Friday, April 25, 2008
"New Blood Draws on Old Themes:
-Taiwan New Cinema' Seeks an Identity of Fearlessness"
Anyone familiar with the Taiwan New Cinema movement of the past 20 years, or comparatively the films of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (TASTE OF CHERRY), or even select works of Michaelangelo Antonioni (L’AVVENTURA), will be better apprised of how to palate Lee Kang-Sheng’s sophomore effort, HELP ME EROS (2008), with it’s long uninterrupted shots (30sec-5min), navigation of peculiar but banal human experience, dire scarcity of dialogue, metered accumulation-based narrative arches, and social commentary mostly devoid of irony (reminiscent of Italian Neorealism). The addition of EROS’s more abhorrent sexual leanings seats it on the mantle of recent permutations of the Taiwan filmic movement (THE WAYWARD CLOUD, I DONT WANT TO SLEEP ALONE) that delve into the marginalized mire of modernity, and makes it very much of the modern generational context, a new floating socio-political context that garners old wounds. Those new to such labored undistracted tenets of filmmaking may be affronted by the patience required, but their design is such that each moment is held extensively and deliberately so that every detail within it can become accessible to the viewer, burgeoning an experiential and dimensional understanding almost by force.
HELP ME EROS is an ambitious and unrelentingly beautiful film, that is also unfortunately at odds with itself, suspended somewhere between prose and grit but uncomfortable in such tonal ambiguity. EROS unfolds in a world of too little or too much gravity; a stagnant orbit of emotionally starved semi-dimensional characters, fluorescent light, sexual escapism, and commerce, suffering incongruity alongside boldness and brilliance. While writer/director Lee Kang-Sheng mostly overstates his existential meanings with non-diegetic songs that spell out woes like a bludgeon, and falls short in terms of blending his content and aesthetics as a whole, he does succeed marvelously within visual moments, of which there is no shortage. It is these moments of perfectly framed peculiarity, poignancy, comedy, and loneliness in collage, rather than blending, that buoy HELP ME EROS to success. Lee Kang-Sheng’s visual language is his strongest asset, with notable thanks to Tsai Ming-Liang as production designer, and helps to enhance if not mask what is otherwise a rather conventional narrative arch.
The opening tracking shot introduces Shin; by all accounts a beautiful petit Taiwanese woman, who slowly emerges from a pitch black street, drawing her rolling suitcase behind her on the concrete into a swath of neon light emanating from a street-side bar. The bar hosts a cast of scantly clad women of similar descriptions to Shin. This haunting lateral shot, beginning with sounds and barely perceptible movement in a pitch-black frame and slowly graduating to a pocket of neon glow, implies rather strongly that this dwelling of commerce commingled with iniquity and fantasy is an oasis or a haven amidst urban anonymity…and in a way it is, but one that stagnates its population more than heals them. If nothing else it fatefully brings our main characters together.
Following this sequnce, we are introduced to Ah Jie, the newly destitute, casually suicidal protagonist played by writer/director Lee Kang-Sheng, in a long angular shot from within his apartment, watching him like a security camera as he embraces a large, coiled, snakelike pillow, staring at the plasma screen on his wall. Cinematographer Pen Jung-Liao uses this ‘security camera’ angle often, which tends to enhances the banality and detachment of moments, if not obscure them subtly, rather than suggest any type of voyeurism. Ah Jie is watching a cooking show in which the Chef, who actually becomes a peripheral character in the narrative, is preparing a dish in which a fish is clubbed, scaled, splayed, and served while still alive, its mouth gasping as it suffocates in open air. The sound of it flopping violently but feebly in the stainless steel sink is dismally memorable. This calls to mind a scene from Korean filmmaker Kim Ki Duk’s THE ISLE (2001) in which a man callously slices off the flanks of a fish for sushi, and then tosses it back in the water to creep out his girlfriend, revealing as it swims away, raw and razed, that it can indeed survive in such a wounded state. Ah Jie listens to the assistant who asks the chef, “What do you think its thinking?” “Help me” he replies. And so in one image and one line Lee Kang-Sheng sets up roughly the entirety of his character’s disposition. We switch to close-up and see Ah Jie is smoking a joint and coughing quietly, as he does through out the film, staring half frightened and disgusted at the sight of the gaping-mouthed fish…perhaps most frightened because it is a grisly mirror of himself, as suggested by its persistence to remain in the frame with him. Ah Jie is splayed economically if you will, and gasping in the vacuum of former wealth, which mutates into a kind of anaerobic materialism. It is noteworthy to consider a similarly natured scene from Tsai Ming-Liang’s WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? (2001) in which Lee Kang-Sheng’s equivalently dispossessed character, Hsiao Kang, embraces a pillow while watching television in a state of discomfort, again keeping both himself and the tv screen framed. Hsiao Kang is in fact watching Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS (1959), which likewise informs heavily on his character’s literal and cognitive identity.
