Public Toilet
Hong Kong 2003
Directed by Fruit Chan.

Let's face it: Anyone who has seen a sufficient quantity of Hong Kong movies over a period of time will come to notice an almost overeager tendency of those films to display characters in various states and whenever possible discharging bodily effluvia. Fruit Chan's PUBLIC TOILET takes this inclination to its ultimate destination: I shit, therefore I am...

The main character in PUBLIC TOILET is a young man named "God of Toilets," so called because his mother found him in a public toilet one day and took him home. Actually, physically, in the toilet. A wooden, outhouse sort of toilet filled at the bottom with urine and crap. She pulls a baby out, and "God of Toilets" is born. Now she's old, on her death bed, and the young man goes in search of a miracle cure.

There are a number of other characters in the film, but they all follow pretty much the same pattern. Half the characters are terminally ill, the other half seeking a cure. And weaving through every story, are the toilets. Like the Zen poem about looking at the same moon as someone else, though you are continents apart, PUBLIC TOILET seems to unite us with our effluvia, wallowing in it like a pig and saying, "what's the problem? It is part of who we are." And before long, the story goes global.

In Korea, a young fisherman finds a woman in the water, who has no bone structure. He takes her to some doctors to see what the trouble is, in the meantime, she lives in his portajohn and eats matter for its nutritional value.

In New York, a young hit man (Sam Lee) tries one last job. Two seconds to guess where the hit is to take place and if you haven't said "public toilet" yet, you haven't been paying attention.

Finally, the film shifts to India, where pilgrims bathe in the Ganges river, perhaps best described as the largest, filthiest public urinal in the world.

"God of Toilets" is born in the toilet, likewise someone eventually dies there. Going back to the public toilet is almost like going back to the womb. At death, the long tunnel leading to the light is your intestine, flecs of fecal matter slowing down your journey to the afterlife.

But enough. The problem with PUBLIC TOILET, and it's a big one, is that the film is just sort of nauseating to watch. It is interesting, and funny, and as usual he pulls real performances out of his non-actors, but all those filthy bathrooms, everywhere, relentlessly appearing, eventually becomes overwhelming. And the point of the exercise, increasingly elusive.

PUBLIC TOILET was shot on digital video, but instead of the cheap, home video look typical of the format, director Fruit Chan is able to make use of the technology effectively and create an intriguing, oversaturated look for the film. The scenes shot in India are the highlight of the film, capturing the sights and sounds of a city beside the Ganges.

There is a sense of dislocation that many of the characters share. One is an Italian, born and raised in Beijing. He returns to Italy because he "doesn't want to be an Italian that doesn't know anything about Italy." Two Indian brothers from Hong Kong feel like foreigners in both Hong Kong and their native India. The boneless woman from the sea, emerging onto dry land but not really belonging there. And finally, "God of Toilets," emerging from the toilet, and one day hoping to return. We are shot out of our mother's womb like shit from a tightened sphincter, to float lonely and confused around the toilet globe of life, waiting for that last flush.

This movie is just ridiculous. How can you take it seriously? My advice: the perfect movie to slap into a portable DVD player and take with you next time you sit on the can.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on November 07, 2004.

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