Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
April 1-7 at the Metrograph
Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang showed no signs of ceasing to put out work since declaring himself finished with filmmaking after 2013’s excellent feature Stray Dogs—there were several iterations of his “monk walking slowly” series, with Denis Lavant and his ever-present muse Lee Kang-sheng in Walker and Journey to the West, respectively, along with other short-to-mid-length pieces—but Afternoon is his first full-length work since then, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours. Nothing more than a static shot of a conversation between the director and Lee, with rare cuts to black, the work certainly falls somewhere between gallery piece and film, despite its length and the theatrical run it’s receiving.
Nevertheless, managing to integrate the full repertoire of Tsai’s stylistic signatures—extreme long takes, acres of head room in the image, diffuse sexual tension, and many, many glasses of water, among others—Afternoon is far from out of place within the director’s filmography. Shot in a dilapidated room of a house Tsai and Lee have recently purchased together—no glass in the windows, which seem appropriate given Tsai’s reiterations of an obsession with art as ruins—the director does the bulk of the talking, while Lee remains remarkably true to the stoic, impenetrable characters he’s portrayed over their many films together. There’s discussions about film festivals, the production of Stray Dogs, and the director’s fears of mortality, but the heart of the piece is the quasi-sexual rapport between the two. Tsai is gay and Lee is not, and yet the two have lived and worked together for over 20 years. The spillover between the director’s aesthetic obsession and co-dependent relationship with his actor-muse quietly edges Afternoon into the territory Tsai has always mined, where contemporary culture gives birth to strange, half-birthed new forms of relations and desire, beautiful in their incompleteness.
The difference here comes in the mass of extra-textural references, in the form of their shared body of work, which comes to inflect most of their utterances through verbal and aesthetic parallels. One wonders to what degree we can take Afternoon at face value—is it an expression of their relationship through the lens of “making-a-Tsai-film,” or are Tsai films an expression of this relation? Are they playing Tsai-characters, or are Tsai-characters an expression of the Tsai-Lee relation?
It’s easy to write off the film as a glorified DVD extra, and in many ways it is, with little provided for those not versed in the two’s work together, and little of the breathtaking control of much of Tsai’s ultra-formalist work, but as yet another piece of longing and resignation, of quiet joy and glorious long takes, it’s oddly comforting. Tsai’s hermetic filmmaking world takes a quiet step towards us, moving from “fiction-film” towards quasi-documentary, everyday life inching towards us while carrying a world of aesthetic control and obsession along with it.