EROS’s other principle character is Chyi, a helpline operator whom Ah Jie calls exclusively to share his mumbled sorrows and his dispassionate notions of the futility of existence, while he secretly fantasizes about her beauty. Truthfully, Chyi is obese and desperately lonely within a vacant marriage, her own existential vacuum. Her husband is the Chef from the program Ah Jie was watching, and he uses Chyi as more of a beefeater for his bizarre culinary creations than a companion of any sort. He cooks for her constantly and is mostly responsible for her transformation into an overweight terminally depressed woman, whom he is physically revolted by (compounded by the fact that he is gay), but she propels her own misery as well by complacency.
In his destitution Ah Jie becomes almost singularly obsessed with growing and salvaging his small marijuana crop. He saturates the plants in florescent light and breathes on them to make sure they have enough CO2, “so they can get better, like I need to.” In the meantime, Ah Jie and Shin get together. They’re both detached and floating, and that mutual experience, coupled by convenience (Ah Jie lives above the bar where she works), brings them together. But basically, all they do is smoke and fuck. I say fuck not to be crass, but because they simply don’t “make love.” These are not sensitive experiences, per se. They are base and vigorous. Only once do they choose a sexual position that demands they look at one another. After the near comical standing sex montage in a glowing white room on top of which is played an ethereal buddhist-like chanting, Ah Ji is shown talking online with Chyi with a yet unaffected indifference to life. “No one would care if I was gone” he writes, after which he asks, “Who is the fat chick next to you?” in regards to her 'buddy icon,' not realizing,or course, that its her. “That’s my friend. She used to be skinny but her husband cooks for her every day.” Chyi lies to Ah Ji to keep her own fantasy alive, and subsequently feeds his, even as she holds a corn cob between her teeth in order to type her deceit. Ah Jie and Shin are lying down side by side naked in the now dim room. Shin distracts Ah Ji from his conversation, one fantasy to another, and begins to kiss and finger his anus, laying down on top of his back in the opposite direction. Shin’s adamant oral stimulation is transcendent in that it underscores the analogous nature of herself and Chyi (a chronic eater), as purveyors of base coping mechanisms under the gravity of the same character; Ah Jie.
Thus the electrifyingly banal stage of desperation and escapism has been set, leading, in a series of crafted but utterly simple moments, to a particularly acute self-reflexive flourish of a climax, and the last of the explicitly sexual scenes (which punctuate the film, if not precede and outlive it). After a failed kidnapping of one of Shin’s coworkers, all the girls retreat to Ah Jie’s apartment to smoke themselves into solace. Ah Jie inhales deep full breaths of smoke, and blows them into the lungs of others at the near closeness of a kiss. This is something he came up with on his first night with Shin. It reflects his method of breathing on the marijuana plants, an ironic gesture of life-giving with an injurious vehicle. The apex of this sequence is a nocturnal rooftop ménage-a-trois in which Ah Jie and two of the girls form a pyramid of oral copulation, while Shin smilingly observes the hedonism, the same haunting and tonally serious chanting from the standing sex montage is played over top and lends an urgency or impending anxiety to the moment. While the sex in this scene is rather intense, spilling into yet another montage of near absurdist positions, it is heightened into the more dimensional language of HELP ME EROS by a swathing of the three naked writhing bodies in designer patterns, projected in light, as though it were their very skin. I was immediately reminded of the scene in JURASSIC PARK (1993) in which the GAACATTGA sequencing of DNA amino acids is projected onto the skin of a Velociraptor, as though it were the ceiling grating just above it that held the patter within its mesh.
