Shards of Her (2022) A Review
This one popped up on my Netflix feed recently and while the premise sounded intriguing, it was the magic words "Toby Lee" that hooked and reeled me in. Toby Lee last seen by me in the historical detective drama Miss Truth isn’t the main character here but he certainly commands a strong presence throughout the storyline. He is rather good in this as expected and it is fascinating watching him code switch between Mandarin and Taiwanese/Hokkien in much of the show. The titular "her" is played by Tiffany Hsu and she gives a sterling performance as the deeply troubled Lin Chenxi, a competent HR recruiter or “headhunter” whose life is thrown into complete disarray on the arrival of a new employee.
The show begins with a suspicious death in an aged care facility in a small town. The victim is a former high school physics teacher Xie Zhizhong. The local cops finger a nurse, Yan Shenghua, a former student of his, as the chief suspect. As the show progresses, who done it, however becomes secondary to why it was done. The teacher's death is more or less a MacGuffin to make way for the real story — a terrible destructive secret that sets the stage for family dysfunction, guilt, regret and estrangement.
Minor spoilers ahead… (While I recommend this show highly, you may wish to stop reading here because the viewing experience is enhanced the less you know going into it. Also, it may be important for you to know ahead of time that this show also contains images of sexual assault.)
Lin Chenxi is a busy professional going places in her company. On the surface things seem to be going well for her. But enter Danny (Chris Wu) the cousin of the CEO who is eager to prove himself as the organization’s new rising star. His cocky, glib, overconfident demeanour camouflages a far more sinister persona. Danny, in fact is a sociopathic misogynist and loathes being upstaged, particularly by women. When Chenxi successfully talks a potential recruit into accepting a contract after the arrogant Danny botches the negotiation process, he goes ballistic. He lashes out and deploys the only weapons available to him — sexual harassment which escalates into violence.
These series of events seem to trigger deep seated memories and emotions that seem to set the stage for a mental breakdown. In a state of panic after escaping from the clutches of Danny, Chenxi meets with a road accident and is rendered unconscious.
When Chenxi regains consciousness she finds herself back in the house that she grew up in with her parents and twin brother in their hometown. From then on she exists in a perpetual state of confusion about where she is, who the people around her are and her relationships with them. The folks tell her that she’s been in an accident and seems to be suffering amnesia but why does she have fragmented memories of of a life elsewhere in Taipei with a supportive boyfriend (Toby Lee) who is now nowhere to be found. Much of the show sees her trying to navigate these memories trying to sift the truth from the lies as she becomes embroiled in the investigation of the death of her former teacher and the disappearance of an old classmate. It soon becomes clear that her family and former besties are keeping things from her as she stumbles around in the dark looking for answers.
“Shards” used here is apt as it points to the fragmentary and even unreliable nature of memories. Moreover it also refers to the fragility and brokenness of a soul stuck in a tragic past with no healing in sight. A shattered visage as it were. Furthermore “shards” can also signify the pieces of a puzzle that the audience has to put together as they journey with Chenxi.
As the audience sees through events through Chenxi’s lenses, we are inevitably drawn into the same disorientation and speculation. Has she travelled back in time? Has she landed into an alternate universe? Is this all just a really bad dream?
The answers come eventually because the show isn’t just about the sordid past but about the dysfunctional gender dynamics that plague our world today. Sexual harassment opens the door to other unpleasant subjects related to the treatment of women in the workplace, the use of technology to invade women’s most private and intimate spaces. As it exposes the nasty side of cosmopolitan 21st century living, the show doesn’t shy away from taking a broad perspective on how both men and women are complicit in perpetuating such behaviours post-sexual revolution.
Despite the hard-hitting subjects covered in these 9 episodes, all of this still manages to arrive at a satisfying and profoundly moving finale. With so many doozies I’ve seen this year, it’s really no exaggeration to say that this drama has the best resolution I’ve seen all year. It has a slight edge over Strange Tales of Tang Dynasty in that regard. There’s undeniably an ugly side to humanity that has to be confronted constantly and often it seems to be our default position to do harm even with the best of intentions. In spite of the psychodrama and psychobabble at the end, I don’t find the resolution simplistic. There is an acknowledgement that the past is not so easily expunged and living with mental health issues does take a toll not only on the survivors but also on their loved ones. The goal is healing which will take time and effort.
All in all this is a strong script that’s tightly plotted. The cast as a whole is excellent — young and old. It’s the first Taiwanese drama I’ve watched in a few years because I had more or less given up finding one with a decent script without tons of fillers. I imagine that the format — 9 episodes — helps in keeping this trim and terrific. Regardless of the fact that I found this show engaging and immersive, I can’t see too many wanting to revisit it.
It would be remiss of me to end this review without some kind of warning. This is not a show for the faint-hearted, it’s certainly not for those who will be triggered by images of sexual assault especially if that’s been a feature of their past. Even though I’m someone with a strong stomach for crime shows, I too found those scenes disturbing and confronting.