Karlovy Vary 2024 review: Pierce (Nelicia Low)

“Low uses her visual language to great effect, and strongly enhances her storytelling through cinema.”

Fencing is the art of hiding your true intentions. That makes it a fitting setting for a film in which one of the characters’ motives and truths are meant to be questioned and in doubt at all times. Pierce, writer-director Nelicia Low’s elegant film about two brothers whose strong bond is put to the test because the true intentions of one brother are unclear, uses the sport almost as a dance between protagonist and antagonist, with a penchant for melodrama when its gaze widens to their family, but piercing (no pun intended) when it examines its central relationship. The formalistic flourishes can’t quite overcome the oversized ending, but Pierce proves to be an excellent and promising debut for Low.

Zijie (Hsiu-Fu Liu) is a young fencer on his high school team. To be honest, he isn’t really good at it, unlike his older brother Zihan (Yu-Ning Tsao), a former three-time national champion. Zihan has been out of Zijie’s life for seven years, having been sent to prison for killing an opponent in a fencing match. Since then, Zijie and his mother, a restaurant singer crooning old ’50s tunes, have been trying to build a new life, which includes a doting new lover for the mother in the form of the restaurant’s owner. When Zihan is released from prison and seeks contact with Zijie, the family harmony threatens to fall apart, as their mother resents Zihan for an incident in their youth in which Zijie almost drowned. Zihan starts to train Zijie in secret, and the boy’s skill and confidence markedly improve, so much so that he is selected to compete in the national championships. Zihan’s behavior starts to sow doubt in Zijie’s heart though, which strains their relationship and comes to an explosive end on the day of the tournament.

Though the characterization of Zijie is well done (and well portrayed by Liu), his character arc is slightly overwritten by his gay longing-from-afar for a teammate. Once his confidence gets a boost from his improving fencing skills, Zihan pushes him to make a move on the boy, which he successfully does. In the end this budding romance doesn’t lead anywhere though, other than pushing Zijie more towards believing his brother, who insists the killing he was sent to prison for was an accident. Likewise, the scenes of another budding romance, that of the boys’ mother, are mainly used as a vessel for exposition and a way to characterize the mother and her relationship to her older son, a relationship she tries to hide from the outside world (given the fact that Zihan was a three-time champion, it requires a leap of faith to believe she managed to keep it hidden that he was her son).

Despite these critiques, the positives found in Pierce far outshine them. While some of these positives are credited to the two leading actors – whose magnetic performances as the timid, confidence-lacking Zijie and the self-assured, enigmatic Zihan crackle when they are on-screen together – most of the plaudits go to Low and her directorial choices. The use of fencing and its masks, with the impossibility of reading faces, is juxtaposed by Low with having the two actors often looking at the camera directly, face-off; can we really see the truth in a face, even if we have a full view of it? A use of blocking to obscure characters from view, especially when they begin their ‘dance’ of the fencing piste, gets a layered meaning when we know some characters might be hiding something. It is in moments like these that Low uses her visual language to great effect (also note the expert use of zoom in key scenes), and strongly enhances her storytelling through cinema. And even though Pierce‘s final scenes give the film an over-the-top conclusion, the dramatic staging of the pivotal scene in which the truth about Zihan’s character comes out is gorgeously composed, framed, and colored. Pierce is definitely not a film without flaws, but Low is a talent to watch and her film manages to captivate during its entire runtime.