camera on a bridge: eight motorcyclists, including Blondie, force them to stop, beat Ren Yu unconscious, and take Bai Ling away. Ren Yu winds up in a coma; Bai Ling’s naked, bound and beaten body washes up on the beach. It’s horrifying. It's suddenly just horrifying. But now we know why the blood at the beginning.
The ending is ambiguous. Qi is walking toward their rooftop apartment, through the billowing, drying sheets on the clothesline, and sees a young man with a shaved head (and scars there, as if beaten there) staring out at the water. The young man turns and smiles. It’s Ren Yu. Alive? Or is this just Qi's wish? Or is Qi dead now, too, attacked by the gang after he killed Blondie, and this is a kind of wishful afterlife? Ren Yu is welcoming him to heaven.
Again, I can’t really recommend “Betel Nut.” I wanted less mood, more character. Or more interesting characters. I wanted some fucking dialogue.
But placing the act of revenge at the beginning of the movie was well done. It’s almost as if we don’t get the revenge. The images that linger are the crimes, so horrific and needless.