You sit in a swivel chair in a basement room, surrounded by up to 15 other people each with their own swivel chairs. There is no common big screen. Rather, individual computers feed the images direct to the headgear that you are each wearing. This equipment tracks your head’s movements so that, within the film’s fictive environment, you have a 360-degree view, in every direction, from a fixed point (where the camera was placed). This is Virtual Reality, or VR, an audiovisual system that gives you a degree of freedom over what you see and hear (every viewer is having a different experience, with full control over where the periphery of their vision falls), but that also in many ways restricts what you see and how the film’s story can be told.
This year’s inaugural Taiwan Film Festival in London features not only a retrospective of films by Tsai Ming-liang (with Tsai himself in attendance), but also rare showings (in a specially equipped pop-up screening room at Asia House) of his 55-minute VR film The Deserted, here shown in 8K rather than the lower-definition 4K version at its Venice Film Festival World Première. Tsai is a master of slow cinema, and his style, typically involving long fixed takes on faces or environments, lends itself perfectly to the VR format. For now, instead of being forced to stare at the play of light on a wall for many minutes on end (as happened in 2013’s Stray Dogs), viewers can choose to look around and explore the deeply textured locations of an abandoned building, its walls all water-stained concrete, exposed brick and weather-shredded wallpaper.
The first scene shows an apartment interior in which an ailing man (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng) sits attached to a TENS machine while his elderly mother (Lu Yi-ching) first cooks and then sits opposite, silently observing him. In their different ways, both are of course figures for us, strapped in to our own apparatus and seated watching. The mother may be a mere ghost watching over her son, as might be the woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) who appears in later scenes dressed incongruously, amidst all the squalor, in immaculate white bridal attire and heels, and who is at one point filmed sitting and listening at the wall in a narrow chamber that, when you look around, is revealed impossibly to have no entrance. Likewise, it is not clear whether the lover (Ivy Yin) – who materialises alongside the man as he half-slumbers naked in a tub with his pet carp – is real or fishy fantasy. Certainly all three women seem to haunt the vacant, derelict spaces in this man’s desolate life, and to be a part of his silent interiority.
In the final scene of The Deserted, the man cooks, sits and eats entirely alone, with only us watching him, even as we hear the romantic strains of Jin Liu’s ‘Eyes of Passion’, whose lyrics speak of a gaze that expresses ‘maternal love’, taking us right back, through ring composition, to the opening scene, with its watchful mother. Accordingly, we are now, in lieu of the three absent women, ourselves positioned as the film’s unseen, watching ghosts – with a gaze that is unusually female.
Tsai’s mostly non-narrative film invites its viewers to reconstruct past stories/storeys in its heavily distressed architecture, and to redecorate those ruined, decaying rooms with the warmth of past memories. Here, merely through being invisible observers, we are co-opted as unseen characters in The Deserted, wandering the corridors of this man’s deserted existence, and imagining them fleshed out in fuller, more habitable form. In this way, Tsai exploits the relative autonomy that VR affords its viewers to turn us into active participants in the furnishing of his film’s meaning. It is a uniquely immersive experience, pitched somewhere between cinema and gallery, and stretching the bounds of both its medium (VR) and its elliptically plotted message.
© Anton Bitel