Monthly Archives: January 2022

“DAYS” — The Need for Reciprocity

“DAYS”

The Need for Reciprocity

Amos Lassen

The great Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang has directed examinations of alienation, isolation, and the fleeting beauty of human connection for decades. His latest film, “Days”, is one of his best, sparest and most intimate works. Lee Kang-sheng stars as a variation on himself, wandering through the urban landscape and seeking treatment in Hong Kong for a chronic illness. At the same time, a young Laotian immigrant working in Bangkok, (Anong Houngheuangsy) goes about his daily routine. These two solitary men eventually come together in a moment of healing, tenderness and sexual release. is a This is work of longing filled with profound empathy.

 “Days” has visual language. It starts out by simply observing Lee—now in his 50s looking out a window at the rain. Running around five minutes with no action or dialogue, this initial scene a kind of meditative stance and rhythm that continues in subsequent scenes as Lee moves around his apartment, doing his daily chores, slicing vegetables for his meal, etc.

The scene shifts when he goes for a treatment on his neck and then the scene shifts again when we are with a young Laotian man in his apartment as he gives himself a bath. We are never told anything about this character, but he’s a certain type of sex worker who gives Lee an erotic massage that occupies much of the film’s second hour.

The film center on the quotidian lives of two unnamed men  and it reflects people’s unspeakable loneliness and alienation in a world lacking in reciprocity. In a series of tableaux, where the camera remains mostly still and sound is entirely diegetic, the uneventful days of the two men unfold.

Director Tsai warns us from the very first frame that the film is intentionally non-subtitled and almost nothing is said in it. During such moments as Lee’s character sitting in a chair and staring at an off-camera window for a long stretch of time, the film unfolds across his face. It tells a story of grief and regret, punctuated by a few loud screams, with the older man’s expressions changing with masterful restraint.

The characters seem driven to silence by the world. The older man tries to mend his aching body with a neck brace and by receiving a crude form of electrical stimulation therapy. He seeks the help of a masseur. That’s when both men meet for the first and only time. The younger one has been summoned to a generic hotel room, where he administers the oiliest of body rubs on the older one, which includes a happy ending—the only one either of them is likely to ever get.

After the massage, the older man jumps in the shower, and the younger man joins him without being invited, diligently lathering the other man’s body. Afterward, the older man hands the younger one his payment and, then, almost forgetting it. He reaches for something in his suitcase: a gift he offers to the masseur before he departs. It’s a small music box, which the young man, touched by the gesture, is quick to wind so he can finally listen to what he has to say, even if by proxy.

The film’s pathos slips through Tsai’s fingers as we listen to the melancholy song produced by the music box yet Tsai is quick to save us by having the young man wind the music box again and again and again, turning the prop into something else altogether. It is something that allows the unsayable in all of its banality to finally be expressed. 

 

“CIRCUS BOY” — What is Family?

“CIRCUS BOY”

 What is Family?

Amos Lassen

 

Lester Alfonso’s new documentary “Circus Boy” looks at reconciliation between mother and son. When Thomas and his husband, Michael adopt Ethan a boy that Thomas is training for circus school, he also seeks to mend the burned bridges with his mother who cannot accept his sexuality and life choices.

Thomas believes that the circus is accessible to all people, and he enjoys helping others find their potentials by developing circus skills. Through seventeen different circus disciplines for all age groups coupled with his love of the challenging Cyr Wheel, his goal is quite simply to make others think highly of themselves. Bringing Ethan into the men’s lives, reignites their love for each other but Thomas is nervous about introducing Ethan to his visiting mother, who wants to meet Ethan’s biological mother and speak to her. This is a look at an unconventional family that chooses an alternate way to love and parenthood. The film challenges our social norms and looks at inclusion showing how some can work out their problems through circus arts and gain acceptance.

With the ways that the term family is being redefined, a movie like this is so very important. Above all, we see that love rises above all else.

 

“BRINGING HIM BACK”— Coming Home

“BRINGING HIM BACK”

Coming Home

Amos Lassen

Moi (Ricardo Gomez) travels with his boyfriend, Biel (Eneko Sagardoy), to his family home after the death of his mother where Moi struggles to come to terms with his new reality. This includes a disconnect with Biel. When his sister’s boyfriend (Joe Manjon) surprises everyone with his arrival, the mood becomes tense. The film is an affecting look at loss, love and human connection that is driven by its characters.

