2008-01-11

Help Me, Eros

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed.

1 Corinthians 15.36-7 NRSV

So begins the personal liturgy of Ah Jie, the marijuana-savouring antihero of Help Me, Eros (Bangband wo aishen, 幫幫我愛神), a new Taiwanese art film that opened today. The film represents a haunting and darkly comic new addition to the oeuvre of filmmakers Lee Kang-sheng (李康生) and Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮).

Bodies and souls of all sorts figure prominently in this story. Textures of haze and grit, feast and famine, pain and thrill unfold at the pace of a chant. The story, set in Kaohsiung and told in Mandarin and Taiwanese, revolves around two characters who are living lives of quiet but dire desperation. Each finds a form of solace in an addition as each seeks a solution.

Ah Jie, the central character (played by Lee), is a financially ruined man whose marijuana plants hold sacred status in the repossessed home he still secretly occupies. In his despair and haze he has come to depend on a regular exchange of phone and IM messages with a counselor at a support hotline. The woman never permits him to meet her, and he passes over clues to her real identity as he imagines another woman in the role. The counselor, played by Liao Hui-chen, 廖慧珍, has troubles of her own. Though financially more secure than her client, she is at least his equal in emptiness and uses food to fill the void. A moment of grace enters Ah Jie's life in the form of a betel nut beauty (Ivy Yi 尹馨) whose kiosk stands on the curb outside his apartment.

Eros juxtaposes documentary realism and iconic myth in a way that recalls the films of Leos Carax (Les Amants, Maivais sang) or Krzysztof Kieslowski (ronique). Explicitly staged sexual encounters, as its title suggests, are an integral part of this story. These encounters, like countless images in the film, go from candid to surreal in the blink of an eye. The sordid realities confronted by the betel nut beauties are shown in detail. Their work is a particular detail, an aspect of culture and locale. Yet it is universal as well: the women stand for all individuals who are just trying to make a living--trading their time for a little money, dressing for success at work, and accommodating their customers without losing themselves in the process. Yet even this work is given its dignity. When the film shows these women sitting aloft in their serene columns of light, then descending in a spiral to street level to serve a customer, a thousand mythic images are evoked. When we see their counterparts, the telephone counselors at the hotline help centre, sitting at desks inside grey cubicles wearing identical skirted suits, the picture provides both an echo and a contrast.

Kaohsiung provides more than a backdrop for Eros; the seaport metropolis brings a screen presence of its own. In more ways than one these characters inhabit a world far from the corridors of power. (This is represented by Taipei, the capital city whose events dominate their TV news.) They make their way in an urban landscape remote from the spotlight but within sight of Love River. Here, connections are fragile, solace is granted in bites, and neon holds back the darkness.

------

Mike Kearney. 'Eros in the Streets of Taiwan.' Taipei Times, 2007.12.18

Bangband wo aishen (2007). IMDb.

________

2 comments:

David said...

You have written a wonderful review of this film.

Is the passage you have quoted from Corinthians among the words Ah Jie says to his plants in the film?

Alton said...

Thank you, David, and yes. The character recites this passage in the opening scene as he inhales the incense. As with so many other cetails, of course, echoes and new meanings are encountered as the film proceeds.

Thanks for asking. I've modified the opening sentence of the blog entry to make the context more clear.