Working in his native country of Malaysia for the first time rather than in Taipei, where most of his movies are set, Tsai takes us into the seedy underbelly of hot and dangerously smoggy Kuala Lumpur, where we tag along with a merry band of impoverished immigrant Bangladeshi construction workers who are lugging an old and stained futon to their hovel. To them, it's a treasure. Along the way they run into a homeless guy (Tsai's main man, Lee Kang-shen), who's been brutally beaten while trying to out-con a con artist. One of the workers, Rawang (Nathan Atun), takes responsibility for gently nursing the poor guy back to health and enjoys sleeping next to him with a not-quite-platonic vibe.
As he recovers, the homeless guy begins to chase after a local waitress named Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi). She works for a tough boss (Pearly Chua) who forces her to take care of her paralyzed and possibly comatose son who lives upstairs. The interesting part: The paralyzed guy is also played by Lee Kang-shen with a different haircut. We have a doppelganger on our hands. Is one man a projection of the other? Is all this a dream? Is it the same man at different times? It's a head scratcher for sure.
The sadness and loneliness is palpable as Rawang tries to connect with the homeless guy, the homeless guy tries to connect with Chyi, Chyi tries to avoid both her boss and the paralyzed guy, and the boss makes a move on the homeless guy. While that may sound action-packed, nothing could be further from the truth. Tsai is famous for -- and sometimes derided for -- his excruciatingly long and painstakingly composed takes. Watching his films can feel like walking slowly through a quiet art gallery. Most of the characters actually say little or nothing. It's all glances and body language, with radios and street noise humming in the background.
Rawang works at an abandoned skyscraper construction site with lower levels that have been flooded. This remarkable set looks like some kind of modern Roman ruin, and the deep dark pool seems to draw all the characters to it. (Tsai is famous for his obsession with images of water. In his previous films it's always raining.)
Toward the end of the movie a toxic smog envelops the city, and the characters all don masks, leaving nothing but their eyes visible. Still, the homeless guy, who, truth be told, is nothing much to look at and has literally no personality, continues to exude a weirdly intense sexual energy that attracts everyone around him. (The mysterious Lee manages to do this in every Tsai film.) The movie is at its erotic best as he and Chyi clumsily try to make love at the construction site while still masked, in his case with a plastic shopping bag.
Tsai is one of those love-him-or-hate-him auteurs. There's no middle ground. Some will hate him for his lack of concern for forward momentum and traditional plot. Others, like me, will go ga-ga for his technical achievements and meditative pauses and laud him for pulling so much emotion out of so little action and dialog. To his credit, he's not the least bit precious about his craft. In interviews he laughs easily at himself and his obsessions. It would be great fun to take him out to dinner just to ask him, "So about that homeless guy and that paralyzed guy..."
Aka He yan quan.
Out, out damned butterfly.
In Theaters: Friday 23rd March 2007
Distributed by: Strand Releasing
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Fresh: 34 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Screenwriter: Tsai Ming-liang
Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie brings a dark and gritty tone to this larger-than-life franchise. Along with...
With a spectacular setting and two solid actors on-screen, this thriller builds enough solid suspense...
Those bright sparks at Pixar have done it again, taking a fiercely original approach to...
Slick direction and meaty performances may be enough for some viewers, but this boxing drama's...
Loose and impressionistic, this beautifully shot film traces the career of a DJ who pioneered...
Without a single moment of originality, this found-footage horror movie really deserves to be the...
An intriguing premise keeps the audience gripped for about 20 minutes before the movie runs...