A Film a Week - Taste / Vi

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

The Vietnamese filmmaker Le Bao has already shown a considerable talent with his shorts, but after his feature debut “Taste” he seems destined to be regarded as one of the most promising auteurs of today and tomorrow. Taste premiered at Berlinale’s more daring and avant-garde competition programme Encounters where it was awarded with the Special Jury Prize. For a reason, since it is one of a kind gripping viewing experience.

The filmmaker demonstrates his sure hand right from the opening long take from the fixed position. An ageing local football coach puts the figurines resembling the over-sized chess pawns on a model of the pitch. The dressing room looks “spartan”, its walls are bare and the benches holding the complete team are simple. One face and one figure stands out from the rest of the crew: the African man credited as Bassley only in the closing (played by Olegunleko Ezekiel Gbenga) is not just taller and larger than his teammates, but he also has his leg in cast, which is a clear sign of trouble. Le refers from contextualizing, as he does not need to, but in that place we should be aware that the professional football is a relative novelty in South East Asia and that the foreign players coming from Europe, South America and Africa usually have the star status. That is, as long as they are fit to do their job.

That is not the case with our protagonist who is about to meet the life quite opposite of stardom. Once sacked from the team, he supports himself by working as a cleaner and an aide in a barbershop in a skid row part of Saigon and living in the back room. At the same time, the four middle-aged women whose names we also get only in the end credits sequence, Hanh (Nguyen Thi Cam Xuan), Thuong (Vu Thi Tham Thin), Trang (Le Thi Dung) and Mien (Khuong Thi Minh Nga) lead their unfulfilled lives defined by the endless, repetitive menial labour in the same part of the town. The “plot”, if there is any to speak of, starts with five of them, Bassley and the four women, moving in together to an empty building. There they live the communal life cooking, bathing, sleeping together, taking care of their beauty and well-being, enjoying the simple entertainment by the means of TV and a portable karaoke machine. The clothes are abandoned and Bassley occasionally has sex with the women. The whole thing seems utopian, but the question is if it can last…

There is almost no dialogue throughout the film, which puts the actors is a position of disadvantage, as they have to play their characters only by the means of movement and gestures, while facial expressions and micro-acting plays the part only in the rare close-up shots. However, the clarity of Le’s vision and the precision of his instructions are impeccable, the actors’ actions are synchronized that they resemble either a ritual or a dream. There are a few monologues in the film, Bassley speaks only in Yoruba (two of his themes are the son he has left behind in Nigeria when he departed to Saigon to earn money and the memory of his first erection), while one of the women also narrates how she lost her family in Vietnamese, raising the issue of language as the possibly obsolete code of the communication.

Another potential shocker of the film is the sheer amount of nudity in its middle section. Surely, there is a bit of eroticism to it, but it is subdued to the sense that everything our quintet does is a sort of a ritual or at least routine. That might also serve as a social commentary of the troubled Vietnamese history of the 20th century, from the WW2 to the American intervention (some action happening on the bunk bed points to it), but Le does not dwell too much on it, the same way he does not make the crumbling buildings, the austere indoors, the dirt on the streets and the vessel improvized from a gigantic pot the examples of the “misery porn”. If there is any “porn” in the film, it is strictly related to the food and the feasts our quintet enjoys making for themselves.

It is not too hard to trace the influences on Le’s filmmaking style driven by observations and careful staging of the scanty spaces, sometimes to the heart-warming humourous effect. There are traces of Pedro Costa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang, but Le is mostly faithful to himself. In order to achieve that, he relies on the technical crew. The cinematographer Nguyen Vinh Phuc works wonders in the dim lighting and with almost unfurnished spaces (kudos also to the production designer Le Van Thanh), the colouring work of Yov Moor is so hypnotic that the viewer is sometimes convinced that “Taste” is a “shades of grey”-type of a black and white movie, while the meditative editing by Lee Chatametikool suits the film and its oneiric feeling perfectly.

Le was also lucky enough to get the right production team on board, including the former Singapore International Film Festival senior programmer Lai Weijie, whose previous credit is the international success of Kirsten Tan’s “Pop Aye” (2017). “Taste” is one of the biggest revelations of Berlinale and it seems that it will rise to the status of a provocative festival hit on this year’s circuit.

No comments:

Post a Comment