February 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
“Dong” is the kind of film that makes me, the relatively casual but nonetheless invested viewer, feel compelled (if not necessarily with effect) to do some leg work and familiarise myself with some abridged version of modern Taiwanese history, not because the film cannot be appreciated in a historically decontextualized manner – it being plentiful in esoteric delights and mischievously inventive visual storytelling – but because writer-director Tsai Ming-Liang is most certainly making some kind of socio-political statement, one which he is not wary of placing foremost and forefront. Why else would he begin the film with a blacked-out five minute opening credit sequence accompanied by audio montage of (presumably) fictional news reports and interviews that briskly establishes a dysfunctional, dystopic pre-millennial Taiwan in which major cities have been ravaged by some sort of virus days before the year 2000 is due to be rung in? There is obvious discord and civil revolt, and a sense that the Taiwanese government has somehow failed its people, some of whom now choose to ignore calls for evacuation of the nation’s major urban areas. Not to mention that the aforementioned virus is said to result in something called ‘Taiwanese fever,’ a disease characterised by humans becoming critter-like, favouring dark, dam corners and scuttling about like cockroaches. If this is not an acid comment on some aspect of the Taiwanese national character, what on earth could it be? There is most definitely a very biting, very critical social commentary being made here which, in the absence of any further knowledge or specifics, is still plain as a rainless day. Yet, the beauty of this early Tsai Ming-Liang picture – despite and because of its confrontationally ‘patient’ pacing and its distinct paucity of dialogue – is that it can just as easily function as a stripped down, almost blackly comic apocalyptic pantomime that explores the inertia and/or resilience it takes for one to persevere in the midst of a crumbling social fabric, or zero social fabric whatsoever. “Dong” could also be viewed as Ming-Liang shedding a tear for the cost to one’s humanity of a severely urbanised society, admittedly one of art cinema’s long-held fascinations, yet one which is approached here with such idiosyncrasy however grating.
Set in a dank, dilapidated apartment block in the midst of what seems to be several weeks of ceaseless rain, two individuals living in vertically adjacent units (he above, she below; query gender commentary) are brought into an unprecedented degree of contact when a hole forms in the floor/ceiling separating them. As expected, the appearance of this aperture is a stark violation of privacy, but also a portal through which two people are forced not to necessarily interact, but to at the very least acknowledge the existence of another human being. Now, I can certainly appreciate how a hole in one’s ceiling would be most unnerving (probably a touch more than a hole in one’s floor), but is the sense of excessive exposure and unwarranted interpersonal proximity that plagues ‘the woman downstairs’ and ‘the man upstairs’ so radically different to the anxious desire for privacy that drives us personal device era millenials to cocoon ourselves in our own private experiences, our own social networks, our own worldviews? As an individual who spent years riding buses and trains on a daily basis, I certainly encountered a staggering number of people who seemed to consider a word from a stranger or even a friendly look somewhat akin to drilling unsolicited into their ceiling. It has also occurred to me, after the fact I should add, that the relative absence of the woman and the man’s fellow tenants in the film did not initially strike me as being particularly unusual, having spent months in apartment buildings in which I only ever saw one or two fellow tenants. In some ways, this baseline level of isolation probably explains these two characters’ ability to exist as they always have in the midst of such desolation, though their souls slowly begin to give way under the weight of alienation and isolation; this in addition to it being a sad reflection of high-density-living culture.
I think a certain mental transition needs to be made in order to appreciate this film. The static, quiet uber long-take wherein the only thing seemingly being photographed is time itself oftentimes creates an impression of extreme naturalism, replicating the extended stretches of anti-drama that fill the lives of most people. Tsai Ming-Liang is not at all shy of pushing this technique to the edges of what many would consider excessive, but at the same time counterbalances this by brazenly lacing his film with the absurd (rubbish bags dropping down from higher storeys as though plummeting chunks of sky) and punctuating the proceedings with several one-take musical numbers that appear to be expressions of the kind of suppressed desire for closeness and intimacy that lonely urban urchins might slip into every so often. This general push-pull dynamic creates a subtly trippy mood which, for a person like myself who focuses on form as much as I do content, is wholly unique and enough to tickle my sensibilities even though I have the constant nagging feeling that there is a deeper socio-political commentary, some knowledge of which would enhance my appreciation of “Dong” and the impact of this film’s final, beautiful moment.