The moody but genial road movie “The Taiwan Oyster” opens with a death by misadventure. Jed (Will Mounger) believes he can jump between two buildings, only to discover otherwise with lethal results. His passing prompts two friends — Simon (Billy Harvey) and Darin (Jeff Palmiotti) — to give their fellow countryman, an orphan, a proper burial.
Set to be cremated by the authorities, the guys steal the corpse and place him in a chest on a truck that they routinely fill with ice. They get some unexpected cooperation from morgue employee Nikita (Leonora Lim), who impulsively decides to accompany them on their mission. The trio then travel through the gorgeous Taiwanese countryside looking for a suitable place to bury Jed, where they will play the song “Lost Highway” as per the deceased’s written wishes. As they visit a tea plantation, a temple, and a bar — where they get into a scuffle in with some gangsters — romance develops between Simon and Nikita, and truths are eventually revealed.
The plot of “The Taiwan Oyster” may be formulaic, but the film, co-written and directed by Mark Jarrett, is buoyed by infectious performances by the two leads. The guys share an easygoing camaraderie that ingratiates them to viewers even if they are a standard issue movie odd couple. Simon is the passive, indecisive one: He’s secretly mulling over a job offer that would return him to the States. Unmotivated to produce a magazine with Darin, Simon drinks instead of writes, longs for a girlfriend, and seems to be putting off growing up or moving forward. In contrast, Darin is impassioned and reckless, a good time good old boy who cuts the sleeves of his shirts (to look like Bruce Springsteen) and charms almost everyone he meets. In one scene, Darin eats blood cake, which prompts Simon to ask if the appeal is the blood or the cake.
Over the course of the film, these affable friends talk about accepting mortality, and consider their (in)significance on earth and in life. They wax philosophically about freedom and choice and the efforts to find tranquility. But they also frequently smoke dope and drink themselves comatose. They fight and test the strength of their friendship, and they discover more about themselves and each other in the process.
“The Taiwan Oyster” offers nothing particularly new here, and Jarrett relies too much on creating montages — as when Nikita and Darin go for a swim as Simon sits on the shore — that fail to explain more about the characters or move the story forward. In addition, the film waits until the last reel to develop any real dramatic tension. By the time the characters truly express themselves, their revelations feel like a contrivance.
However, the film’s setting is original and authentic, and it compensates for the familiarity of the story. Viewers can practically smell the food stalls where chicken strips are grilled on a stick, or feel the grit of the ticky-tacky bars. A scene that unfolds at Nikita’s family’s house, where her uncles coerce the Americans to drink some strange liquor, has an almost documentary-like realism. Moreover, some episodes in the countryside have a slightly otherworldly quality to them. These moments imbue the film with a romanticism that underscores the unmoored characters’ wanderlust.
The point of “The Taiwan Oyster” is how the three protagonists process their experiences on this journey in particular and in life in general. Simon mopes about Jed’s death, while Darin tells him to embrace life, and reassures him that their friend made up his mind to jump. Nikita considers her actions about leaving her job, although her character is mostly underdeveloped. These friends all use the ritual of the burial as a pivot point for confronting their futures.
It would be difficult to care about the characters were it not for the engaging performances. Harvey plays his glum role well, giving viewers an identification point that helps maintain interest in the story. Palmiotti is a standout as the film’s wild card; his manic antics are amusing even when he gets in over his head. And Lim adds an element of grace that nicely balances out her two traveling companions. As a whole, “The Taiwan Oyster” manages to be consistently engaging despite its flaws.
Criticwire grade: B-
Editor’s note: “The Taiwain Oyster” is distributed by SnagFilms, Indiewire’s parent company.