Taiwan-based Malaysian director Tsai Ming-liang's two-hour-plus film consists soley of a conversation with his longtime collaborator, Lee Kang-sheng.
Tsai Ming-liang's latest film made its bow as a museum-bound piece — and it should have stayed that way. A two-hour-plus record of a rambling, stuttering conversation between the Taiwan-based Malaysian director and his long-time leading man, Lee Kang-sheng, Afternoon is more palatable as part of a contextualized setting (as it was last September as part of an exhibition at the Museum of National Taipei University of Education) than as a stand-alone piece. With Tsai having fashioned this as what he described as a "final testament," festivals have unsurprisingly taken the bait. Having turned down Rotterdam for a "bigger festival" (the director's exact words), Tsai will make his first two international stops at Venice and Toronto.
Having slumped somewhat following the 2009 title Face, Tsai's stock has risen again immeasurably in the past two years with the award-winning Venice title Stray Dogs and his series of slow-walking monk shorts and mid-lengths (spread across the portmanteaux of Letters From the South and Beautiful 2015, plus the individually released Journey to the West). Those who wanted to hear Tsai dissect these enigmatic films in detail — or his aesthetics or ideology in general — should look elsewhere.
Conducted in a dilapidated room with foliage intruding from the windows — a setting matching the decor of the "Stray Dogs at the Museum" exhibition in Taipei — the chat does touch on the films and their origins. But Afternoon is more a personal affair, as Tsai discusses his sexuality, how gay saunas provide a sense of belonging and his reaction to deaths in the family. But this film is first and foremost a candid showcase for the director's feelings toward Lee —as his muse, love object and surrogate son.
As Tsai speaks — and he does speak a lot here — his gushing desire for Lee and his pleasant memories of their "beautiful impermanent relationship" surge forth. Tsai says he couldn't envisage making a film without the actor, that he gets all worked up when his soul mate works for another director because he fears he is going to lose his "unique quality." He asks Lee whether he hates him (he doesn't), whether his homosexuality makes him uncomfortable (it doesn't, except how it "reduced my opportunities" in meeting women) and repeatedly eggs Lee on in recalling their marvelous moments together. The director's multiple and flailing attempts to coax emotions out of the actor only lead to uneasy silences, as Lee chain-smokes away while wearing a bored, thousand-yard stare.
Sometimes the awkwardness can be a pain to watch, as if the viewer is being inducted into this courtship where a character fishes desperately for a soupcon of affection from an uninterested, estranged ex-partner. Indeed, Tsai has spoken about how Afternoon is not exactly a pure documentary, and the film was submitted (and eventually rejected) as a fictional features competition entry at Taiwan's Golden Horses awards. But Afternoon doesn't work as a staged relationship drama either. While Tsai deploys the static, long takes that previously yielded a beguiling claustrophobia in Pedro Costa's Tarrafal or Wang Bing's Father and Sons, the film is surprisingly shoddy stylistically.
The tension in the room dissipates as a crewmember's head or a boom microphone dips into view; at several instances when Tsai seems to run out of things to say, a voice hollers questions from outside the frame. Given Tsai's proven pedigree in conjuring perfectly formed art-oriented cinema, the unstructured nature of Afternoon is astounding. Toward the end, Tsai wanders off the set and mumbles, "I don't know what I was talking about." One couldn't agree more.