“Taipei Suicide Story”: Breaking the Camel’s Back
A lone receptionist stands behind his desk. At all times, he maintains a demeanor that is equal parts serious, bored, and annoyed. He keeps his desk neat, and though the hotel is clean and modern, he doesn’t consider his job particularly glamorous. Day in and day out, he checks people into the hotel. The next day, he even checks a few of them out. Most, however, don’t leave through the front entrance. Instead, they exit through an internal elevator that descends into the bowels of the hotel. Zipped in clean white body bags, these guests (or former guests) are escorted to their final destinations by a team of men and women in hazmat gear.
All this sounds like the beginnings of a horror flick, but we quickly realize that “Taipei Suicide Story” (directed by KEFF) takes place a world away from the haunted locales of the genre. The setting of the film is a suicide hotel. There is no vengeful ghost, nor is there a rampant murderer. Instead, the space is populated by the hopeless, the uncertain, the devastated and tragic, there to decide whether or not they think their lives are worth continuing. The film saturates this terminal space with a certain stillness. Shots linger, tight compositions hold characters in place—almost as if the composition itself were fossilizing them in amber—and conversations stretch on, the vacuums between words seemingly expanding with every breath. While I sometimes found the slow pacing and controlled composition of the film to be a bit self-indulgent (and for the latter, a bit claustrophobic), its 45 minute runtime kept it from feeling too long for itself.
The plot is fairly simple. We follow the receptionist, played by Tender Huang, and the brief intersection of his life with the life of a hotel guest, played by Vivian Sung. The two meet when the receptionist confronts the guest for breaking the hotel’s one-night-stay policy. She quietly tells him that she came with the intent of dying. But something happened. For the first time in her life—surrounded by those who were just like her— she didn’t feel truly alone. After that, she didn’t need to die, not in the same way she did before. The receptionist brusquely tells her that one way or another, dead or alive, she will need to be gone by tomorrow, and the two part. Shortly after their abrasive initial encounter, the two run into each other and reconcile. They even begin to develop a fondness for each other. Yet time continues to cascade forward, into the night of her decision, towards a precipice whose beyond we can’t quite make out.
It’s hard to write more about the film without giving too much away. Perhaps I’ve already said too much. It’s a testament to the film’s focus that it maintains such a controlled narrative, and a testament to the film’s sensitivity that it renders this narrative so achingly.
The film also contains a certain unexpected humor. Workers transporting cadavers scroll on their phones, looking as bored as any worker doing any menial task for the umpteenth time, the receptionist rants about the disappointments of life to his newfound friend at the forking path of suicide. It’s a perverse humor, grounded in the juxtaposition of the incomprehensibly tragic with commodity, labor, the grind of the workweek (Mondays, am I right?). A humor that comes from the perversity of witnessing the banal alongside the sacred and profane. But it doesn’t take much of a leap to realize that this juxtaposition isn’t alien to most of us. Rather, it’s one that we find in our lives whenever we ignore the suffering of others, whenever we’re willingly blind to pain because opening ourselves to it feels too overwhelming, too much for our own day-to-day.
At heart, the film can be read as a question. How, it asks, is one to live in a world saturated by suffering without cutting oneself off from it? As necessary as human connection is, it also opens us up to unknown seas of torment. Some wall themselves off from it in the hopes that they’ll be spared, only to find that they’re lost in the deep woods of loneliness, solipsism, isolation. Others open themselves up, and are broken by its crushing waves.
The French philosopher and author Camus wrote that “there is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” The film seems to tell us that though we may try to ignore this question in bad faith, there will come a day where we must choose between unflinchingly confronting it, or retreating from our own humanity.
Rating: 4 / 5
Taipei Suicide Story was covered as part of this year’s 2021 Slamdance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize & Audience Award for Narrative Feature and Acting Award for Tender Huang.