The Falls REVIEW – An Aesthetic Tonal Twister

Netflix has some underrated gems, and The Falls is one of them.

The Falls
The Falls

Because the world still prattles on in the throes of the pandemic, there’s a natural inclination for some audiences to avoid watching films set during the COVID-19 crisis. Do we really want to spend our free time consuming content where this crisis crosses over into fiction? Fortunately, films like the Taiwanese coming-of-age drama The Falls find a way to approach the topic in a palatable way.

Set during the initial outbreak, a mother and daughter are forced to quarantine together for two weeks after being exposed to COVID-19. Tensions escalate as Pin-wen (Alyssa Chia) engages in increasingly alarming behavior and paranoia, which upends the lives of both Pin-wen and her teenage daughter Xiao Jing (Gingle Wang).

Director, writer, and cinematographer Mong-Hong Chung’s film taps into the pandemic’s visible toll; mask-wearing, social distancing, etc. The Falls also unveils the invisible toll COVID-19 wreaks on human mental and physical well-being. Xiao Jing watches her mother’s mental health deteriorate in front of her eyes during their two-week quarantine. Chung threads the pandemic into the story organically. I felt I was watching an authentic reaction to how the crisis has affected the lives of so many people. And like The Falls shows so splendidly, we are forced to confront both the best and worst of ourselves during isolated periods.

Because the classmate who contracted the virus sat directly behind Xiao Jing at school, she locked herself in her room as much as possible during the initial quarantine period so as to not infect her mother. Mother and daughter have trite conversations and arguments. The audience first views Xiao Jing as petulant or even insolent to her single-parent forced to take a leave of absence from work. To make quarantine worse for Pin-wen, a blue tarp draped over the complex for renovations blocks out the world outside their quiet purgatory. The duo are trapped inside a comfortable apartment and an uncomfortable reality.

We’ve witnessed first-hand how the pandemic has inflicted trauma and impacted mental health. Alyssa Cia and Gingle Wang’s performances convey the films’ themes with veritable sincerity. Isolation inside an apartment building with only her distant daughter exacerbates Pin-wen’s loneliness. The two share awkward dinners and Xiao Jing slips a note under her locked bedroom door telling her mother to stay away. We see the usual mother and daughter disconnect during the teenage years. However, their estrangement impacts Pin-en more severely since they only have each other in quarantine and her only child refuses to spend time with her.

Additionally, due to the tarp outside, the reflection bathes their home in a melancholic blue color dousing any natural light. The tarp and its interior lighting effects work as a spectacular tonal metaphor for Pin-wen’s mental state throughout the film. Pin-wen went through divorce and job pay cuts before the pandemic. Now, she has nothing to do but reflect on the tragedies that have befallen her. Again, the film brandishes a clear viewpoint on the virus’s influence: Pin-wen’s psychological struggles worsen while in quarantine.

As soon as Chung’s cinematography – centered shots seeming to perpetually zoom-in as if the camera is slowly creeping forward with extreme caution – starts to hint at Pin-Wen’s neurosis, light-heartedness falls away. Lulling piano music à la Studio Ghibli is abruptly whisked away when foreboding string music dominates quietly intense confrontations. The Falls pinballs around through shifting tones, always leaving audiences in suspense. These shifts reminded me of how Parasite (2019) began as one film and ended as something else entirely. Chung’s film takes it one step further, where the mood swings like a pendulum, even up to the very last second. Audiences will have no idea what immersive drama awaits from merely reading the film’s synopsis.

The Falls is not without its critiques: The two-hour runtime can be felt at one point and some conflicts seem to find conveniently quick solutions. However, the resulting aesthetic sensibilities and engaging narrative unite in a vigorous synergy that captivates the whole way through. Despite wearing masks for a large portion of the film, the actors still manage to impart emotion through mesmerising eye contact and vocal inflections, Chung has a singular vision here, one that empathetically probes the heart of its flawed characters and their confined world.

Don’t let this new Netflix release fly under the radar.

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The Falls
Anchored by phenomenal acting, The Falls is a nuanced pandemic-set film, with tonal shifts that offer surprises at every turn.