The Outsider tells the tale of Nobu Su – a flamboyant Taiwanese shipping magnate who made his fortune by building and managing a super tanker fleet during the Chinese construction boom. The documentary charts Nobu’s rise from owning a single ship through to commissioning a flotilla of billion dollar leviathans. Along the way he becomes fabulously rich, marries, has two daughters and buys a private jet. The good times certainly rolled for Nobu Su.
And then it all goes wrong: Nobu loses much of his off-the-scale fortune and his family too. But who is to blame? The documentary suggests that, as the credit crunch took hold, bullying, panicked and corrupt bankers from RBS and Taiwan’s Megabank stole the shipping mogul’s billions to bolster their own bleeding balance sheets. It is, we’re told, a scandal.
In some regards The Outsider is a brave film. International shipping is dull as bilge water: it’s basically a taxi service that slowly transports brown commodities, like oil and iron, from A to B. Yet, The Outsider succeeds in turning the subject into something that’s very nearly fascinating. It also renders the Delphic world of shipping finance understandable. Sure, it’s not on a par with Margot Robbie explaining high finance in The Big Short, but it’s instructional nonetheless.
Much of film’s success and enjoyment is down to the movie’s focus: Nobu Su. With his bow ties and gaudy Saville Row get ups, Nobu is a glamorous, high energy and high-end dandy. He’s mesmerising and outwardly thoroughly likeable. Beguiled but not blind, the film shows a darker side to Nobu though: he didn’t always play fair and the scent of scandal remains.
The Outsider is also a very good looking film. It flits from Hong Kong to Singapore and Taiwan. Framed, often exquisitely, it’s a masterclass in cityscape cinematography. You could watch some sections with the sound turned off and just marvel at what we humans can create with enough steel, glass and concrete.
But, is it a good film? Is it worth investing ninety minutes of your life in The Outsider? If you’re looking for a Michael Moore grade expose of how gangster bankers robbed a good man, you won’t find it here. The movie is like a boxer who is frightened to commit. It jabs and jabs at its central theme: RBS and Megabank were, a decade ago, staffed by crooks.
But, it never follows through with a knockout shot. Grappling with the same subject, you can imagine Michael Moore pitching up on RBS’ Annual General Meeting and demanding answer to awkward questions. There is no brutal confrontation. And in some regards, this means The Outsider is a missed opportunity – it could have shone more light into the rotten and murky world of pre-financial crisis banking.
There is redemption though. The drive that saw Nobu build his empire is refocussed on exposing those whom he sees as his persecutors. He becomes a man consumed by the need to uncover and broadcast the truth – as he sees it. And so, The Outsider, quite elegantly, questions the personal cost of wealth and the real value of revenge. You do end up feeling sorry for a man who remains rich, though not as rich as he believes he should be.
For all that though, The Outsider still feels like a missed opportunity. It should have proved the scandal it dances around existed and gone for the jugular.
The documentary The Outsider is being shown in the Bertha Dochouse around the end of May (head to their website for more information) and will be available on iTunes from 4th June.
Review written by Martin Cooper