Saturday, July 12, 2008

Help Me Eros (Bang Bang Wo Ai Shen / 幫幫我愛神)

Call Center Belle

I've got to admit that while I find it difficult to enjoy the works of Tsai Ming-liang and his protege Lee Kang-sheng, there's still something about it that still draws me to their movies, perhaps in a determined attempt to try and cut through the usual droning of themes like alienation and loneliness, to discover if there's anything else that I could connect to and hang on for the duration of the movie. I thought I'd find something here, but unfortunately it degenerated into something quite messy midway, before some redemption in the finale afforded some relief.

Telling the story of Ah Jie, Lee himself plays the protagonist who in a stroke of a bear market, was reduced to a pauper, having his assets like his home and car impounded by the authorities. Does it deter him? Of course not, as he still goes back to the pound to drive away his vehicle, and continues to ignore the seal outside his apartment. He sells his belongings in an effort to try and raise whatever little cash he can, and in his idle time, he tends to his high-grade homegrown marijuana plants, which he cultivates and smokes to get high in his own little escapism from the hardships of life.

In an attempt to connect, he befriends plenty of betel-nut beauties (one played by Yin Shin as Shin), and stalks whom he thinks is Chyi, a lady he got to know from his calls to a sex-chat hotline, allowing him to fantasize about the hot chick with the hot voice. It's really quite pathetic though, because I thought it's always ironic that hot voices over a telephone line belong to someone other than can be labelled shallowly with the term "hot". Or at least Help Me Eros plays along this line of generalization. The betel-nut beauties on the other hand, is a trade that follows the mantra of skimpier clothes leading to better patronage, and some 10 years ago when I was in Taiwan, this is a phenomenon that's quite true, as you pass by booths set up along highways, and these ladies in their various state of undress, try to entice you for a stop to get your regular packet of cigarettes, or to get into the habit of chewing the equivalent of gum.

But this is not just a story about Ah Jie, as the real Chyi (played by Jane Liao) is the other character placed under the spotlight. She's horizontally challenged, no thanks to the various delicacies that her cook husband Ah Rong (Dennis Nieh) concocts as part of his television food programme. And indeed, it is this portion of the movie that I found much more intriguing, as it was almost documentary like. There were some nicely down parallels between how the food was prepared and designed, and the state of the characters. Like when we're introduced to Ah Jie, we see a live fish being slaughtered in an inhumane manner, clobbered in the head, before having its body cut out, and when presented on the plate, it's still bloody alive, gasping for air. I can't imagine anyone having the stomach to eat it, and this desperation in staying alive, prepares us for Ah Jie's character who is at wits end.

Chyi too finds herself pretty lonely with a husband who perhaps found a new love (with a guy), and while she dispenses advice over the phone, she's clearly in need of some herself. Lacking intimacy in her life, she had to resort to getting it on with a bathtub of eels. Yup, you heard me right. In fact, those expecting some eroticism might find a number of such scenes here being quite unsexy, despite its R21 rating, perhaps having those highly offensive ones edited away. Some old uncles expected to see plenty of naked flesh, but in art film fashion, these have been dealt with so nicely that they can't help but to walk off.

I learnt for starters to appreciate such a film, not to try and look at it as a whole, but to enjoy the moment, where strengths of individual scenes surpass one trying to find deeper meaning in something. Particularly enjoyable scenes include one which Ah Jie and Shin go on a joyride and having their pictures taken (you must check this out), and the ending which like many other surreal scenes in the movie, paints a very dream-like, picturesque postcard portrait.

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