(Taiwan 2020; Dir: Che-Hsien Su)

Nine Shots

Shameful verdict on a gravestone

review by Līga Požarska

Nine Shots

length: 15

year of production: 2020

country of production: Taiwan

director: Che-Hsien Su

production: Jyun-syuan Lai

director of photography: Kao Tzu Hao

cast: Shao-cian Lin, Wei-hsien Chen

festivals: Vienna Shorts 2020, SXSW 2020, Kaohsiung Film Festival 2019

© images: Nine Shots (Che-Hsien Su)

Hatred is not accidental and nine fired shots are not self-defence. That’s how a Taiwanese police officer justifies his actions in killing a young Vietnamese migrant worker in ‘Nine Shots’ directed by Che-Hsien Su. The film had its international premiere in Vienna Shorts’ International competition’s Fiction & Documentary program.

It is painful to watch a power-abusing policeman harassing the protagonist Ah Fei, whose peaceful beach afternoon is interrupted by unmotivated hits and kicks. When trying to run away, Ah Fei instinctively gets in the police car and is ruthlessly killed. The second part of ‘Nine Shots’ is similarly heart wrenching showing his father travelling from Vietnam to Taiwan only to bring back his son’s remains.

Based on a true story (2016) that shocked the director, ‘Nine Shots’ talks about the ugly trinity of intercultural prejudices and xenophobia, namely, racism, police brutality and discriminatory treatment of migrants. In an interview by Panos Kotzathanasis (Asian Movie Pulse) Su states that “millions of workers from Southeast Asia are not paid fairly in Taiwan.” He invites to “reassess the relationships between Taiwan and its neighbours”.

Morality is another matter that demands some reflection. A sudden adrenaline rush charges the screen when the young police officer answers a call reporting illegal labour. His joy is even more morbid when he starts the fatal confrontation by kicking the sunbathing Ah Fei. It’s horrifying to observe the beating up and the macabre act of killing — all done with a gruesome enjoyment. Su portrays this cop in the extremes. It’s hard to believe that a person can be entirely evil, yet we don’t see him pausing to think or regret. We could ask ourselves provocatively what would be his good sides, yet that doesn’t matter as a drop of dirt can damage the whole honey barrel. The director makes a strong point not adding any positive or human shades to this antagonist, thus portraying him as pure evil.

In ‘Nine Shots’ institutional racism is paired with silencing, accusing and shaming the victim. The policeman can instantly shout “You stole my car”, but the father needs to patiently sit through his dead son being sentenced as a thief. Even more so, an addict: official autopsy reports show an increased amount of alcohol and drugs in Ah Fei’s blood. Do “they” (the whole law reinforcement apparatus) have no shame nor remorse? To blame and demonize the victim and to coin it as “self-defence”? Sadly, that’s a common practice used to justify violence — it’s insulting, insolent and plain dirty. We’re reminded of the official autopsies of George Floyd and Adama Traoré, which stated “underlying health conditions” or “heart failure” as the cause of their death by a police officer’s brutal hand.

The killing from a distance: we never see Ah Fei’s lifeless body. We do see the violent cop, passionately firing his gun, but as a spectator, we are witnesses to a murder, not to the death itself. This approach emphasises the brutality and immorality, whereas the second part of the film contrasts this by depicting the father listening to his son’s death verdict and leaving the official authority out of the frame. Faceless victim-blaming meets vulnerability and suffering.

Su’s film is verbally and visually ascetic. Events, rather than dialogues, drive the film. In the father’s case they are barely even words; the spoken phrases are concentrated with a lot of power. “If it was a white guy today, will you still open fire,” the representative of the late Ah Fei asks to the police in the morgue.

In certain situations the speechlessness is a bit too silent, omitting some useful reflections and explanations. Yes, the structural concept of showing tension, incident and the aftermath is a good way to get to the film’s core, but there is a tiny feeling of something important not being shown or said. For instance, we see that the murderer keeps working as a police man, but we’re left in the dark about any possible discussions the officials might have had.

‘Nine Shots’ is an introverted film with a great deal of anger and deep sorrow absorbed within. Lyrics of the song sang at the memorial dinner tell a story about a son who will never come back home. This short about injustice and victim-blaming draws several parallels with another Vienna Shorts film ‘White Eye’ — both stressing a growing engagement from filmmakers and festivals in combatting injustice and institutional racism.