The Alternative Closing Night Gala
Yep that's right, whilst some muppets headed in the direction of Leicester Square for the Closing Night Gala screening of Babel (and if Inarritu's previous, horribly overrated work is anything to go by, this will be a tedious, self-satisfied and dour experience), I headed to the NFT (soon to be rebranded as BFI Southbank) for two weird and wonderful films on the last night of the festival. Both, in slightly differing ways, reminded me a little of the recent work of Korea's Kim Ki-Duk, particularly 3 - Iron and Spring, Summer, Autumn Winter...and Spring. No bad thing.
First up was Tsai Ming-Liang's I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, a defiantly dreamy and mysterious mood piece that I found completely enthralling. The slow pace is tricky initially, and I'm not sure British audiences will be all that easily prepared to yield to it. Indeed, about 20 minutes in, there was a mass exodus from the cinema. Only one of Tsai's last five films has received any kind of significant cinematic distribution in the UK (Goodbye, Dragon Inn). Even accounting for this, it astounds me that people pay inflated festival prices to see movies having done no background research on the director. Tsai is an auteur with a very singular style that requires some patience on the part of the audience. This film contains virtually no dialogue, and instead unfolds in long, wordless sequences that emphasise the physical and erotic tensions between the characters. It's a technique completely alien to western audiences - and this film has a unique intimacy and peculiar force all of its own. In places, it's also very funny, which will do much to stifle any accusations of pretentiousness that Tsai may well be placed with. Much of the language comes from the frequent interjection of songs - either captured on radios or performed by street musicians. They all serve to enhance the opaque but haunting mood of the images.
The film is essentially a visual musing on the nature of physical desire, and, perhaps more controversially, the erotic associations implicit in acts of care. A homeless man is beaten to a pulp by a criminal gang demanding money, and is eventually helped out, and offered half of an old mattress, by a member of a group of immigrant workers. The two men sleep next to each other chastely, but a number of carefully filmed scenes depict the physical and emotional tensions between them. Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds whereby a young woman cares for the paralysed son of a cafe owner. She is humiliated by her domineering female boss. As he recovers, the homeless character of the other story becomes intimately involved with both women, and torn between them and his chaste relationship with his own carer. As a toxic heat haze descends on the city, all three characters begin to give way to their desires and the results are strangely compelling.
I Don't Want To Sleep Alone is Tsai's first film to be produced in his native Malaysia (previously he has worked in Taiwan, effectively in exile). The use of location is masterful, from the cafe to the extraordinary abandoned factory flooded with water. The photography is consistently enthralling, and the final sequences have a rapturous quality unlike anything else I've seen in recent years. Some will no doubt react adversely to Tsai's uncompromising high-mindedness, but I found this to be a bold, beautiful and intelligently provocative work from a modern master.
Zhang Ke Jia's Still Life was a last minute addition to the festival, and surprise winner of the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival. It's safe to say that this film relies a lot more on conventional narrative and characterisation than Tsai's film, but it still has a surreal strangeness and glacial pace unusual for western audiences. It also interweaves two stories, although not as explicitly. Set in the village of Fengjie (now demolished) on the site of the extraordinary Three Gorges Dam (the world's largest Hydroelectric project), it tells the story of two characters returning to the city looking for loved ones. A man is looking for his wife and child, neither of whom he has seen in the last 16 years, whilst a woman arrives looking for her husband, although it is some time before we appreciate her motive.
Whilst the film certainly achieves some emotional impact from their stories (although some may be more bemused by the dry, almost deadpan nature of the performances), it is less about plot than theme and mood. Zhang's greatest success in this picture is to capture the strange atmosphere of a place being demolished to make way for man-made floods, with all the confusion and transitory sensations that arise from forced relocation. There are two very bizarre scenes - one in which the two main characters see a UFO fly through the valley (is this purely to give some sense that their experiences are linked?), and another where a superimposed spaceship appears to blast off entirely unexpectedly. I'm not sure these sequences added very much, although I appreciated the final surrealist image of a man walking a tightrope between two high buildiings a good deal more, as this seemed to symbolise the precarious nature of the local lives of this region more effectively. It's ultimately a straightforward, if inclonclusive work, although its masterful handling of time and place, landscape and atmosphere, adds considerable weight and impact. Again, like Tsai's film, the intervention of music is significant - in this case some spectacularly cheesy Chinese pop music, with a romantic lyricism that seems peculiarly intoxicating. The Venice award should mean it gets full UK distribution next year, which is good news for anyone prepared to look beyond the ordinary for their cinematic fixes.