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Forest fires burn in Sumatra; a smoke covers Kuala Lumpur. Grifters beat an immigrant day laborer and leave him on the streets. Rawang, a young man, finds him, carries him home, cares for him, and sleeps next to him. In a loft above lives a waitress. She sometimes provides care and attention. More violence seems a constant possibility. They find another man abandoned on the street, paralyzed. They carry him. While no one speaks to each other, sounds dominate: coughing, cooking, coupling, opening bags; music and news reports on a radio, the rattle and buzz of a restaurant. It's dark in the city at night. We see down hallways, through doors, down alleys. Who sleeps with whom? Written by
Director Tsai Ming-Liang sets this film in his native Kuala Lumpur. Hsaio-Kang (Kang-sheng Lee) is beaten up by street hustlers and is carried back to a abandoned half-completed building, home to the homeless and downtrodden, by a group of Bangladeshi men. There he is meticulously, even lovingly, brought back to health by Rawang (Norman Bin Atun), where they share a salvaged, stained flea-ridden mattress.
Once his strength comes back, Hsaio-Kang ventures out and meets waitress Chyi (Shiang-chyi Chen) and her older boss (Pearlly Chua). Chyi is made to care for a bed-ridden paralyzed man.
One of the interesting aspects of this film is the depiction of a poor district of Kuala Lumpur: multilingual (Malay, Bangladeshi, Mandarin), hopelessly derelict, dirty, and run-down. The characters silently struggle to survive day-to-day, and strive to make human connections with one another amid their squalor.
The central abandoned half-finished concrete office building, with its exposed rebar and flooded basement, is a perfect set.
A haze descends on the city, a result of fires in far-off Indonesia, which sets the stage for a tragi-comic attempt between Chyi and Hsaio-Kang to make love while wearing improvised surgical masks and through hacking coughs.
This minimalist film moves very slowly, lingering on each shot for sometimes one or two minutes. Simple acts such as washing a paralyzed man's face, or a cigarette enjoyed next to the flooded basement's pool, become almost hypnotic.
All that said, when I walked out of the theatre, I was sure I did not like this film, due to the slow pace and almost total lack of spoken dialog. But the next day I found myself thinking of the film all day long, its characters and silent relationships. Maybe in that sense, this film accomplished its goal.
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