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.

Stray Dogs – Tsai Ming-liang (2013)

I have seen all of Tsai’s films, apart from Rebels of the Neon God, which still sits comfortably on my watch list. The sad thing about this is the fact that I haven’t seen a single one of them on a big screen. I always wished to see one of his films in cinema. His cinematography is superb and particularly attractive for someone who loves the art of photography. I came close last year, but the organisers of the Glasgow Film Festival had to pull Tsai’s Walker because the print didn’t arrive in time. Slow film, slow print delivery.

Patience is a virtue, so I was able to see a Tsai film on a big screen after all. It was a fabulous experience on the one hand, but mixed into this positive feeling was a pinch of sadness. First of all, Stray Dogs is in some ways different from his other films. There are, for instance, scenes set in nature – in a forest, with peaceful ambient background sounds. This isn’t Tsai and has never been Tsai. He has always been the only slow-film director who used the urban rather than the rural as a backdrop for his films. It therefore felt strange at times, but this was only the case because I was used to cramped spaces, deafening noises of the city, etc In fact, the nature shots – there is one in which the two children walk through a forest – worked well as a juxtaposition of city and nature. The sudden noises of the city following ambient nature sounds have a similar effect to Lav Diaz’s play with sound and silence in Florentina Hubaldo. It not only wakes up the viewer (in case s/he fell asleep). It is a comment on the suffocation in the city, a kind of suffocation Tsai’s characters have endured for over twenty years.

Their endurance, as we can see throughout the film, has taken its toll. A lot of writing on Slow Cinema concerns the absence or lack of pretty much everything. The catch word is “nothing” in the debate of slow films. I don’t like the context in which the word “nothing” is used, because I think that there is a lot happening in slow films. We merely make the mistake of comparing them to action-driven Hollywood blockbusters, forgetting at the same time that slow films show the everyday, and that our lives are not action-driven Hollywood blockbusters.

Nevertheless, I had the word “nothing” in my head throughout the film. It is perhaps better to use the term “emptiness” here. What struck me was the foregrounding of emptiness in Stray Dogs. Tsai’s characters have always been empty, searching for something. Emotions often ran high, but the problem was the set-up of human relationships. Somehow, all characters started off as being lonely, and ended up being lonely again. Stray Dogs stresses this very point. Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai’s long-time collaborator, has nothing left to show, or to do. There’s nothing left inside him. I found him to be an empty shell. A shadow of himself perhaps, understandable given his twenty-year ordeal as a character who just can’t find what he is looking for. Lee’s in a desperate, desolate shape, which makes you want to hug him after you spend so much time with him.

If you have seen Tsai’s other films, you will miss the rather uplifting scenes of, at times, ridiculous musical numbers, such as in The Wayward Cloud. You will also miss the very subtle sense of humour built into films that leave not only the characters depressed at the end. This time, Tsai did not conceal anything. He tackles issues of poverty, loss, despair and hopelessness head on. This makes it a particularly painful watch if you’re used to his usual approach. I thought that Béla Tarr’s farewell film The Turin Horse was bleak. But Tsai topped the Hungarian master, and possibly himself.

It is true, this film can only stand at the end of a career in feature-filmmaking. Tsai continues to work on his short films (the Walker series), but he has expressed his desire to retire from making feature films. At the Q&A with Tarr after the screening of The Turin Horse at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I remember that Tarr said there was nothing left to say. I agree with it wholeheartedly. I have the exact same feeling about Tsai’s Stray Dogs. Another film just wouldn’t make sense. The lead character of all of his films has reached the bottom of existence. Dragging him down more would be impossible. Tsai could choose a different lead actor and continue to make feature films, but he wouldn’t be Tsai if he did this.

Stray Dogs contains several references to Tsai’s previous films. It felt like a compilation, a kind of “let’s bring the best of the best together for a final piece”. A Best-Of film, if you want, at least visually. I remember one high-angle shot over a park or something (my memory is fading), which looked exactly like the high-angle shot in Paris that appears in What Time Is It There? It was a visual journey through Tsai’s filmmaking. And indeed, visual it was. I found that Tsai topped himself in his cinematography this time. He was always one of my favourites with regards to cinematography. But Stray Dogs – oh my. I would have loved to take photographs, to be honest, but I would have probably been arrested. In fact, seeing this film gave me an idea for a journal article. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time for it right now. Here we are again: patience is a virtue.

Stray Dogs is a powerful farewell from cinema. Tsai has certainly put the idea of slowness to the extreme in this film, especially at the end. It was a rather slow and therefore brutal parallel to Lee’s endurance in twenty-years as an empty character. The film leaves you empty, and in a way, it’s an emptiness that cannot and will never be filled with Tsai retiring from filmmaking. How is that for a zig-zag reference to The Hole?

Journey to the West – Tsai Ming-liang (2013)

A lucky accident brought me to an online screener of Tsai Ming-liang’s new and highly acclaimed film Journey to the West. It had its premiere at this year’s Berlinale earlier this year, and even though I tend to avoid reviews in general, especially before I have seen a film, I couldn’t help it with this film. I was too keen on finding out what Tsai did this time.

Journey to the West is (very) loosely based on a Chinese classic of the same name. I’m currently reading it in connection to Tsai’s film. When I read the description on Amazon it sounded like a slow book; a monk travels to the West to fetch scriptures from the Buddha in 200 chapters and 2000 pages. What more do I need to make me happy? It’s a great book, by the way. Entertaining and philosophical at the same time.

Anyway, back to the film, which is, with 53 minutes, longer than Tsai’s first part of his walking series, Walker, which you can also watch online on Vimeo. The first thing I noticed was that Tsai opened up the surroundings, the environment. In Walker, the monk (superbly played by Lee Kang-Sheng) walks slowly (although slow needs a new definition here) through the streets of Hong Kong. In some ways, it’s a simple demonstration of slow and fast, of tradition and modernity, of meditative walking and hasty running.

Journey to the West is set in Marseille, France. It is a kind of “Where’s Wally?” film. In contrast to Walker, the monk in Journey is not always instantly recognisable or visible. There are scenes that require quite a bit of patience and commitment to detect the slow walking monk in his red robe. In short, the monk is not necessarily the main character. The film is a study of an ensemble of people, which wasn’t the case in Walker. In the trailer of the film, you can see the monk walking down stairs, presumably down to a subway station. This take lasts longer than ten minutes. Because of the unique combination of an extended long take and the slow walking of the monk, you get the opportunity to study the people around him; how they react to him, how they haste past him, how they look in amusement, or you can hear what they say about him. One guy, for instance, wondered whether this was a porn film shoot. Speaking of intelligence…

For me, Journey is close to visual perfection. If it hasn’t reached the stage of perfection already. It’s superb and a real joy to watch. It’s Tsai’s most photographic film yet. The beautiful cinematography and the slow walking monk reminded me of Slow Art. The scenes are like photographs, or paintings, which you study closely. You just let them unfold in front of you. It is not about your imposing a meaning. It is about letting the artwork talk to you. This is what Journey was about for me. There is a clear intention of establishing a dialogue between film and viewer in ways that differ so greatly from other films, even from Tsai’s previous films. It is a unique kind of filmmaking, which is difficult to describe to people who haven’t seen it.

Therefore, I shall finish my musings and direct you to the online screener. It is available for only a week, apparently until 27 March, via Arte France. Do watch it if you have the chance. It’s a film experience you won’t forget.

P.S.: I figured last night that the streaming works best with Mozilla Firefox.