Friday, April 1, 2016

Movie Review: Afternoon

Directed by: Ming-liang Tsai.
Featuring: Ming-liang Tsai, Kang-sheng Lee.
Afternoon is a movie that will admittedly have a very limited appeal – especially in North America. While Malaysian born, Taiwan based director Tsai Ming-liang has been an important, international auteur for more than 20 years, his films have never really broken through in North America – outside of festival screenings, and the artiest of art houses. After his 2013 film, Stray Dogs (that many think is his masterpiece), he said he was going to retire from feature filmmaking, and even though he has directed shorts since then, and now Afternoon, he has pretty much kept his word. Afternoon is somewhat a documentary, but in reality it`s really a filmed conversation between Tsai and his long time leading man-muse-alter-ego Lee Kang-sheng. And it’s barely even a conversation for much of its running time – its Tsai simply singing Lees praises over the course of one long afternoon. The film is made up of four identical shots – a stationary camera looks upon Tsai and Lee as the sit in chairs, in a room in the house in the mountains they share. The trees are coming in through the glass free windows, and we see the mountains in the background. It seems like a beautiful spot. Yet, even for diehard fans of Tsai and Lees many films, I cannot help but think the conversation they have isn’t quite what they would are expecting, and perhaps not even what they want. Many of the titles of their movies are mentioned, but there is almost no behind the scenes details about those movies, or how they were made.
So what, then is Afternoon about. It is really about Tsai’s love for Lee – as a person, and as an actor. Tsai discovered Lee, and has been obsessed with him ever since. He simply loves filming Lee, likes his screen presence, and likes the way he is able to convey a lot without seemingly doing much. Lee has worked with other directors, on other movies, but the jury is still out if he really is a great actor, or whether it was just that Tsai found the perfect person to be in his very specific films. The long, unbroken shots in Afternoon are extreme versions of the ones that Tsai has included in all of his films – often with his camera trained on Lee.
What is fascinating about Afternoon is that although these two are obviously extremely comfortable with each other, and as the film makes clear rarely go a day without talking – even when they are not in the same place, Tsai says he calls Lee every day – something that has angered some of his partners over the years (Tsai is gay, Lee is not – although he has often been cast as a gay man by Tsai) – but we get the impression that many of the very personal admissions that Tsai makes to Lee have perhaps never been spoken between them before. The film really is Tsai’s tribute to Lee – a film where he can make it very clear just how much he adores and admires the man who will forever be linked with the director, and his films.
The film, which runs two hours and seventeen minutes, it must be said can be quite dull and monotonous at times – especially in some extended sequences where the two have seemingly run out of things to say, and have to be prodded by the mainly off-screen crew (occasionally an arm or head of one them enter the frame). The film doesn’t seem like much of a film unto itself – I cannot imagine non-fans of the pair getting very much of anything out of the film. In truth, it may probably work best as an extra on a Criterion Blu-ray of Stray Dogs (or as part of an Eclipse series of their films).
Yet, I cannot deny that the film really did win me over. Perhaps it was the fact that I saw it at TIFF – which can be such a hectic schedule, running from one screening to the next, and the film is such a serene and calming experience – as well as mainly a pleasant one. The film is more of a coda to Tsai and Lees films together rather than a film unto itself – but for its modest goals, the film is actually quite good. It’s hard to argue with the pair themselves who share an exchange at one point, where Tsai talks about his health, and how they may not have too many more chances to talk (why, I don’t know, especially since Tsai is still in his 50s) – and Lee wonders aloud if they have said very much of anything at all. True, they haven’t. But oddly Afternoon still works – it is a lovely little film – just don’t expect too much from it.

Note: I saw Afternoon at TIFF 2015, and as far as I know, this is the same version playing in (a few) theaters this week.

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