Chinese Minimalism in Two Flavors

A quartet of films yesterday, the first two of which I chose not to attend because of work that needed to be done.  The final two, though, were ones I was unwilling to miss:

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

Sleep Alone 2 Director Tsai Ming-Liang (Rebels of the Neon God, Viva L’amour, What Time is it There? ) makes incredibly minimalist, visually stunning films.  Dialogue is always virtually non-existent and the narrative, if it can be described as that, is more a series of vignettes moving in one direction rather than a story that goes from A to Z.  His films touch on themes of loneliness, love, and how people in modern life struggle to find a connection with others.  For most viewers, his films move at much too languid a pace – a scene of a woman crying over a failed relationship in Viva L’amour goes on for five minutes – but I find his works to be haunting, lingering in my mind for a long time afterwards.

The story is not too complex, although unlikely: set in the darker, multi-ethnic immigrant side of the director’s native Kuala Lumpur, Hsiao-kang, a homeless Chinese man (Lee Kang-Sheng, the director’s muse) is beaten by some con men, subsequently discovered on the street by a group of illegal Bangladeshi workers who are carrying a flea-bitten mattress they’ve found back to their flat.  They load him onto the mattress and bring him back, too.

Sleep Alone 4 One of the workers, Rawang (Norman Bin Atun) nurses Hsiao-kang back to health with a loving attentiveness that never blossoms into anything more.  Perhaps he is content just to have another human being to care for, when his job is working alone at the abandoned construction site of an office building (these shells where building stopped after the economic crisis of 1997 will be familiar to those of you who’ve travelled to Bangkok or KL), supervising the pumps that are slowly removing water from a flooded basement.

As Hsiao-kang regains his strength, he starts to explore the surrounding neighborhood, meeting Chyi, a waitress at a coffee-shop who lives upstairs at her female boss’ house where she is also responsible for carrying for the boss’ paralyized, possibly comatose son (also played by Lee Kang-Sheng, in a bit of confusing casting).

Sleep Alone 3 A love triangle forms between Hsiao-kang, Chyi and her boss, and eventually becomes a rectangle also involving Rawang.  As the title implies, no one wants to sleep alone.  But none of this develops very clearly; instead every attempt to find physical connection is halting and, often, halted.  One of the most interesting scenes is when Hsiao-kang and Chyi drag that flea-infested mattress to the construction site and attempt to make love.  Amidst the heavy smoke that has blanketed the city from forest fires in far-away Indonesia, despite their improvised masks, Hsiao-kang and Chyi’s love-making descends into a symphony of hacking coughs that keep them from connecting in their intended way.

Sleep Alone 1 Cameraman Liao Pen-Jung has paired with Tsai on his previous works and together they continue to create beautiful images that show a masterful understanding of light.  One of the most gorgeous shots – apart from the scenes in the abandoned shell of a building, which are incredibly beautiful – is when Rawang helps Hsiao-kang to the bathroom to relieve himself when he is too weak to do it himself.  As they stand there, arms around each other, the light falls across them from a nearby window illuminating a dark and barren concrete room.  It is an image that would be considered masterful in any other medium.

 

While I viewed this movie I considered that the Thai film I saw the other day, Sanctuary Rhapsody, may have been trying to go for the same effect: slow pace, lingering shots, minimal dialogue.  Sadly, while immitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, there is a wide gulf between mimicry and mastery.


Isabella

Isabella 1 Hong Kong director Pang Ho-Cheung (Beyond Our Ken, You Shoot, I Shoot) helms this Macao-set film, which takes place in the days before the handover to China.  Shing (Chapman To), a Macao cop on the take who has been suspended for suspected corruption, is the quintessential bachelor – bringing home a string of girlfriends for one night and sometimes longer.  He wakes up one morning to find a young lady, Yan (Isabella Leong) sitting in his living room, presumably his lover from the night before.  She informs him that she is his daughter and that her mother – his first girlfriend – recently died of cancer.

As he panics over the thought of having slept with his daughter, she explains that she actually slipped in as the previous night’s girl left, but not until she has let him sweat about it for a bit.  When he asks what she wants, she asks for 3,000 dollars to pay back rent and for his assistance finding her lost dog, Isabella.

Isabella 3 The film is ultimately the story of two people trying to find a family, however incongruous a family it may be.  It takes a fairly convention approach to story-telling, although the director throws in a few misdirections, causing the audience to wonder if a romantic spark is igniting after all.  But it is not the case; instead, Shing warms to having a daughter and Yan finds comfort in finally having a father.

Isabella 2 Lest it seem to conventional, there is an additional layer of intrigue as Shing considers what to do with his impending arrest.  He purchases a gun and is set to snuff out the informant who snitched on him, preparing also to flee to Thailand with his new-fond daughter.

Visually, the film looks to owe a lot to HK director Wong Kar-Wai.  Some will assert that this visual style is quite common now among HK filmmakers, but Wong was the grandfather of it all.  Fading Macao makes for a beautiful backdrop, though, with rough colonial textures and hues at once tropical and rusted.  DP Charlie Lam captures it for full effect.  The film also makes strong use of its soundtrack including original music by Peter Kam. 

 

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