Mio’s sister Mia (Bruna Cusi) has already returned to the house and the three twenty-somethings have idyllic days reminiscing about the past, going to the beach, and learning to adapt to the countryside. Mia and Moi’s lives are somewhat directionless so they are in no rush to leave the house but  it is clear that Moi is suffering from some deep trauma that affects his very being. This trauma intensifies once Mia’s sexy, rather antagonistic, ex-boyfriend Mikel (Joe Manjon) comes unannounced for a visit and a series of sensual series follows. 

Written and directed by Borja de la Vega, the full back story must  be pieced together from clues in the dialogue throughout the film and is fundamental to understanding the plot. I can’t say more than that however without giving the plot away. We are taken on a tender journey to some dark places with themes including family trauma, mental health, human connection, abuse, wound healing and loss. Dialogue is often minimal with the characters communicating through looks and silences, allowing us to imagine what is being thought.

Patience is needed to follow this movie. It is striking that contemplative or minimalist cinematographic language is used. This is a story of emotional stability and principles and the need for fraternal protection.

 

“ARREBATO”—Addiction and Fanaticism

“ARREBATO”
Addiction and Fanaticism

Amos Lassen

“Arrebato” brings together heroin, sex and Super-8  filmmaking and it looks at counterculture. Made in 1979, it was the final feature of cult filmmaker and movie poster designer Ivan Zulueta. It defies genre.

Horror movie director Jose (Eusebio Poncela) is lost in a sea of doubt and drugs. As he nears the completion of his second feature, he faces two events: the sudden reappearance from an ex-girlfriend and a mysterious package from past acquaintance Pedro (Will More)  that contains a reel of Super-8 film, an audiotape and a door key. At this point, the boundaries of time, space and sexuality cease to exist as Jose is pulled into Pedro’s world where together, they face the ultimate hallucinogenic catharsis.

Set in humid Madrid in the late-70s, the film follows José as his life unravels through a combination of the professional (his second film – a vampire story – seems headed for disaster) and the personal (he is in the grip of heroin addiction and his relationship with actress girlfriend Ana (Cecilia Roth) is mutually destructive). After a rough day in the editing room, José arrives home to find that Ana has moved back in to his apartment, and that he has received a package containing audio-visual material created by Pedro, a young man obsessed with the act of filming (and film watching). Much of the film plays out in flashback as Pedro’s recording causes José to remember both their first encounter and their second meeting a year ago (when Ana was also present). In the last section of the film, José goes to Pedro’s apartment to try to solve the mystery contained within the recording and accompanying film.

The title of the film refers to a state of being that the central trio – or at least the two men – seek. As Pedro explains it, they are pursuing the sensation that we have as a child, when we could spend hours focused on one thing and in our own little world. This state relies upon the act of looking (Pedro uses his own Super 8 films as a stimulant), but all three of them also use drugs as their way into the consciousness of rapture. The desire to lose oneself in something (or someone) is a common enough impulse, but here this ecstasy is tinged with horror and the suggestion that both cinema and drugs (the chosen routes into the sublime) are vampiric forces. The film is filled with moments of unsettling beauty alongside a feeling of claustrophobia.

This is a haunting film that is hallucinatory and hypnotic. Bringing together experimental tendencies with the tropes and trappings of genre cinema, Zulueta seeks to understand cinema by interrogating its constitutive elements. The film is a cinephiliac experience, that brings together an intricate web of interrelations with other films.

Zulueta establishes a three-way metaphorical equivalence between vampirism, cinema, and addiction. Cinema itself becomes vampiric as the mysterious blood red frames in Pedro’s footage proliferate seemingly at the expense of his health, and not viewing the footage he’s recently shot throws him into the equivalent of withdrawal.

In his taped instructions to José, which also function as a kind of eerie voiceover throughout “Arrebato”, Pedro advises José to consume his film and digest it. Little do either of them realize that the viewer can just as easily be consumed by cinema. The blurring of boundaries also plays up the presentation of polymorphous sexuality. Pedro admits to having sex with both his cousin (Marta Fernández Muro), an ex-girlfriend of José’s, and her husband. The film also elliptically hints that Pedro and José spend some time having sex together.

José and Pedro each seek to transcend the superficial realism of the film image; they want to escape the camera lens, the object filmed, and the projected image. Their endeavor seems inextricably tied to the heroin addiction which is implied to be a route beyond the existential being. José calls his project “hallucinema,” and Pedro sees it his to going through the looking glass and meeting the Other on the other side.

Today, the film is a time capsule of analog technology and culture.