After GOOD BYE, DRAGON INN, Tsai Ming-Liang's dreamy love letter to the cinema of his youth, and THE WAYWARD CLOUD, a sequel of sorts to his best known film, WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?, the Taiwan-based director switches gears for another tale of lust and loneliness set for the first time in his homeland, Malaysia.
Badly beaten by a petty street swindler and dumped on a roadside in Kuala Lumpur, an unidentified man (Tsai's regular leading man, Lee Kang-sheng) is nursed back to health by Rawang (Norman Atun), one of the group of men who happened to find the unconscious stranger while hauling an old abandoned mattress back to the abandoned building they call home. Though it's not clear exactly where Rawang hails from, he's clearly one of the many foreign laborers who flocked to Kuala Lumpur before the Asian economic crisis of the 1990s put a halt to the city's grand construction plans, and who eek out their living doing illegal labor while making the now-derelict workers' housing complex their home. The complex was left unfinished, and is really little more than a sprawling concrete cavern filled with coiling, Escher-esque stairwells and vast, half-built floors that surround a black pool of standing water that has collected in a central courtyard. Rawang and the stranger don't share a common language but the do share a bed, and as he tends to his bruises, Rawang begins to fall in love with him. The stranger, meanwhile, falls for a waitress (Chen Shiang-chyi) at a local coffee shop operated by an older woman (Pearlly Chua). In addition to living in small attic space above her boss's apartment, she also helps tend to the older woman's paralyzed, comatose son (also played by Lee Kang-sheng) whom the waitress can see staring blindly up at her through a crack in her floor. As Rawang pines for his charge, the stranger proceeds to seduce both the waitress and her boss, while a strange smoky haze descends on the city.
While once again featuring the director's favorite actor (Lee Kang-sheng) and actress (Chen Shiang-chyi), it doesn't seem to part of the larger story he's been telling in films like REBELS OF THE NEON GOD, VIVE L'AMOUR, THE RIVER, WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? and THE WAYWARD CLOUD, although neither character is ever named. It is, however, stylistically consistent with the auteur's other films long takes, minimal dialogue, perfect composition and once again demands a sharp eye and ever sharper wits: Major characters are often to be found lurking about in the background and what little action each scene may contain sometimes occurs in extreme long-shot. Piecing together the story and relationships among the characters, however, has always been the major challenge and pleasure of Tsai's richly rewarding films, but even if you lose the exact thread, there's still plenty to savor. In addition to the regional pop music that once again fills his soundtrack, Tsai finds great beauty in streets of Kuala Lumpur particularly at night, making this gorgeous film one that should be seen on a large screen in the total darkness of a theater. (In Chinese Mandarin, Malay and Bengali with English subtitles.) leave a comment --Ken Fox