Taiwan enjoys a mix of religions that often make strange bedfellows. An obsession with winning prizes (often useless), in everything from game shows to market fairs, dovetails neatly to religious observances that are spiritually little more developed than collecting the Taiwanese equivalent of fortune cookies. God Man Dog takes multiple story lines, resolving them by little more than chance, then subtly feeding them back to us as a potential morality tale.
A sign on a post is translated in the subtitles as, "The Kingdom of Heaven is near." The predominant religions of Taiwan are Buddhism and Taoism, with a colourful mix of folk beliefs added to the pot. So a contextual reading might suggest classical Buddhist interpretation where enlightenment is found within one's own being, and without intermediary. Yet such traditional ideas of stillness and tranquillity are found, not in the temples of Taiwan, as much as a Taipei lakeside resort, where they are enthusiastically marketed in a very material way to the super-rich.
The phrase 'kingdom of heaven' is, of course, strongly associated with Christianity, which has a small following in Taiwan. We follow a man who is trying to adjure drunkenness. The Christian teacher (holding an AA meeting in a church) promises him that it will work if he prays hard enough and believes. He does. Pray hard. Believe hard. His mindset is similar to many we see following other religions going through the motions with great intensity. He believes his heart is in it, poor man. So next time he gets drunk he curses Christianity as ineffective, swinging back and forth.
Taipei is a bustling city of many layers. Just not one that we recognise easily. A street kid survives by always winning food-eating contests. His abilities seem almost supernatural an image he maybe fosters by making himself mysterious. Two teenage girls from different backgrounds go on a rampage after one loses faith in her career as a boxer and the other decides there are easier ways to make money than posing in glamour photos. Tying up and blindfolding would-be domination-lovers, for instance.
A middle class couple lose a baby. She is distraught and turns to Christianity for support. Her husband fails to realise how his obsession with work means he is not communicating to her the love that he feels. He sticks his neck out, juggling things to get a few days off with her, but still misses the point. "Is this what you call taking time off for me?" she screams at him - as he takes calls from the office on his mobile phone.
A one legged-man seems more 'devout' than most, mending religious artefacts and talking to them as he does. He just wants to get enough money for a new artificial limb (The old one is worn out.) His moral code is that of a decent-minded peasant, the honest workman.
The climax of our film involves an incident with a dog, and a gigantic statue being stranded on a mountainside as the delivery truck runs out of fuel. The viewer is able to see how the mysterious principles underlying the main protagonists' religions somehow work out for them, even if imperfectly. There are no great spiritual truths other than those we wish to adduce to the tales. The good fortune experienced could equally be down to a scriptwriter or a dog.
God Man Dog opens up a culture that is too rarely seen by Western eyes. Any palindromic metaphor is diegetic rather than mystical, and a great deal of patience is needed to soak up characters that are more engaging in retrospect than they can seem at the time. With such provisos, it is a charming and worthwhile festival film.
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1 hr 58 min