Credit: Big Buddha Pictures/Field Trip Media
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film

Blue Sun Palace — Constance Tsang [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 27, 2024

Long heralded as the harbinger of snore-inducing boredom, slow cinema, in actuality, is a somewhat paradoxical replica of what film scholar Tom Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions.” Gunning coined this term to celebrate the non-narrative pleasures of cinema pre-1906 that audiences from all parts of the world enjoyed; he lauded the trick films of Georges Méliès and the actualities of the Lumière Brothers as a form of “exhibitionist cinema [that] directly solicits spectator attention [by] inciting visual curiosity and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself.” Slow cinema is, of course, not that. If anything, it’s the exact opposite: a cinema of subtractions that nullifies (movie) pleasure, blanking the uniqueness of a given event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself. But because it pushes so hard into this stasis, silence, and stillness, its distinct formalism becomes the spectacle. In other words, films featuring long and static takes with little to no non-diegetic background score solicit spectator attention by calling attention to themselves; the attractions of cinema become not narrative or character psychology, but the minuscule modulations the filmmaker makes to shot compositions, editing rhythm, and (the addition of) music.

It seems fairly certain that director Constance Tsang doesn’t want film form to be one’s primary takeaway after watching her feature-length debut film. Pieced together from Tsang and her family’s experience in the Chinese community of Queens, NY, Blue Sun Palace is, as the director’s statement notes, a “letter to the ghosts of my childhood, my parents who came to America with one dream and settled for another, to my father who I now understand, and to myself as I come to terms with redefining loss in my life.” The narrative rupture that happens 32 minutes into the 117-minute film neatly divides it into a “before” and “after,” each of which focuses, to varying degrees, on highlighting migrant worker solidarity, the debilitating effects of loss, and potential ways to deal with it. The “before,” which takes place almost entirely inside a small restaurant and a massage parlor, begins as a chronicle of a blossoming romance between Didi (Haipeng Xu) and Cheung (Tsai-Ming liang’s muse Lee Kang Sheng, who gets to speak for once!) before gently settling into becoming a documentation of Didi’s daily work routine at the parlor she runs with Amy (Ke-Xi Wu) and two other migrant workers-cum-friends-cum-roommates. Then, a sudden, jolting tragedy occurs. “After” that, the film becomes a study of shared grief that, at first, heals but then harms.

Like the characters in the film, however, we too want to remain stuck in the “before.” The opening 30-odd minutes of Blue Sun Palace unfold beautifully: Tsang, seemingly unburdened by the need to adhere to a strict narrative, uses her long takes — sometimes floating, other times static — to situate us in a specific place that her characters occupy. Yes, the form remains visible. The nearly four-minute-long opening sequence has cinematographer Norm Li’s camera swinging back and forth between Didi and Cheung to capture the flow of their playfully romantic conversation. Frame-within-a-frame shot compositions dominate after that, making the parlor appear at once claustrophobic and intimate. But none of these attractions of cinema become distractions. If anything, the narrative’s looseness allows each of the moments Didi shares with Cheung and her roommates to, almost individually, function as an attraction. The romance, for instance, is enthralling not just because it’s shot as a long take but, more importantly, because of Sheng and Xu’s genuinely heartfelt chemistry.

This extends to Xu’s performance, in general. Tsang reveals different sides to Didi’s character every time she interacts with different people, running the risk of making her come across as incredibly unlikable and erratic. Yet Xu plays each variation of this character nonchalantly. Her relaxed, if somewhat exhausted demeanor, in and of itself, tells Didi’s backstory without having the film announce it to us out loud. Like most migrant workers, she has had to slog long and hard, but at this point in her life, she seems at peace with the compromised lifestyle she has to live to survive in New York. She casually commits indiscretions (offering sexual favors to male clients for high tips even though the parlor has a strict “no sexual services” policy), almost viewing it as a necessary contract one must honor to sustain a business and live trouble-free in America.

However, Blue Sun Palace makes a different sort of compromise after tragedy strikes. (That scene brilliantly recalls the phone-booth moment in Taxi-Driver, where the camera pans away from the central action, almost acknowledging what’s on screen is too painful to capture). The narrative shifts into Jeanne Dielman-style deconstruction of space, not to explore or expose regimented routine, but to navigate grief. Sequences and shot compositions established before repeat and rhyme in thuddingly obvious ways: for instance, the new parlor’s dim neon lighting and leaky roof sharply contrast with the old one’s overall radiance; the opening sequence replays, but with a different character and outcome. This spot-the-difference approach would be a worthy exercise in narrative gamesmanship, like Dielman or even Hong Sang-Soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, had Tsang’s film remained mysterious and elusive. But it also blurts out its grieving characters’ sense of dislocation (one character states, “I wouldn’t know who I would want to be [in Taiwan]?” to which the other replies, “But do you know who you are here?”).

What remains fascinating is Tsang’s consistently impressive deployment of the slow cinema aesthetic. There are times when her static wide shots, separating her characters through block-like white walls or dwarfing their presence within the expanse of a run-down mall, recall Tsai Ming-liang’s work that’s similarly evocative of the loneliness that people feel not only around each other, but also in urban spaces meant for public recreation. At other times, the physical distance between the camera and the people on screen can almost mimic the viewers’ emotional distance from the characters. Regardless, all the essential questions raised throughout revolve around the film’s form: the attractions of cinema here well and truly usurped any (emotional) attachment to cinema.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 3.