Leave it to Tsai Ming-liang to make something special out of a two-hour-and-ten-minute documentary of two people talking. “Afternoon” sees the filmmaker in conversation with his biggest muse, closest confidant, and lead actor for over 20 years, Lee Kang-sheng. It takes place in a derelict building (naturally), with a window behind either side of the two interlocutors. Through those windows; the world. Luscious greenery, a beautifully blue sky, and an intruding wind whispering in from time to time, are the supporting characters to what turns out to be a profoundly touching and revelatory discussion. Shot in a single composition, as if frozen in time, Tsai’s prodigious talent for framing — witnessed since “Rebels of the Neon God” in 1992 all the way to his last masterpiece, “Stray Dogs” — is on full-on display and worthy of the world’s most prestigious art galleries.
Angled so as to have the corner of the room slightly off-kilter from the centre of the frame, the static shot (which “blinks” by cutting to black) juxtaposes the dilapidated interiors with the vibrant life seen through the windows in a way that submerges the viewer into the shot wholeheartedly. Through the ebbs and flows of the discourse, the mind can’t help but wonder at all the possible metaphors and double meanings contained in the frame, especially when talk shifts to the “ruins” of Tsai’s cinema. Tsai is the one who does most of the talking, with the picture playing more like “My Afternoon With Tsai” dynamic, but only because Lee’s nature is decidedly more reserved, introverted, almost indifferent.
The two men’s personalities, and how diametrically opposed they are from one another, is one of many fascinating topics on display, as they discuss each other’s temperaments and how their artistic collaboration feeds off of them. “Afternoon” was spurred on by the news of “Stray Dogs” getting a screening in an art gallery, and while their discussion does touch up on their latest film — the now-infamous cabbage scene from that film is discussed at length in a pointedly revealing exchange about Tsai’s direction of Lee’s acting — the real reason behind the talk is Tsai’s recent thoughts about death. Trying to understand his own sense of belonging, something that he’s been searching for his entire life, and attempted to find through his films, Tsai bares his deepest thoughts. Meanwhile, Lee Kang-shen’s indifference and pragmatic way of thinking contrasts with the director’s philosophical mindset in an eternally endearing way. “Aren’t we supposed to talk about ‘Stray Dogs?’ ” Lee quips, completing his first full sentence after a near half-hour monologue from the director. It’s not the first time that “Afternoon” becomes genuinely funny.
The discussion ranges from Tsai’s mortality, overwhelming the 57-year-old director with waves of emotion, to how the two men perceive one another in a working environment versus their private lives. They reminisce on old films they’ve made together, and Tsai wonders why he feels so protective of Lee, always concerned about his health and safety. Lee, in turn, has both of his feet firmly on the ground. He talks about the film industry as just a way to make a living and hangs on to the simple things in life that make him happy: spending time with his dogs, or fulfilling his dream of driving a sports car. When Tsai asks him if he’ll cry at his funeral, Lee nonchalantly responds that he doesn’t like to think about stuff that makes him sad. On discussing travel and what his favorite place in the world is, it’s “Thailand, because it’s affordable.” Meanwhile, Tsai talks of Lee as a gift from God, how he really exists by not existing, and ponders on whether they’ll meet in the next life.
As tremendous as the composition of the shot is, and as captivating as the conversation becomes, patience is severely, inevitably, tested. Anyone familiar with their work together is well aware of how supremely slow their cinema is, and “Afternoon” is by far the biggest glacier in Tsai Ming-liang’s filmography. Endure, however, and you’ll be rewarded with an intimate portrait of one of the least talked-about actor-director collaborations around, one that may very well be the deepest in all of cinema. Ultimately, “Afternoon” is full of small, rewarding treasures