Ron has written a very interesting, incisive introduction to the last decade or so of an Asian film movement, a significant change of style, termed a Second Wave. One thing is for certain, water is a major element of consideration in Asian films. In advance of anything experimental that American and European films are attempting to do, there is an exciting formal shift at work in films of the East Asian directors, some of whom have arrived at the indie art houses in recent years–Wong Kar-Wai, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and the Korean directors, Lee Chiang-don of “Poetry” (2010) and Bong Joon-ho of “Mother” (2009). I recall doing the facilitation for Wong’s “In the Mood for Love” at Tacoma’s Grand Cinema when it came out. I asked of the few attendees: “Who has seen another film in which so attention had been given to riverlets or sheets of rain water streaming down peeling, dilapidated walls, or the slow motion ambulation of characters, merely coming and going or sitting, smoking, and waiting?” Naturally, the response was something akin to, “Yes, odd! But what did it mean?” No matter the meaning, it was fascinating to observe the artistic concentration on moments resembling the slowness of real time, especially the dwelling of the camera lens on what was essentially an abstract painting of color and motion. As you say, there is in these minimalist films a story being told, but the idea of a film plot and narrative as representative of a traditional literate novel’s plot has been abandoned for something approaching a filmic or cinematographic literacy in which the images, either still or moving in real time, are of focal importance. As a change from the past inquiries, it is not so much “What?” but “How does a film mean?” The idea of returning to the pre-talkie film, to imagistic film of color, mood and movement, with only faint ambient sounds intrinsic to the environment being audible, this is an experiment in creating pure film.
Tsai Ming-liang’s “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone” (2006) was a good example of how images show, and tell, all. Set in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in an outlying slum district, this film shows nameless characters of indistinguishable nationalities in relationships, but no frequent dialogue emerges to help us know their personalities. We comprehend their characters slowly through their behaviors and gestures and through interactions. As with Tsai’s 1992 debut film, set in Taipei, namely “Rebels of the Neon God,” the apartment dwellings of Kuala Lumpur are less than adequate for comfortable living. In the case of the characters in “Sleep Alone”, a young man of some meager employment takes in a homeless immigrant, severely beaten up by a gang of thugs. Living in what appears to be a condemned high-rise, which had been abandoned after initial construction, the poor inhabitant becomes a nursing care-taker of the injured youth, keeping him washed, helping him to the toilet, and giving him his mattress to share within a mosquito net. Another young man shows up as the third lodger, who was an earlier mattress mate of the owner, and now he is nudged to the outside bedding. Although there may have been hints of homoeroticism in the close intimacy of daily existence, there is nothing sexual enacted between the males; the interaction shows us sensitive moments of caring. It appears that Good Samaritan altruism is at work here for the sake of companionship, for someone to feel close to. Not all, but nearly all actions are performed in a mood of apathy and resignation to a life of no possible change towards prosperity.
In this illustration of non-traditional plotting, I will not reveal all the scenes and significant moments of action; I only intend to show the surface because each viewer must interpret the happenings as s/he understands them. A mattress may be considered a central object or symbol, particularly useful as a means of continuity. I believe the intention of the film-maker is precisely to offer minimal explication so that the viewer must engage in a greater degree of thoughtfulness than is usual in movie-watching. The sensual and sensuous are carefully illuminated.
Atmospheric settings are very important in Tsai’s work. In “Sleep Alone,” a dark pool or a still-water lake has collected at the base of the apartment building, and as with the undrainable water seeping into apartments in “Neon God,” this body of water appears to be un-hygienic, even severely polluted. The pool is within the building itself and has risen up, drowning one or two storey levels. Is this the waste water from the apartments above? In one scene, the recovering immigrant sits motionless with a fishing rod by the murky pool; he is joined by the care-giving youth and together they silently smoke a cigarette. The morbid water surface does not move, save with the incidental splash of a droplet falling from upper storeys; it serves as a mirror of light, cordoned by pillars running in colonnades around the floors of the building. The building is something to behold and to imagine. The apartment setting, the toxic water, the location of the building in a large city, the poverty of the squatters—these are images one views and questions.
Otherwise, there are other characters who appear in vignettes, sketches of life in another apartment of the building and in cafés and back alleys. One is an older, passive woman, a café owner, who, when home, meticulously cares for a comatose young man, a hopeless case. Therefore, again, there is selfless altruism at work, the woman perhaps being the mother or relative of the invalid. Also a young girl, another employee in the café, an underling who lives in a loft above the older woman, takes turns watching and caring for the bedridden youth. Our protagonist, the immigrant, now recovered, has found his way to the city café where the women work, and without words the old, sad woman and the youth meet in the back alley for a languid, erotic liaison. Before long, however, the protagonist has teamed up with the younger girl and they have fallen in love. Mysteriously, an oppressive fog or smoke-stream blows through and slowly encompasses the city, and we soon understand that it is composed of toxic gas, necessitating that people don face masks for protection. Inadequate as the improvised masks are, the young couple make love, even though they are encumbered by coughing and respiratory difficulty. All of the action is performed wordlessly.
Throughout the film, scenes unfold when a character is casually passing by other apartments, perhaps up or down a flight of stairs; East Indian lyrical music with a spiritual longing is playing from recording machines or perhaps being sung live in rooms the camera does not enter. Small groups have gathered to smoke and listen. Surprising as the film has been in its absence of dialogue, with little need for subtitling, there is subtitled translation of the songs we hear. Unusual lyrics, they are songs of love, of the need for connection, and for divine aid, allowing us to understand the sensitive nature of the music the ordinary people are attracted to. Often when watching foreign films, one craves subtitling to know what a song’s lyric means in the context of a scene, but none appears. Here in an almost non-talking film, Tsai does allow the viewer to know the song’s message. As I have intimated, atmospherics and dynamic sounds are vitally important in Tsai’s film: air and water, so important to human wellbeing, are polluted; everything and everyone seems on the brink of survival. In spite of an entropic, dystopian world, people are still capable of caring for others, tenuous as life is, and human needs are sustained. Tsai’s vision of the struggle of humanity is a simple and broad expression of people’s coping in an ailing world.