Directed by Tsai Tsai/ Reviewed by Prarthana Mitra
A Bullet – Sam’s Confession is Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Tsai’s latest short film centred around two young men, one of whom has been falsely charged and incarcerated, charting a story of transformation that they help bring about in each other. Their relationship, which is the crux of the film, is thus mutually symbiotic and thrives in an environment generally represented as hostile in most films. In a ‘to be continued’ fashion, Tsai closes his film with a moment of suspense, but even without the sequel, there is a lot to unpack in the nine-minute dialogue exercise.
A Bullet… opens with light-hearted banter between Sam and Vito (portrayed by Le-Cheng Yu and Bing-Hua Wu), inside a jail cell filtered by benedictory daylight. They proceed to philosophise extensively about sunshine and nature later, wistful about the world beyond their imprisoned existence. Tsai goes to great lengths to depict their otherwise-grey world with a muted colour palette, and restricting the scenes and his characters within four walls. The mise-en-scene lays out the internal psyche of the two characters quite effectively through pristine cinematography, static shots and minimalist production design.
As far as the narrative goes, Sam finds himself in this predicament because of his alleged involvement with a gang-related fraud case, but as we learn later, he is merely a scapegoat who confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. Incidentally, “Confessing Sam” is the term in criminal psychology for a person who makes a false confession after a particularly widely publicised crime has taken place. Determined to mend his ways, he looks at his sentence as an opportunity to reform himself. As he converses with Vito, who is scheduled to be released the very day, there is a note of acceptance as he embraces this solitary confinement, and we see both men using this time to build themselves as upstanding citizens for life post-release.
Aspects of their characters and background make themselves apparent as we watch – like a fly on the wall – their lives in prison unfold. They tease each other for glancing at their image in the mirror too much, they read and make their beds, but mostly, they talk about the uncertainties that freedom holds for them. We learn Vito has already one and a half years of his sentence, when Sam quizzically comments on the calmness he emanates. We gradually learn about his life before any of this, and present dreams of becoming a cabbie and reconnecting with his daughter. Vito urges Sam to introspect on his life and decisions, telling him to mend his lifestyle, habits and work towards a goal for the ‘good life’ after release, after he has left.
The dialogue is simple, matter-of-fact, evoking the right sentiments without being overly morbid or philosophical. The film also offers a sombre picture of how political developments and government policies affect Taiwan’s vulnerable populations, like those incarcerated and unemployed. The cliff-hanger in the end – an off-camera gunshot – does seem to interrupt the flow of this excellent character study, but it seems like Tsai intended this effect and planned for it. In fact, it should not come as a surprise at all, since the movie is called “A Bullet.” How it relates to “Sam’s Confession”, however, remains to be seen. Overall, the film impresses with its simple and linear storyline, solid performances, strong direction, and socially relevant script, not to mention it is tastefully and aesthetically shot.