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Rotterdam Dispatch 4: Was It a Dream?

Rotterdam Dispatch 4: Was It a Dream?

With the presentation of Lee Kang-Sheng’s new film, Help Me Eros, and Tsai Ming-Liang’s installation, Is It a Dream? as part of the New Dragon Inns program (named for Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn), it’s hard not to talk about the two Taiwanese figures in the same breath. They have been long-time collaborators: on-screen at least, Lee has been the face of Tsai for fourteen years, but behind the scenes they work very much together, even when pursuing their own projects. Yet too often has Lee’s directorial work been criticized for being overshadowed by Tsai, and it’s often been unfairly judged in those terms. This is a shame, as it’s no small feat that Lee won Rotterdam’s competitive Tiger Award in 2004 with his debut feature, The Missing. Now, with Help Me Eros, Lee announces his talent as a visual stylist with undeniable originality.

Help Me Eros (Bangbang wo aishen, Lee Kang-Sheng, Taiwan)

Help Me Eros is like the roving dream of a fitful sleeper. Taking place almost entirely at night, it restlessly shifts from place to place, from the garish neon platforms of the Kaohsiung betelnut girls, and the austere white emptiness of Ah Jie’s apartment. Yet for anyone familiar with the visual landscape of Taiwan, many of the seemingly fantastical elements are in fact realistic portrayals of a fantastic place. Contemporary Taiwan is very much at the heart of Lee’s story, crass and materialistic, but also despairing in the wake of dramatic stock market losses. Ah Jie, a former trader, has been hit particularly hard. As he slowly sells off his belongings, he becomes increasingly unhinged, escaping into the haze of smoke and finding anonymous solace in the comforting voice of a suicide hotline worker. And throughout the film, we’re constantly reminded that he’s hardly alone in his suffering: television broadcasts of protests, suicides, and financial hardship frequently play in the background as his life gradually falls apart.

Playing the lead role, Lee is very much the same tragic, Keatonesque figure he has always played in the films of Tsai, who also executive produced and art directed the film. Lonely and languid, Lee shuffles pantless through his home, recites uplifting messages to the marijuana plants in his closet greenhouse, and misses most of the human connections he reaches for while ignoring those that are right in front of him.

On one level, the Eros here refers to the highly theatrical sex scenes, one of which involves a threesome blanketed by iconic designer labels like Fendi and Louis Vuitton. Yet some of the most striking images come from the unexpected horror of the banal, as when two chefs on a cooking show crack an egg only to have an unborn ostrich fall out onto a frying pan. Eros works against this: it’s the longing to touch and meaningfully connect with others in an increasingly fragmented and nonsensical world. This is best expressed in one of the film’s many musical interludes, when Ah Jie drifts off into a drug-induced fantasy about his suicide hotline caseworker, and smoke magically wafts through her phone and into her mouth. The moment recalls the smoke shared through the prison walls of Jean Genet’s seminal Chant d’amour: through the smoke, one’s presence is passed across the lines, a kiss against impossible odds. At its best, Help Me Eros is just like this—one deep breath, slowly exhaled.

Is It a Dream? (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan)

Before Tsai made Goodbye Dragon Inn, there came recurring dreams of a movie palace recalled from his childhood in Malaysia, and it’s this theater that’s literally brought to us in the installation Is It a Dream?, originally presented at the Taiwan Pavilion at the most recent Venice Biennale. With the worn seats of the original theater transported to the gallery space and a short film projected in front, Tsai’s piece recreates the theater of his memories and dreams. The theater itself takes center stage in the film we watch: we never see the movie screen, but only the rapt expressions of the small family sitting in the otherwise empty theater. Their seats are our seats: as I watched the film, I could imagine them sitting in my place, feeling the same frayed armrest and hearing the loud creaks of the chair whenever the slightest movement was made. In this way the installation, however closely mapped to Tsai’s experience, works quietly on us, making apparent our own private rituals of moviegoing.

As with Goodbye Dragon Inn, the theater is almost completely empty, and in a few simple shots, Tsai manages to construct a family across generations, not only at the cinema, but also through it, in the collective pleasure of sharing a movie. The grandmother is at times pictured as a young woman nonchalantly offering a man a stick of pear wedges, and also a framed photograph leaned against a seat. As the family gradually fades away in their seats, their presence is like that of a haunting. In many ways, we too are its ghosts, unsure, as the song asks, if “this is a dream or reality.” And this is always the question where it concerns the cinema. In a way, it’s both: it’s the seats we sit in and the world we imagine, it’s the different lives we embody, on-screen and in the theater, the accumulated presence of all those who have come before us to experience the same rapture. For Tsai, the space of the theater is sacred, with offerings of fruit, the grandmother’s photograph (a common fixture on family shrines), and even a shrine-like stand housing the projector in the back of the gallery.

Later that day, I arrived just after the lights went down on Lee Kang-Sheng’s afternoon screening of Help Me Eros. As I scanned the packed theater looking for an available seat, someone turned around from the front row and graciously offered me one of the reserved chairs behind him. The person was none other than Tsai himself, seated beside Lee, both of them joyfully anticipating the start of the film. It was as if the experience of Is It a Dream? had followed me into waking life, and the title of the piece was now less a question than a certainty. As the opening titles came up, I considered how lucky and how strange it was that Tsai had once again invited me to sit down in a theater, and how, in the dark, we all fall into the same dream. —GENEVIEVE YUE

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