Monday, April 24, 2006

The pornographic musical

New York is probably the movie-lover capital of the world, but the San Francisco film festival scene is outstanding. Counting only the major ones, every year there is an Asian Film Festival, an Independent Film Festival, the International Film Festival and the Frameline (gay and lesbian) Film Festival. In addition, there is a German Film Festival, a Jewish Film Festival, the various cycles of movies run by the PFA in Berkeley, the retrospectives at the Castro and so on. A couple of years ago, a horror film festival was introduced, called Another Hole in the Head. Clearly, the tagline of the advertising campaign was
San Francisco needed another film festival like Another Hole in the Head

(The 2006 edition is coming up, by the way.)

At these festivals I have seen a number of unforgettable movies that never received wide distribution in the US. One such movie was Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye Dragon Inn. Tsai Ming-liang is part of a generation of East Asian directors that have been inspired by a certain French style of movie making: through the movie, nothing really happens, except that you start to read between the lines of what the characters are saying, and to gain some insight about what they are thinking. When a resolution feels imminent, the movie ends abruptly. Tsai Ming-liang has taken this style and worked out a reductio ad absurdum. Two scenes from Goodbye Dragon Inn are seared in my memory. One scene is set in the restroom of a movie theater. There is a line of urinals, each with an ashtray next to it. A man is standing, smoking, at the urinal closest to the camera. He stands there, smokes, then puts the cigarette down on the ashtray. He keeps standing there. Other people come and go at the other urinals. He picks up the cigarette, he smokes. He puts the cigarette down, and so on. This goes on for a very, very long time. When an empty scene is kept going so long, what happens is that it becomes funny, then annoying, and finally funny again. It takes a tremendous sense of timing to make it work. (Actually, the scene is not completely empty: it is understood that some cruising is going on in the theater, and possibly, in the restroom, so one expects the scene to go off in a certain direction, but nothing happens.) Later, the cashier of the movie theater goes through the theater to pick up the trash. She wears a tutor on her knee, and so she walks with a limp, and she makes a metallic noise at each step. The theater is huge, and she goes, for ever, up and down the stair picking up the trash. The genius is that, at the end of this truly torturous scene, during which the audience alternatively groans and guffaws (a few people left), we see the cashier exiting the scene, and the scene does not end: we see the empty theater, and the noise of the limping cashier walking out of sight.

As an immediate reaction, I hated this movie. Somehow, the following day, I loved it. I tried to see other movies by him, but What time is it over there did not work for me (the scenes just felt annoying), and I was told not to even try to watch The river.

Right now, the International Film Festival is going on, and tonight's main attraction was Tsai Ming-liang's last movie, The wayward cloud. The movie was introduced as a pornographic musical, and that's a fairly good description. What is the movie about? That's obviously not the right question, but suffices to say that the premise is that Taiwan goes through a water shortage, and watermelons become the cheapest source of hydration. Indeed, watermelons figure quite prominently in the movie.

We get to see Lee Kang-sheng, the inscrutable projectionist of Goodbye Dragon Inn, shake watermelon seeds off his pubic hair, chase live crabs on a kitchen floor, sing a musical number in a dress, and repeatedly have intercourse with an overweight and accident-prone porn actress. The timing is almost always flawless and the last scene is unforgettable for the classical French style it is shot in (with the long takes and the close-ups) and the scandalous content. It goes without saying (it's part of this style of film-making) that the movie has no dialog. Some supporting characters have lines, but nobody ever says something to which someone else replies. The main characters, of course, speak no line in the entire movie.


  1. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/24/2006 04:58:00 AM

    Thanks! I didn't know his movies, and seems that I now have something to look forward to. How does he compare to say Kim Ki-duk's latest production?

    Unfortunately, Amazon UK sells his DVD-s in NTSC/region 1 encoding :(. Fortunately, serves us better this time (at least the Taiwanese versions are region 3 and have English subtitles).

  2. Blogger Luca
    4/24/2006 07:54:00 PM

    There are similarities in the style.

    I find Kim Ki-duk's movies easier to like because they are warmer. My impression is that Tsai Ming-liang is more distant from his characters, and employs more irony. In Goodbye Dragon Inn, the affection of the cashier for the projectionist is very touching, but, in the scene where she cleans the trash we (the audience) are (I think) supposed to laugh at her, undermining the feelings we may have for her.

    Or perhaps looking at the relationship between audience and characters is entirely the wrong way to think about his movies. I don't know.

  3. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/25/2006 12:50:00 PM

    if you want to see a movie that has no dialog, yet expresses through screen play, see the movie called
    "Pushpak"(Indian Movie). It is a great movie representing that genre.
    In fact after seeing that movie you may actually feel that dialog was not at all required.

  4. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/26/2006 05:17:00 PM

    Hey, I was there with you at that movie. In fact, I do remember that you didn't like it, good to know that it didn't last long :) By the way, I think "the river" and "the hole" are also cool. All his movies have a very recognizable atmosphere and feel like episodes from the same movie (the same way for example Egoyan's movies are recognizable). Anyways, of course I haven't seen his new one, since our beloved Boston is busy with touch football tournaments and not film festivals.


  5. Blogger Luca
    4/27/2006 12:33:00 AM

    Maybe I'll try to watch The river, after all.

  6. Anonymous Anonymous
    5/16/2006 02:46:00 PM

    Interestingly, you left out my chief impression of the wayward cloud, which was of sound. Although there are musicals interspersed among the other scenes, most of the movie seems to have the sound completely unedited. At first, I loved having my attention drawn to all the sounds (other than spoken language) that accompany mundane actions (instead of to a soundtrack); eventually, I wanted to tear my hair out because, without dialogue or music to distract me, I couldn't stop focusing on the little noises of every scene, especially the squelching and squishing of one of the later food/sex scenes. Even innocuous noises began to sound like fingernails on a chalkboard.


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