- BERLINALE 2021: Lê Bảo causes a stir with his first feature, which is astonishing for its visual and atmospheric character and which offers a realistic-oneiric immersion bordering on contemporary art
It’s always a wonderful, exhilarating and, dare we say it, moving moment when a young filmmaker’s opening frame casts an immediate spell and leaves us with the distinct feeling that a true and indisputably singular artist is spreading his or her wings before our eyes. Obviously, the rest of the film needs to follow suit, but a cinematic mark as deep and distinctive at that carved out by Vietnamese director Lê Bảo by way of his debut feature film Taste [+see also:
film profile] - unveiled in the 71st Berlinale’s Encounters competition - is unlikely to leave any film-lover cold, not to mention the radical form of research which envelops the movie, lending it an enigmatic, perceptive, visual and sensory journey feel that’s a far cry from the canons of traditional narratives.
This opening frame sees an Asian trainer in a bare, concrete-walled changing room silently moving pieces from one side of a miniature playing field to the other, under the watchful eye of a group of black players. The scene is set: a game, protagonists in closed spaces and a tactical approach which breaks entirely with usual practices. Through a reversal of perspective, in the reflection of a mirror, the film’s protagonist is rapidly revealed to us as Bassley (Olegunleko Ezekiel Gbenga), a muscular man who has come from Nigeria to play football in Saigon, Vietnam, but who is booted off the team as a result of a leg injury and who subsequently finds himself leading an arduous life amongst the city’s most disadvantaged inhabitants.
From the modest hair salon where he sleeps to the litter-strewn alleys which he cycles through on his way to a vast warehouse where dressmakers create enormous, luxurious colourful balloons, which are tested in situ (in an aesthetically breath-taking sequence), Bassley subsists peacefully, working without respite and soon spending his day-to-day life in the company of four women (for reasons unknown) in a somewhat labyrinthine and virtually derelict building, furnished with a simple bunkbed without sheets or covers. As if in a waking dream, their home-life takes the form of a ritualised and practically silent phalanstery, punctuated by cookery related activities: they peel vegetables, prepare them, fillet swordfish or cut up meat, cook, eat and then clean up, wash themselves all together in a shower room, and sleep. Time stretches out before them, their naked bodies moving around calmly, occasionally stretching, sometimes singing, every movement seemingly charged with a fragile yet vital yet nonchalantly weary intensity. In the company of Mien (Thi Minh Nga Khuong), Trang (Thi Dung Le), Hanh (Thi Cam Xuan Nguyen) and Thuong (Thi Tham Thin Vu) - a vagabond who navigates her way around the shanty towns’ canals by way of a giant cooking-pot (accompanied by a little pig!) - Bassley shares the essence of what it is to be human, going so far as to confide in them (the loss of his father, the existence of a son he doesn’t know) and losing himself, along with the women, in hysterical laughter that comes out of nowhere (the film is balanced in such a way that we laugh too). Likely bursting with symbols for viewers intent on decryption ("he turned into a spirit"), Taste is first and foremost a sensitive, plastic experience of the highest order, treading the line between very raw realism and bewitching oneirism. The carefully studied composition of frames and lighting (with Nguyen Vinh Phuc helming photography) combined with the austere sets and the characters’ choreographed movements exudes a strange power which is dense yet fluid. It’s this talent for creating new worlds which immediately sets Lê Bảo apart as an incredibly promising filmmaker, leaving us unable to decide whether the future will see him exploring this area, on the borders of experiences for the initiated, in even greater depth, or whether he will manage to combine his style with a fully-fledged plot capable of propelling him to the very top of the world cinema pyramid.
Taste is produced by Le Bien Pictures (Vietnam) and E&W Films (Singapore) in co-production with French firms Deuxième Ligne Films and Petit Film, Thai outfit Cinema 22, German group Senator Film Produktion and Taiwan’s Effortless Work. Sales are in the hands of Wild Bunch International.
(Translated from French)
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