A tangle of modern, melancholic love stories with an international scope…
Writer, director, and editor Rooth Tang’s Sway presents modern love from a perspective in which borders are both crucial and meaningless. It jumps between cities and years without a moment’s notice while simultaneously evaluating the way our lives and our loves are shaped by the very same borders it passes over. Besides a tendency for its loosely defined structure to slip into a confusing narrative shuffle, it is a finely made, compelling, and melancholic examination of relationships in our interconnected world.
As Sway jumps between its three cities, five languages, and nearly ten years, three central love stories take shape. In 2012, Arthur (Matt Wu) and Vivian (Lu Huang) live as expatriates in Paris, he an American writer of Hong Kong descent and she a former actress from Hong Kong. As Arthur’s Visa expiration draws near, the couple debate his choice to return to the States. In Los Angeles during a similar timeframe, an American woman (Kris Wood-Bell) attempts to navigate her status as step-mother to her Japanese husband’s (Kazuhiko Nishimura) daughter from his deceased Japanese first wife. And finally, the third story plays out in the nonlinear, time-hopping, and at times disorienting snippets of one couple’s history in Bangkok across almost a decade.
The actor performances are consistently good throughout, with special mention being deserved by Matt Wu’s Arthur, who brilliantly and effectively conveys the alienation of an immigrant and expatriate trying to find a balance between his lover and what home means to him in a foreign space. Kris Wood-Bell’s Amanda is a powerful counterpoint as a woman who is at home in her country, but still unsure of her place within the new family she has entered into. Tang smartly juxtaposes all of her efforts to become a fitting wife and mother to her new daughter (Miki Ishikawa) – listening to Japanese tapes while she cooks lunches and cleans their home – with the ungratifying and lonely moments she spends alone when the work is done.
Sway plays closer to three separate movies than one cohesive whole. Aside from one short, inconsequential moment, the stories do not intersect. The film’s structure is both a selling point and its greatest potential flaw. Somewhat like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006), the narrative unfolds across time and between countries. However, Sway has the odd habit of only occasionally informing the viewer of the setting of each scene. Tang sets an early precedent by informing the audience of its temporal setting either through title cards or news footage (Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, France’s intervention in Mali in 2013), but then only sporadically uses these devices past the 15-minute mark.
This is not much of a problem when figuring out where we are and who’s there with us, but, especially in the Bangkok story, determining when everything is taking place can be a distracting task. The tumultuous love story between June (Sajee Apiwong) and Palm (Ananda Everingham) unfolds out of order. They meet each other, dream of opening a business, fall from relative wealth to a lower class, and more in a frantic shuffle. The relative linearity of the Paris and L.A. threads make the Bangkok story feel out of place in its unconventionality and turn what would have been an interesting structure for that segment into a chore when thrown into the mix with two other location-hopping, time skipping narratives.
On a cinematic level, Sway is frequently beautiful. The colour palettes shift subtly between segments, from the reds and yellows of Paris to the greens and cooler blues of Bangkok. Dialogues play out in tightly framed, partially obscured close-ups reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai’s gorgeous 2046 (2004). Cold and empty apartments, dark bedrooms, and desolate city streets give shape to the alienation and isolation surrounding these characters.
Much of the film’s lyricism comes from its effecting score by Pakk Hui. Its haunting and elegiac piano calls to mind the work of Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds, whose score for ITV’s Broadchurch (2015) will sound recognizable to viewers of Sway. However, beyond quiet and pensive piano melodies, Hui incorporates more driving pieces and guitar instrumentation that add a welcome variety.
On a technical level, there are few noticeable moments where characters are out-of-focus and a scene in which Arthur and Vivian’s conversation is nearly drowned out by the score. For first-time feature director Tang, these quibbles are not enough to downplay the tremendous achievement of writing, directing, and editing a competent, moving, and beautiful reflection on love and immigration.
Sway‘s writing is at times wonderfully subtle and suggestive, avoiding melodrama. The inner highs and lows of its characters are largely left to be inferred by the audience, and the mystery of what’s going on in their hearts kept me engaged through its occasional meandering moments. A solid movie made on a truly international scale by a relative newcomer, it is a worthwhile watch for anyone interested in keeping up with the rising voices of Asian and American film.