At the center of our story stands an apartment building, fully wrapped in blue tarp. We see many buildings of identical structure, but only this one is covered, isolated from the rest of the neighborhood.
For Pin-Wen (Alyssa Chia) and her teenage daughter Xiao Jing (Gingle Wang), this is just a temporary thing they must live with, as their building goes through renovations. In the meantime, life trudges on. Pin-Wen is a divorced woman, raising her daughter all alone while struggling to keep up with her job. Their relationship, already strained, is only made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And then one day Xiao Jing’s classmate tests positive, forcing her to quarantine at home. Day by day, she begins to notice signs that something is wrong with her mother.
If you come into The Falls having only seen its trailer, you would think writer and director Chung Mong-Hong made a COVID-themed thriller. Though the film does have its moments of unbearable suspense, the marketing is frankly misleading. It calls to mind of audiences reading just the premise of Pig and thinking Nicolas Cage is going to channel John Wick but with a pig instead of a dog.
Instead, Chung uses the pandemic as a springboard to capture a mind setting in our characters. Like some of the best historical dramas that tell a personal story in the backdrop of WWII or the Cold War, The Falls is a portrait of mental illness and familial bonds, particularly how they can rust away if not actively taken care of. What starts as a story of a mother raising her daughter soon transforms into a beautiful, heart-wrenching role-reversal, in which the daughter takes care of her mother, and along the way, becomes a stronger woman.
Fans of Chung’s previous works like the Golden Horse winner A Sun will see his compassion for characters here dialed up to eleven yet distilled to a singular focus. Instead of relying on plot to keep the film moving, Chung creates financial, economic, and social situations for his characters, lead and supporting, to survive in. One of the bigger surprises in The Falls is his sensitivity in giving every minor character a place to be seen and understood. Though this can contribute to the film feeling overlong, I found every person to be a part of a bigger picture. Extra characters, like a hospital patient (Waa Wei), a supermarket manager (A Sun’s Chen Yi-Wen), as well as the father (Lee Lee-zen), who has remarried and is no longer around, are given well-rounded moments and emotional beats.
But none of this would’ve worked without Chia and Wang leading the cast. Chia walks a fine line in portraying Pin-Wen’s mental illness and downward spiral. Lean too hard in one direction and the experience becomes too exploitative. Fortunately, the script avoids showing us every low point, and Chia’s transformation is subtle and presented without judgment. In the beginning, Pin-Wen wakes her daughter up every morning. She nags and calls to her again and again. “It’s time to get up.” “You’re gonna be late for school, and I don’t want to have to give you a ride there because I have work.” To see this hard-working mother go from constantly active to physically and emotionally numb is heartbreaking.
That’s when the daughter decides to step up. Wang takes Xiao Jing and explores every possible obstacle that will test her character and resolve. From the beginning, you will understand her angst, her frustration with the cards dealt to her. She doesn’t get along with her mother, nor does she have a father figure to look up to. She’s annoyed almost all the time. But then you will see the moment on screen when she realizes it’s no longer about her. That very moment changes everything. Wang conveys Xiao Jing’s self-realizations and decision-making with such grace, you will feel like she is a real woman coming of age. I began to see more and more of myself in her, to the point where even something simple like Xiao Jing calling her mother 媽媽 (“mama”) felt too real. The emotional weight behind her voice every time she calls out to her is staggering; it might just be my favorite performance of the year so far.
Shot by Chung himself, every scene in The Falls carries a sense of naturalism and raw intensity. The camera never does anything fancy. It sits still, it pulls in, it pans slowly. More than anything, it’s just a fly on the wall for us. But his attention to detail allows for consistent dread and anticipation to play in every scene. Every mundane task – some of them too relatable during this pandemic, and as an Asian-American – is experienced through a dramatic lens. Examples include close-ups of a boiling pot, shots of the calendar showing the same month or the same day, and most of all, the decision to cover up the apartment building with a blue tarp, isolating it from the rest of the neighborhood.
You can interpret that blue tarp in a couple ways. Look one way and it resembles the masks we have all been wearing for so long, as we grow more distanced with each other literally and figuratively. Look the other way and the blue hue seeps through the living room windows and cascades over our characters like a downpour. The Chinese title of the film, 瀑布, directly translates to “waterfall.” Frankly, it’s the perfect title because The Falls plays like a river. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes it slows down and sometimes it plunges you into torrential waters, but we have to acknowledge both its beauty and its danger.
In a recent interview with TIFF, in light of its premiere at the film festival, Chung joked about how in the making of A Sun, his wife asked if his next film could not involve gang members, bloodshed, or limbs being cut off (that was quite the opening scene from A Sun). He then went on to emphasize that almost every technical and creative decision he made in The Falls was different from his work in A Sun. I am ecstatic to report that not only is The Falls a better film in every way, but Chung should continue making films with his newfound sensibilities. The amount of care he’s put into this small, self-contained yet universal story is remarkable.
The film is two hours long, but you will feel like you’ve been with the characters longer than that. As you spend all that time with this one mother/daughter pair, you are hoping and praying that the film will do right by them. As it progresses, the film quietly ramps up, building towards something, and for so long, I worried that it would build to something awful. After all, the entire film feels like you’re holding your breath.
And then the ending comes and – pardon the pun – it opened the floodgates. It was the exact catharsis I needed at the end. The end credits began, and I picked up my phone and called my mother.
The Falls is a film that completely swept me away. It will break but touch your heart; the raw empathy for every character on screen is astounding. Not only did I want to watch it again the second it was over, but I told my mother that we need to watch this film together. Carried by two beautiful lead performances and a director whose compassion is limitless, The Falls is, without a doubt, one of the best films of the year.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. The Falls is currently seeking U.S. distribution.