NYAFF Review: Honey Pupu


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

It didn’t take me long to realize that I had no idea what was going on in Honey Pupu. Soon after I realized I was probably never going to know, and maybe that I wasn’t supposed to know. Perhaps all of the weirdness was meant to be offputting, to force me to think about whatever it was I was watching. Could be that the filmmakers were trying to tell me something. I have no idea.

Problem is, even though I had realized I had no idea and would continue to have no idea, I was never able to accept it.

Honey Pupu (消失打看)
Director: Hung-I Chen
Rating: NR
Country: Taiwan 

Honey Pupu isn’t really about anything in particular. There are characters in it, but only one of them actually has a goal. So even though there are events that take place, and some of the characters do some things, there’s no actual progression of any kind. And I can’t tell if it’s intentional. Ever since the credits rolled, I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s supposed to be a narrative somewhere that I completely missed, or if it’s actually a non-narrative film. If it’s the latter, I really wish someone would have told me.

In lieu of a plot, Honey Pupu focuses on world-building, but I don’t know how well it does that, because I was confused right from the beginning. I’m pretty sure that the takes place in an alternate timeline. There are just things about it that seem slightly near-future and then there are other aspects that seem like they’re from the recent-past, so I feel like it’s a different near-future based on the recent-past. But I could be wrong. Maybe that’s just what Taiwan is like and it’s some weird time-capsule of a country. But that doesn’t seem right to me. Honey Pupu feels like it was between five and ten years ago. Everyone uses Windows XP, every photograph looks like it was shot on Polaroid, and the primary social network is a weird amalgamation of Twitter and a beehive.

That social network is probably the most important part of this universe. All of the main characters, who are in their late teens/early 20s, go by online names rather than real ones, and the film periodically reverts to conversations taking place over this social network. It’s a strange system, and one that, like most things, I didn’t understand. Sometimes they were clearly mass messages, updates that put philosophic ideals or general musings, but other times they were direct messages from one character to another. However, there was no change in interface (or anything), so I couldn’t tell if they were supposed to be private or not.

Honey Pupu Taiwan

As far as the characters go, they’re just kind of there. They do things and talk about things, but nobody actually has a purpose. I wonder what their lives were like before Honey Pupu, but I don’t really think they had them. Even though some characters talk about the past (and there are a few flashbacks), they seem to have been fabricated for the purpose of giving a single character an actual story. Most of the main players simply appeared when the camera started rolling and then probably disappeared when it turned off. 

Perhaps that’s fitting, because that’s what Honey Pupu seems to be about: disappearance. The bees are disappearing, characters are disappearing, everything is disappearing. Going into the nothingness. Problem is, I don’t know what the film is trying to tell me about disappearance. They’re just words and ideas that are thrown out there without any kind of analysis. A poem about disappearance is repeated a number of times, but it doesn’t actually mean anything.

I would be remiss not to mention how weird Honey Pupu looks. The most visual quirk is the film’s generally overexposed look. Whites are far too bright and when light comes in through windows it’s difficult to look away. It doesn’t ruin the experience by any means, but it’s an interesting choice, and it makes things seem very stark, at least during the day, which is in line with most near-future universes. At night things are definitely less blown out, but that doesn’t seem like an actual decision so much as a lack of extreme lighting.

Honey Pupu Taiwan

But then there’s the random use of VFX. The first time a weird filter was placed over a scene I thought that it would be some sort of meaningful thing. Maybe it was a dream or a hallucination. Maybe that would be a recurring effect that meant something. But no, it’s only used once, and given no apparent meaning. It just happens. And then a different effect comes along and does something weird. Sometimes they’re cool effects and sometimes they’re just annoying, but they always come without warning or context. It’s as if the editor found a bunch of VFX tutorials and wanted to try them out.

I know I’ve repeated myself a lot here. “I don’t understand” this or that “is meaningless,” but I can’t help it. What I wrote in the introduction was something that was playing in my head while I was watching. I was trying to will myself to accept that it didn’t make sense (or perhaps it’s just too deep for my puny little brain), but I couldn’t. When the end came, I was just as confused as I had been from the outset. I got nothing from watching Honey Pupu. Nothing whatsoever.

That being said, I don’t know that I could call Honey Pupu “bad.” Whether it’s actually an experimental film or not, it’s definitely an experiment. A failed experiment, sure, but at least it’s doing something different. I can’t think of another movie quite like it, and I think there should be another try. Someone should take Honey Pupu, remove all of the nonsense and fill it with some real meaning. Make the characters and the world seem natural and real. That movie could be amazing.

This one is not.

[Honey Pupu will be playing at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on Thursday, June 5th at 1:30 PM and again on Sunday, June 8th at 10:30 PM.]