Director Tsai Ming-liang claims to have become ‘tired with cinema’ and the way it constructs a linear narrative. He says he is disgusted by its ‘constant pandering to popular taste’, and he makes that feeling of his abundantly clear in his latest and supposedly final work. With its glacial pacing and negligible plot each scene winds up dragging on at least five times longer than they need to. A fan of the film might refer to it as an uncompromising vision, others may refer to it as a defiant stand against mainstream film, and others yet might refer to it as an exercise in just how long you can push an audience by filming inactivity before they either scream or fall asleep. Or both.
I think it is fair to say that each scene, when isolated, is demonstrative of an artist at work who can summon real beauty out of dereliction and suffering, who can take the pain of a character and manifest it almost physically on the screen and in the viewer’s heart. These are very powerful scenes, but only when viewed on their own. Assembled together they form a lengthy canvas that’s as soporific as it is maddening. Long takes only earn their power and artistry when two other things are in place. Firstly, there has to be a concrete and at least vaguely discernible reason behind the length of the scene, in other words it must be narratively justifiable. And secondly, it has to be a rarity in order to earn its place in the film. When one endless scene follows another and another, in which action is minimal and plotting non-existent, it saps each and every scene of their power and effectiveness. By my count there are two excellent scenes here; one involves a desperate cry for help through singing, whilst the other involves the act of eating a vegetable. In context these both drive straight into the heart of despair and are gut-wrenchingly effective, but they are lost in and amongst all the exhausting material which surround them.
What works very well here is the style of the film, this is a very good looking film to watch and that beauty is enhanced and manipulated by the excellent work of our lead actor, Kang-sheng Lee. He is extremely expressive in his role of a broken down alcoholic and homeless father to two young children. He is a man who spends his days working menial jobs in order to try and conjure up enough money to keep his young children alive, and yet still they have to rely on the kindness of strangers in supermarkets in order to stop themselves from starving. Lee projects a vast amount through little action, often having to depict years of suffering in moments of stillness and silence. It’s predominately through his quiet performance that beautiful scenes are twisted into being heart-aching ones.
In a film where we will constantly spend five minutes watching a man stare into the distance and then follow that up by watching a man eat a chicken in real time and then finish that off by watching some people sleep for a bit, it’s very hard to stay focused. If you managed you will often see scenes of powerful beauty, humanity and emotion. The challenge is finding a way to appreciate each scene as an individual piece of work which only loosely connects to the ones which surround it without becoming frustrated at the fact that this just doesn’t function as a film. It’s a challenge I didn’t quite meet, and I’m not sure that I would have wanted to quite frankly. This needed to have slashed its running time. Forty-five minutes could have been easily lost without harming the end product, and by doing so you might have exposed enough of a much needed narrative on which to hang the cinematography, rain and despair.
What is the film’s greatest strength? It looks beautiful and Tsai Ming-liang can represent humanity and despair with great accuracy.
Its greatest weakness? The endless and indulgent nature of each and every scene.
Would I see it again? No. I struggled to make it through once and that was enough.
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