This visual event makes resonant sense within HELP ME EROS’s filmic dialect, even though it takes on a seemingly new dimension. In reality, this phenomenon has occurred before, on multiple occasions, in multiple capacities, from very early on, however by more naturally occurring means. For example, early in the film, Ah Jie sits on a sill in his apartment with the window open, smoking a joint, lulled by the quiet city murmur. He is talking to Chyi on his cell phone, mumbling his discontent once again. The blinking neon sign of the bar downstairs is reflected in the open windowpane, which is subsequently superimposed, projected if you will, on Ah Jie’s face, for it lies between him and the picture plane. What gives the scene most of its consequence is the fact that it’s shot on a fixed diagonal, a small decision that removes the moment marginally from reality. Compound the diagonal angle with the contextual reality of the scene; not only is the reflected blinking neon sign superimposed upon his face coming from an establishment that unabashedly sells the male fantasy of scantly clad women of ideal beauty and frail femininity, but Ah Jie is simultaneously projecting his own cerebral fantasy about Chyi. He imagines her as the thin, soft-skinned woman next to Chyi in her buddy icon, but barely clad in a in a red plaid schoolgirl uniform, twisted about and writhing on her cubicle desk amidst all the other focused workers. Ah Ji blows smoke into his phone and it travels to her lungs on the other end, an arousing transcendent gesture. Here we have driven home the core ideas behind the film; that desire shapes both our content as human beings, and our perception of the world and its tenets. Cognitive fantasy and tactile reality seem to occupy a similar space within the film, constantly overlapping one another. In the key of ‘projections,’ the characters and mise-en-scene of HELP ME EROS are constantly bathed in the projected neon glow of urbanity and commerce, neon lights are reflected deliberately in mirrors and windows alongside characters, compounded by, if not informing, the constant attitudinal/behavioral projection of ‘materialism through fantasy’ that all the characters externalize, not just the three leads.
During the rooftop ménage-a-trois we encounter a critical and final shifting in the nature of materialisms, which drive the film. EROS’s “materialism” adapts from a branded and possessive type, to a sensual escapist materialism of sex and smoke. Ah Ji repeatedly tries to sell his possessions at a pawn-shop to supplement cash, such as, aptly enough, his wallet, and increasingly retreats to his desolate realm of smoking, sexuality, and the externalization of cognitive fantasy. The designer patterns that are projected onto the entangled bodies precisely embodies this notion of sexual escape as a “sensual materialism,” and is placed at the apex of this transitional arch.
Tangential communication, another of the films critiques, reigns in HELP ME EROS, and calls to mind the devices, sheen, and censure of the third act of Hou-Hisao Hsien’s THREE TIMES (2005) entitled “A Time For Youth,” which is marvelously successful in being both labored and concise in its vision. Not only does EROS have people displaced in or victim to their own surroundings, but they extend themselves indirectly and incompletely to others. E-mail, text-messaging, phone calls, sex, cooking, television; all these modalities are used paramount over actual conversation. In fact, Ah Jie, at his most desperate, wishing he could make amends with Shin who has left him and returned to the country after his selfish outburst, asks one of the girls at the bar to “help me text her.” To recapture the woman he finds he actually cares about, and who actually exists as he experiences her, he chooses an even more removed gesture of communication. Ah Jie was curt and explosive to Shin after finally discovering that Chyi is in fact not the beautiful woman he had mistaken her as. Shin is literally the only person to speak the truth of the moment in this film, lashing back at Ah Jie’s childish behavior, but not knowing the reason behind it. By demolishing Ah Jie’s marijuana plants, kicking the dirt around in her silver miniskirt and absurd yellow pleather heals, she tries to break him out of his pathetic spiral of self-loathing self-delusion. “I can’t live without it” he says.
