Afternoon – Tsai Ming-liang (2016)

Does this conversation have to be so miserable? Tsai Ming-liang asks. His two-hour long conversation with his fetish actor Lee Kang-sheng, Afternoon, will perhaps remain one of the least known of the director’s works. First of all, because it didn’t have a wide distribution, which is a true shame. At the same time, it is not an ideal cinema film. It is more something for a gallery, or even for your living room. I wondered what I could write about it, too, because it’s not easy to say something about the film.

Why is this? I think it is the result of Afternoon‘s nature, the film being a private, intimate conversation between a director and his actor. Tsai and Lee are an icon of world cinema. One cannot think of one without thinking of the other. There have always been questions as to how those two work together, how they found one another, what made them stick together over such a long time. Afternoon gives answers to all of those questions. And it gives answers to questions we may not even have asked yet.

There is only one frame and one cut. I’m not sure why the cut was made. I assume a technical problem. But it’s more important to think of the one and only frame we see throughout the over two hours running time. The camera is positioned higher than eye level. It’s a medium long shot. We see two walls of a house, two windows, and Tsai and Lee sitting in their respective chairs with one wall behind them. Outside, through the windows, one can see lush green, a vast valley and there is nothing but the wind on the soundtrack (except the voices). The setting is peaceful and yet something is crumbling. The walls are, for sure. But there is more.

Starting the conversation seems to be difficult. Tsai has troubles explaining why he wanted this conversation. He is reduced to tears at times, laughs at others. It’s a difficult beginning for the viewer, too. When Tsai speaks about his premonition that he will die soon, when he speaks about the memories of his grandfather who struggled with dementia – the image of his grandfather sweeping the streets is particularly painful – when he speaks about the suffering he went through before and during the shoot of Stray Dogs, there was a point I felt unsure about continuing to listen. Was it perhaps too private? Was it perhaps not meant for me? Of course, the latter question isn’t the right one to pose because if Tsai hadn’t wanted people to hear all his thoughts and feelings, he wouldn’t have made the film.

And yet, it felt uncomfortable at times and reminded me a lot of Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie. The two films are radically different, but they enter a private, very intimate world, which can be difficult for the viewer to navigate.

I just feel like expressing my gratitude towards you.

Afternoon is almost one-sided. The way we know Lee from Tsai’s films is very much the way he is in real life. He is quiet, withdrawn, shows little desire. Over the course of the film, we learn that his film personnages are his true self (minus the sexual orientation). Watching him as a conversation partner is fascinating, although he isn’t doing or saying much. It’s more about his body language and the few sentences he does say (“You should leave the house more often.”). It is even more fascinating to see him outside the world Tsai has over the last twenty years created for him, a world in which Lee can be himself, in which he can develop with ease. And one cannot deny that with every film, Lee became better and better. I found Stray Dogs to be the absolute pinnacle of his acting career. Both Tsai and Lee have, consciously and unconsciously, helped one another to get the best out of one another, and together they have achieved this magnificent collection of films that we can now see.

In effect, Afternoon is not just a two-hour long conversation between director and actor. It is an hommage to Lee. It is also a demonstration of the care Tsai has for Lee, admittedly, in part, to an almost obsessional extent. I will never forget this scene in What Time Is It There in which Lee sits in a cinema with a clock in his arms. There is so much pain in this image, there is grief and longing. As we learn in Afternoon, the film was an attempt by Tsai to help Lee overcome the grief for his father, who had died a couple of months earlier. Lee was, according to Tsai, miserable and he wanted to help, so he made a film, which allowed Lee to use it as a form of therapy, to work through his grief and his loss.

What one realises throughout Afternoon is that each of Tsai’s films has an even more personal and tragic background than one can somewhat imagine when one watches the films. As Tsai himself says, he has found in Lee his alter ego through which he could find his inner world. If one believes Lee, Tsai has a personality that is radically different from his films, but filmmaking allows him to discover another side to him. And after twenty years of close collaboration, of exploring, of discovering, Tsai feels as though “this life is almost complete.”

I can stop making films now. I am happy to just film you walking.

I don’t want to sleep alone – Tsai Ming-liang (2006)

I discovered Tsai Ming-liang’s films early on in my research into Slow Cinema, or even well before I started my PhD. The director from Taiwan could, in fact, be the second slow-film director I have come across, and I don’t want to sleep alone (2006) was my very first Tsai film. It was great to return to the film last night. I was not only reminded of the qualities of Tsai as a filmmaker and observer of society. I felt as tough I was going back in time, doing the first baby steps in discovering aspects of Slow Cinema that would become so vital for my later work. In everything I have said and written so far, I have always considered Tsai to be an exceptional director. I’m not using the word “exceptional” only in terms of quality, albeit it certainly applies to him. There is no doubt about it. But what I actually think of is Tsai’s particular aesthetic, primarily his use of architecture in conveying a sense of alienation, isolation, solitude, the sense of being outside, excluded, different.

