“THE TASTE OF THE BETEL NUT”
Two Polyamorous Men
“The Taste of Betel Nut” is a dialogue-free Chinese film that questions the status quo in this story of two polyamorous men in a relationship. They invite a woman to join them which changes their dynamics and lets the three of them thrive and receive criticism from everyone around them. Shen Shi Yu and Bingrui Zhao play Li Qi and Ren Yu, the two men. They decide to test the limits of the restrictive society that they live in when they become romantically involved with a young woman.
Li Qi works at a dolphin show and his friend Ren Yu runs a popular mobile karaoke event. A young woman Bai Ling hooks up with both of them and they are all rocked to the very core of their beings.
The film begins as classic crime story set by the seaside with the camera following a character who kills a bunch of gangsters. The entire movie is based on a retrospective that explains the initial slaughter of few bad guys who were just having dinner in a garage. The film seems to be an excuse to show the two main characters in action.
The story revolves around Li Qi, a young man who works with dolphins and seals at the ocean adventure park in Hainan Island. He and Ren Yu are roommates and part-time lovers. They have created their own private place, with makeshift porch by the water facing sandstone hills. From time to time the view is disrupted by a sudden explosion that piece-by-piece destroys the hills, as if there was some danger approaching the utopia, shaking it to the ground. As vacation starts, Li Qi and Ren Yu meet, Bai Ling, a young girl visiting family during the school break.
The three characters become more and more fascinated and drawn to each other. One night they try betel nut and it brings about sexual revolution and experimentation that leads to a tragic end. The young trio is bold and nothing is left to the viewer’s imagination. The film is rebellious with the body being objectified and sexualized in many scenes of peeping while Ren Yu takes a shower and with shots of overly tight underwear emphasized by the camera for no specific reason. Both situations don’t have any purpose in the narrative. It’s truly hard to take the eyes off of Ren Yu who builds up his own separate character in the most charismatic way – he portrays the provincial entertainer and gigolo, whose ambitions don’t match up with the reality surrounding him.
The location is just as important as characters. Hainan Island is promoted to be the “Hawaii of China”, the perfect summer resort with golf courses, sandy beaches, exclusive hotels and selected elites. Nevertheless, the postcard cannot look so flawless in China and that’s its beauty. Coastal areas are full of run down seafood restaurants, makeshift karaoke, illegal street food vendors, petty gangs and older ladies on holidays. Director Hu Jia was trying to get into the spring breakers spirit and is very successfully especially in the scene, where trio goes up to the mountains to attend the wedding of a friend who comes from an ethnic minority. The direction gets inspiration from the location that seems to counter the homogenizing demands of consumerism but at the same time it promotes ethnic culture as a commodity that serves the industry of tourism and shows the betel nut as instant enlightenment and liberation.
Unfortunately, the editing needs work. Fading in and fading out to black screen creates disruptions in the narrative. Perhaps this was supposed to create the feeling of danger and uncertainty but it turned out pretentious, especially when looking at other editing tools that are used in a simplistic way like the cross-fade in the threesome scene.
Yet the film proves to be an interesting reflection on 90’s Chinese pop culture but pop cultural self-awareness and references to film history get lost. The movie is mostly quotidian atmosphere. We get few clues as to what is happening when. And why. Like what’s going on with the guy walking in the ocean? Periodically, we get underwater shots of his legs. Is something going to happen to him?
We see the back-and-forth of the love/sex triangle. Bai Ling wants to be Ren Yu’s girlfriend, he says no, she kisses Qi, then runs off and kisses Ren Yu passionately. She’s about to leave for school again when she and Ren Yu go missing. The cops show Qi footage from a security camera on a bridge: eight motorcyclists, including Blondie, force them to stop, beat Ren Yu unconscious, and take Bai Ling away. Ren Yu winds up in a coma; Bai Ling’s naked, bound and beaten body washes up on the beach. It’s horrifying. It’s suddenly just horrifying. But now we know why the blood at the beginning.
The ending is ambiguous. Qi is walking toward their rooftop apartment, through the billowing, drying sheets on the clothesline, and sees a young man with a shaved head (and scars there, as if beaten there) staring out at the water. The young man turns and smiles. It’s Ren Yu. Alive? Or is this just Qi’s wish? Or is Qi dead now, too, attacked by the gang after he killed Blondie, and this is a kind of wishful afterlife? Ren Yu is welcoming him to heaven. I could have done less mood and more about the characters and some dialogue.