You really like roses.
On first blush, Wi Ding Ho‘s (co-written by Natasha Kang-Hsin Sung) Terrorizers looks like a love story six years in the making. That’s when a young, blonde-haired dishwasher named Xiao Zhang (J.C. Lin) gave roses to a pretty girl named Yu Fang (Moon Lee). Now he’s returned from sailing abroad as a chef, reconnecting with his uncle for breakfast before starting his new job at a local restaurant. She just so happens to be working at the diner they visit. While Xiao knows exactly who she is due to the crush he’s harbored ever since those roses, Yu Fang does not (maybe because his hair is black now, maybe for different reasons). He doesn’t give up, though. He sees her again, jogs her memory, and soon they’re together.
They talk about their future and always being there when the other needs them most. This is crucial for Yu Fang since she feels like everyone who ever loved her left. Her mother disappeared when she was a child and her father is currently in the process of doing the same by marrying his pregnant secretary and moving to further his political career. Yu refuses his invitation to join them. This city is home and she’d inevitably feel abandoned either way. As Xiao talks about moving in with each other, however, she still can’t help being skeptical despite his obvious devotion. So when tragedy strikes in the form of a violent, sword-slashing incident at the train station, he proves his unwavering love by sacrificing himself to save her.
It’s a story that usually fills up a film’s entire run-time by itself with romance, suspense, and a melancholic climax satisfying all viewers. Yet it’s only the first twenty or so minutes of Terrorizers. It’s chapter number one. There are still three more to go including three characters we’ve yet to fully meet: Po-Hung Lin‘s Ming Liang, Annie Chen‘s Monica, and Ai-Ning Yao‘s Kiki. Ho and Sung use this trio to dive deeper into that opening act to reveal how nothing was quite as it seemed. Some scenes were truncated while others were omitted completely. Some events were set-up for us to presume one thing despite proving something vastly different. The filmmakers ostensibly chopped up their plot to manipulate their courtship before rewinding to fill in the blanks.
That’s not to say the romance isn’t real. Just because the progression of Yu and Xiao’s love was excised from the complexity of the world surrounding them doesn’t mean they didn’t fall for each other exactly how we’re shown. The difference lies in context. It lies in meeting Ming Liang: the son of Yu Fang’s father’s political benefactor and their roommate with whom she barely speaks. He’s under the sociopathic idea that she’s his girlfriend regardless. Living in a virtual world of videogames and a charmed life of getting what he wants courtesy of Dad’s money has him losing his grip on reality. And that’s before catching a glimpse of Monica while spying on Yu. The women share the same acting troupe, but he recognizes her from elsewhere.
Monica was a viral sensation thanks to a porn video her ex-boyfriend produced and can’t shake that past while trying to become a “real” actor. Ming falls for her even though they’ve never met. The stalking gets more intense as his brazenness grows darker with every new twist and turn in her tumultuous life (she’s the focus of chapter number two). What he sees ultimately refocuses the timeline of Yu’s prior chapter before both receive more clarity through the next. Because, while chapter three is Ming’s, it really exists to introduce Kiki as more than the waitress daughter of Xiao’s bosses. She’s a teenage cosplayer who likes Ming and knows how to use her looks and flirtations to influence men that adore her. The lust connections keep multiplying.
So do the horrors of what’s happening—just not as you might expect. For one: Ming Liang is a bad dude. He’s a creeper with violent tendencies who doesn’t appreciate privacy as a concept. And yet, through Kiki and a supporting player in Lady Hsiao’s masseuse (Ning Ding), Ho and Sung appear to want us to sympathize with him. It’s a bit worrisome at first because knowing what we know about where his character is heading (courtesy of chapter one), supplying him any benefit of the doubt is impossible. If he does something nice, it’s not seen as altruistic to us even if it does to those he helps. We consider him a monster unworthy of trust and the filmmakers capitalize by turning perception into the real enemy.
They use Ming Liang both as a voyeur into Yu Fang and Monica’s private lives and as irrefutable evidence of a failed system of accountability that spans the legal and media fronts. Not only does he have the means to manipulate law enforcement due to his financial connections, but he can also shape the press’ narrative simply by existing as a man in a patriarchal society. Just like the opening feels like a fairy tale love story, his role within it feels like that of an archvillain no one could ever see as anything but a criminal who deserves to be locked up for the rest of his life. What he knows (and what he’s shown us), however, has the potential of swaying public opinion to his side.
The film uses the inherent misogyny of its circumstances to expose it. There’s a reason the camera lingers on Lee, Chen, and Yao’s devastating responses to being objectified and assaulted. Ho and Sung want us to acknowledge the human cost of rape culture both in the moment and afterwards when the damaging, knee-jerk perception that sadly creates victim-blaming becomes more important than actual facts. They take us to uncomfortable places by showing how easily we jump to conclusions when we’re without the full picture. And they force us to confront the reality that the full picture doesn’t always mean our conclusion was wrong. Monsters can sometimes stumble into heroics while remaining monsters. Love can sometimes be blind and yet hold true. Every story possesses an agenda.
courtesy of TIFF