Wednesday, January 04, 2006

#29: Not Just a Walk in the Park: On Tsai Ming-liang’s VIVE L’AMOUR * 8/18/05 * This past week NPR featured stories about the rising tensions on Taiwan, the little island off the coast of China that’s operated since 1949 as if it’s independent, brazening its way to a stale-mate with its giant would-be boss with Western backing. Tensions are up because Taiwan’s president ran & won on a pro-independence platform, suggesting things may come to a boil. This context is helpful & timely for the Syracuse movie-going public, because on August 28 the film VIVE L’AMOUR begins a run through late September at The Redhouse. Indeed the writer-director of VIVE L’AMOUR, Tsai Ming-liang, has said that he considers the uncertainty of the political situation the Taiwanese endure to be a paramount problem, although his films don’t address this in the conventional sense. Instead we see the radical disconnection that occurs when community is deeply, pervasively undermined. VIVE L’AMOUR tells the story of three people who unwittingly share a vacant apartment in Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei, a city that saw a huge real estate boom in the 80’s & now, despite an enormous, tightly packed population, has many vacant apartments. May is a real estate saleswoman who picks up Ah-jung, a street vendor, for casual sex. Also staying in the apartment is Hsaio-kang, played by the actor Lee Kang-sheng, who appears in all Tsai’s films as this same rootless, restless character in ever-changing circumstances. Hsaio & Ah-jung discover one another & something like a romance ensues, at least for Hsaio. Mostly the characters don’t speak. They interact as least as much with the architecture & space as with each other, & their most profound interactions with one another are secret. May keeps a hard exterior until the final shot, which is six minutes long & tracks her, coming slowly into focus from a long way off & gaining substantiality, stalking through a desolate construction site to a set of bleachers where she finally weeps - & weeps. There is one other person there, a man reading a newspaper. He never interrupts her sorrow. If this sounds straight-forward – this walking & weeping - the final moments of her break-down have stunning & quite unexpected power. There have been a number of retrospectives in recent years of Tsai Ming-liang’s award-winning work, at festivals & last winter at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He’s been producing about a film a year lately. Last year’s GOODBYE DRAGON INN, an homage to old-style fight movies, is out in DVD, & his 2005 film, THE WAYWARD CLOUD, is making the festival rounds. Born in Malaysia, he has lived & worked in Taiwan for a couple decades. Some consider him to define Taiwanese New Wave cinema. In fact his favorite movie is Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS & any interview in print with him makes clear immediately the very breadth of his knowledge of world film. But Tsai’s work is a wonderful example of the difficulty of negotiating cultures without some guide. He has developed a number of characteristic approaches to filming modern urban desperation & isolation that are technical in nature & make his films, especially the later ones, hard to decipher for novices. There is little dialogue, great attention to spatial relations, endless long tracking shots & a camera that doesn’t necessarily follow the human drama. THE RIVER & WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? in particular will be hard for American audiences. Many of his films’ anchors seem to be specifically cultural in nature, such as Buddhist ceremonies, use of familiar & repeated characters & landmarks with Taiwanese references. These balance some of his visual techniques & keep the viewer engaged, even if only subliminally. VIVE L’AMOUR is a wise choice. Though made back in 1994, it’s crisp enough & - at least in Tsai’s world – fast moving enough to act as an introduction to this intriguing director. Nancy Keefe Rhodes (640)