I don’t want to sleep alone is very strong on this specific element. The story is, as in most slow films, comparatively easy to summarise. The film tells two parallel stories. One of them concerns a young man paralysed from the neck down. He’s tied to bed and is looked after by a young woman, who lives in a claustrophobic, cramped mezzanine above a woman’s flat. The woman’s relationship to the paralysed man is never clearly established. I’m not entirely sure who she is. She could be his mother, perhaps? It matters little. Towards the end of the film, an estate agent leads people through the flat where the young man lays in his bed. It is a bizarre situation. The cruelty is rubbed into our face. I felt helpless as a viewer.  It’s an uncomfortable situation. The young man is exposed to the views of total strangers. The aim is to sell the house, and in the off we hear an argument about this: “You only think of selling the house. Where will your brother live then? Will your wife look after him?” The scene ends with the maid being slapped in the face by the woman under whose roof she lives. What has just happened?

The question isn’t that unusual for a Tsai film. The reason for this is that he makes extensive use of off-screen sound and dialogue, as well as a particular “architectural” aesthetic. I believe that Tsai’s films are often more about what isn’t there than about what we see clearly. But compared to other directors, Tsai doesn’t simply put focus on the off. He uses walls, doors, and hallways instead in order to represent a border, a sort of frontier between the present and the absent, the places of here and there, the places of where I am and where I want to be. Tsai’s frame architecture is a maze which we have to navigate. Architecture, in whatever way it is used, is an expression of the characters’ minds. Béla Tarr as well as Lav Diaz use landscapes in order to represent their characters’ psychology. For Tsai, it is primarily the particular characteristic of architecture that becomes the main character in all of his later films. Walls, streets, staircases – they all speak volumes.

What struck me most was the way in which Tsai filmed walls. Almost all of them run diagonally through the frame. No one stands straight in front of a wall. There is no frontal shot of any wall at all. Walls run through most of the film’s frames, but they only do so diagonally. This suggests the opposite of “a light at the end of the tunnel”. The walls close off the frames. It suggests increased imprisonment, or perhaps rather a continuation of imprisonment, the continuation of isolation. In almost all scenes in which Tsai lets walls run diagonally, there is no sense of escape for the characters. It feels as though the walls close in more and more, the further they walk towards the horizon. This is a strong statement, especially in a film such as I don’t want to sleep alone, in which many of the characters are migrant workers, some of them from Bangladesh, who try to make a living, but who, we know, will never escape their precarious situation. They are as confined to their situation, as is the paralysed man in his bed, exposed to others, to external circumstances (such as the sale of a house).

But it wouldn’t be a Tsai Ming-liang film without intimate human connections that appear so bizarre that it is almost funny. This is something Tsai shares with Albert Serra; an underlying sense of humour, a dark humour, a dry humour that might not be for everyone, but that can almost be considered the core of their work. Neither director is making straightforward comedies. And yet, both include in their films scenes that lighten the mood a bit, that allows the viewer a bit of relief from the depressive world the directors show, albeit this is more true of Tsai than of Serra. In any case, what matters here is Tsai’s focus on human connections, on the intimacy (or not) between them and what our world, our society does to us. It seems as though human connections will always be there, regardless of external circumstances. And Tsai not only shows those connections on screen, such as when the character of Lee Kang-sheng masturbates a woman in a dark backstreet, just behind a small restaurant at the corner where she is working.

Connection, human or not, is, just like architecture, a core element in I don’t want to sleep alone. The title itself suggests as much. Loneliness in a busy city which never sleeps. Alienation juxtaposed with an eternal longing for a feeling of intimacy, for warmth. That is the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang. But compared with his later films, which tend to get bleaker and bleaker, and which he empties more and more of human intimacy, there is something of us as loving human beings left. This, of course, is established on a visual level. The use of sound is equally important, however. It starts right at the beginning. While we see the opening credits, we hear German classical music. It appears to be non-diegtic music, music that does not stem from the actual film world but which has been added in post-production. But a cut makes clear that the music is, in fact, diegetic. It comes from a radio that stands on the nightstand next to the bed of the paralysed man. Tsai uses this strategy several times in the film. Music bridges two scenes. It connects them, brings them together, something that the film characters long for, but which only really seems to happen on an auditory level.

Rupture is more present in Sleep than smooth connections. I remember an almost literal jump cut at the beginning of the film from the paralysed man’s room to a scene set in busy streets, showing two characters waiting for take-away food. The rupture, the sudden change in sound, shifting from quietude to sensory overstimulation, made me jump. It’s an extreme change on a visual and on an aural level, which was disorienting. I can imagine that this is what it was like for the migrant workers, depicted in Tsai’s film, when they arrived in the big, unknown city. Although set and filmed in Malaysia, Sleep tells a universal story, which, in fact, a lot of slow films do. But Tsai stands out with his particular aesthetics that make his films as recognisable as any Tarr or Diaz film. Having rewatched the film after seven years, I can say that it wasn’t surprising that I got hooked on the director’s work. He’s just damn good. His films are touching, very expressive, deep and heartfelt. Sleep is also a good entry to Tsai’s work in general, if you’d like to discover it. The advantage is that most of his films are available on DVD. Time for you to check Google!