Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng have one of the strangest relationships in movies. For dedicated Tsai (and Lee) fans, that goes almost without saying. From the beginning, this director’s camera has reserved for this actor’s body its tenderest embraces, its lustiest looks, its cruelest impositions. Tsai’s cinematic gaze is inseparable from his personal, sexual one: he clearly has a thing for his leading man. That’s not in and of itself remarkable—a lot of people who step behind camera are, at some point, afflicted with similar affections—but few filmmakers so compulsively enact their cycles of anticipation and rejection on screen, and still fewer find a performer willing to join them in this sado-masochistic pas de deux for life. Because as Afternoon attests, these men are in it for the long haul. The material of the film is easy to describe: Tsai and Lee sit in their shared home together, talking. Two hours, one composition; two windows, one room; two people, one conversation. Indeed, the apparent simplicity of the visual field and the banality of the back and forth, which largely covers the expected topics, have led some to treat Afternoon as little more than a glorified DVD extra. A bonus for the real heads, a bore for everyone else.
From the beginning, this director’s camera has reserved for this actor’s body its tenderest embraces, its lustiest looks, its cruelest impositions. Tsai’s cinematic gaze is inseparable from his personal, sexual one: he clearly has a thing for his leading man.
What’s harder to describe, though, is the way in which Tsai, by appearing on screen, displaces those agonizing, eroticized cycles of anticipation and rejection onto the viewer—or at least onto a certain kind of viewer. Afternoon puts the dedicated Tsai fan—more surely than any other of his other films—in the place of the director himself, eager for the warmth of the people sitting across from us, searching for an angle that will unlock their mysteries, enduring their silences. But in the end, we are no closer than we were before. The sad truth is that, in Tsai’s cinema, although the camera promises intimacy, it is also the very thing that enforces the chasm between people; you can always look, but you will never touch. And so Afternoon is, finally, a film that tells us that the intimacies of cinema are a poor substitute for the intimacies of life. The viewer who knows nothing of Tsai and Lee, and who walks away out of boredom or indifference, is probably better for it. Because those of us who remain seated, those of us who hope that this movie will bring us closer to these two people, people who we might even say that we love, are bound to find our desires thwarted again, once the lights come up, and left to ponder whether Tsai and Lee are really so strange after all.