TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Wi Ding Ho’s Terrorizers is organized around a scene that’s as lurid and sensationalistic as the film’s title. A hooded, black-clad man charges through a crowded Taipei train station. He has murder in his eyes and a glinting katana sword in his hands. He ignores everyone around him, targeting a young woman who’s obliviously listening to music through a pair of chunky, noise-canceling headphones. Only the last-second intervention of her male companion prevents the would-be victim from being hacked to pieces. Her brave but hapless rescuer is brutally slashed and left for dead before the attacker flees the scene.
Terrorizers isn’t a Hollywood movie, but it’s easy enough to imagine how an American studio film might handle a moment like this one. Maybe it’s the blood-spattered climax of a slow-burn, Joker-esque descent into madness. Perhaps it’s the inciting incident that touches off a three-act arc of revenge and/or redemption. Or it’s the focus of a police procedural in which harried cops struggle to track down the mad slasher before he strikes again.
“He has murder in his eyes and a glinting katana sword in his hands…”
Here, though, it’s none of those things. The incident happens within the first half-hour of the film, it’s largely displaced and forgotten about for long stretches thereafter, and it serves as neither a catalyst nor a catharsis in any conventional narrative sense. It’s true that this scene ties Terrorizers‘ ensemble of characters together, in direct and indirect ways, more than any other in the film; otherwise, though, it’s just one more story beat in Ho’s multilayered, chronologically fractured drama.
To ultimately minimize the train-station slashing is a key to what differentiates Terrorizers‘ approach. Jumping around in time and shifting the film’s perspective from character to character, Ho chronicles the lead-up to and aftermath of that violent act, illuminating those characters’ personalities and pent-up struggles piece-by-piece. This is a film that’s concerned not with bloodshed, but rather with small, careful moments of characterization: spoken and unspoken desires made manifest, choices that seem wrong only in hindsight, and violations both intentional and not so.
The five central characters are all young adults at various rungs on Taipei’s socioeconomic ladder. Yu Fang (Moon Lee) is the soft-spoken, romantically ambivalent daughter of a politician who’s climbing his way through the ranks of local government. Ming Liang (Austin Lin), who rents a room in Yu Fang’s father’s home, is the alienated, antisocial scion of a wealthy family who wants little to do with him. Ming Liang (J.C. Lin) is a kindhearted aspiring restauranteur who’s harbored a longtime crush on Yu Fang; he’s employed as a chef in the same cafe where bubbly, mischievous Kiki (Yao Ai-Ning) works the counter and dreams of being a world-famous cosplayer. Rounding out the film’s quintet of POV characters is Monica (Annie Chen), a student in Yu Fang’s acting class who’s trying to get out from under the shadow of the amateur porn career her ex-boyfriend David (Shang-Ho Huang) talked her into.
"…feels like a major work from an exceptional cinematic storyteller..."