Tangentiality extends to the visual realm of HELP ME EROS as well. Sexual participants never look at one another; faces are almost always burrowed, eating out orifices in a way of relating to the obese helpline woman who is given food instead of love, scenes captured entirely in reflections or partly in security cameras, etc. Again, the visual dimension of HELP ME EROS is chiefly its most successful, if not sometimes obvious.
Along the way of this beautiful but incongruous film, Lee Kang-Sheng hints at a broader social context; that of the suspended cultural identity of Taiwan, through diegetic news bulletins about the ‘Opposition Party’ and demonstrations at the National Day Celebrations, but these sidenotes are far too late in their mention and feel tacked on to a film that doesn’t have enough confidence in its own strictly existential substance. Tsai-Ming Liang (executive producer, production designer) is a far greater artist in that capacity because he weaves social contexts into his work more subliminally and thoroughly. In this vein, however, Hou-Hisao Hsien (THREE TIMES, CAFÉ LUMIERE) may be the greatest of the Taiwan New Cinema filmmakers because he is able to utilize socio-political references even more thoroughly and diegetically than even Liang. Hou Hsiao Hsien’s narratives unfold in normal, virtually unstylized social realms, where the public and private constantly breath into one another, and where social contexts arise as seemingly haphazard realities of the moment even though they are actually meticulously woven in.
The final act of HELP ME EROS holds its most jarring and affecting sensory moment, which ironically has nothing to do with sexuality. After spending almost 90 minutes steeped in the dim and dank urbanity of Kaohsiung, with its nocturnal interplay of neon glow and shadows, we are thrust into the lushness of a beetlenut forest in clean even daylight. The transition is so sudden and striking that it makes your head spin for a moment. We spend only a short while in this place, but in its presence we gather a truly sensitive and soft feeling for the first time in the film. We observe Shin helping collect beetlenut branches, and working presumably with her father. We wonder why she would leave this lush serenity for the city, but after some thought, it appears that the same kind of dull anonymity exists out there as well.
Now that Shin has left, and Ah Jie is unable to contact her, he tries to take his own life, something he’s been pondering and putting off for the entire film. He closes all the windows, opens the valve of the CO2 tank in his claustrophobic kitchen, and lays prostrate on the floor. It’s either ironic or perfect that he should choose this method of all methods to kill himself because throughout the film he is trying to offer life and calm with respiration; breathing his CO2 to sustain the marijuana plants, and smoke into peoples lungs to make them forget their woes. In a slightly comic twist, he runs out of gas, failing in his first suicide attempt. This calls to memory a scene very early in the film. Ah Ji is talking on the phone to Chyi while the teakettle whistles at a scream. He allows the flame to burn for the duration of the scene, which lasts roughly 5 minutes in a single take. He is, therefore, to blame for his own incapacity to commit suicide. Not realizing that Shin has just returned, heeding his urgent calls perhaps, Ah Jie decides to jump out of his apartment building window, from three stories up. Choosing to jump out the window is ironic as well because it was Chyi who suggested in their first conversation, the very same scene in which he lets the tea-kettle boil too long, to open his windows in order to lift his depression.
As he opens the window the sounds of the bustling city below swell into the apartment, and we get a sense of life rather than death. But Ah Jie is resolute, and we are rewarded by a gorgeous if not overly sentimental metaphoric ending, in which we see not his bloodied fallen corpse, but an endless rain of lottery tickets covering the swatch asphalt and concrete on which he and Shin ahd met. Shin stands in the elegant storm of paper, wearing little angle wings that catch the tickets on their curves like new feathers, looking up with tears of understanding. If not for the melodramatic and simplistic song of love lamented played over top, this moment might have been totally palatable, but alas, Lee Kang Sheng is still purging his more youthful or sophomoric approaches to cinema. All things considered though, his is certainly a name to look out for in the realm of new filmmaking, with bold ideas that I feel will become less and less derivative and more and more congruous and confident as he progresses.