A lot of directors in a lot of filmmaking countries make movies about modern isolation and loneliness, but none are as adept at rendering that loneliness really through cinematic language like the Taiwanese masters. While Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early films were more autobiographical and even geographically biographical, by 1995 his Good Men, Good Women found him exploring the lack of purpose and direction pervasive amongst Taiwanese youths, a subject that would be even more strongly explored in Goodbye South, Goodbye. Tsai Ming-liang has forged his own idiosyncratic brand of postmodern, cinematic apathy—more formal, more ascetic, but also more wickedly funny. Of the 10 films Tsai has made between 1993 and 2009, actor Kang-sheng Lee has starred in 10 of them, so it’s only appropriate that his directorial debut would be so indebted to his directorial mentor.
Help Me, Eros has Lee playing Ah Jie, a young man who lives above an… I guess you’d call it an ‘erotic restaurant’ where scantily clad girls (perhaps hookers; it’s never made explicit) run a food stand while flirting with the men that drive up in cars. Ah Jie lives alone and is pining after his girlfriend that has left him, so he whiles away the time growing his own marijuana and getting high. But Ah Jie has a major problem; he’s broke. A recent downtrend in the stock market has wiped out his assets, making it so he can’t even afford to pay the water bill to water his plants, much less keep up the rent on his apartment. Seriously considering suicide, he calls a helpline and talks with Chyi (Jane Liao). The two become friends, but she has her own problems, namely that her husband is more interested in feeding her than making love to her. Ah Jie ends up hooking up with Shin (Ivy Yi), one of the “working girls”, but even she gets fed up with his marijuana obsession and lack of fidelity.
For those who’ve seen a Tsai Ming-liang film, the stylistic comparisons will be noticeable right from the start. Like Tsai, Lee primarily stages his scenes in one shot, wide-angle long takes set in deep focus with pristinely composed frames. Scenes play out with a kind of hyperbolic minimalism, more exaggerated in just how little exaggeration there is. An early scene, where a very high Ah Jie is on the phone with his girlfriend while he’s boiling a pot of water for noodles, is indicative of both the style and the Tsai-like humor. The pot is resting in the right foreground while the background is composed through a doorframe. Lee holds the shot for the entire duration of the minutes-long scene, which involves him walking back and forth between the rooms, frequently picking up the pot off the stove, but then setting it back down, obviously too high to remember what he even picked it up for.
Lee also indulges in one of Tsai’s most unique characteristics, and that’s the penchant for bursting into grandiose musical numbers that couldn’t seem more at odds with the rest of the minimalism. The first one involves Shin sprawled out half-naked in one of the cubicles of the call-center help lines where the word “Eros” is repeated in a musical number. This segues into all the girls from the erotic restaurant joining in, dressed in a variety of finish costumes including a nurse, dominatrix, schoolgirl, and even a bride. The last number is much more understated and poignant. After Ah Jie and Shin have broken up, she finds herself leaving on a bus to work a job faraway, but not before breaking down at the heartbreaking song being played on a TV. The final shot of her in tears is truly the most moving in the film.
Like Tsai, Lee loves to push the boundaries of just how much comedy or creepiness can be packed within any given scene, and, indeed, sometimes it’s not clear if we should laugh, cry, or turn away in disgust. One early example finds a stoned (as if he’s ever not) Ah Jie lying alone in his apartment watching a cooking TV show where a chef is scaling and preparing a fish for a meal while the fish is still alive. He clasps hold of his pillow and recoils as if he were watching a horror movie. Later, Ah Jie’s first suicide attempt, which involves him opening the gas line on his stove, results in the canister running out of gas before it can get the job done. But Lee hangs on the shot long enough to make us question whether or not he was successful, only to provoke a great laugh when he finally wakes up and kicks over the gas can in frustration. Other moments find the soul of wit in brevity, such as Ah Jie running after a moving truck, trying to read the winning lottery numbers, or him waking up on top of his apartment naked in the middle of the day after a night of a marijuana fueled orgy (funniest of all, the scene is with him dragging a huge snake-like pillow back down through his window).
Most of the controversy this film has received has been over the “explicit” sex scenes, but those who think this is explicit clearly haven’t seen Tsai’s The Wayward Cloud, which makes Help Me, Eros look like an episode of Mr. Rogers. By my count, there are only two actual sex scenes in the film. The first involves Ah Jie and Shin’s first encounter. After Ah Jie introduces Shin to her first joint, Lee cuts to one of the few scenes that takes advantage of a subjective (in this case, stoned) perspective with the two making Kama-Sutra-like love in a brightly lit blue room with an otherworldly, chant-like soundtrack. The second involves the orgy between Ah Jie and the “prostitutes” that’s framed against the stock market tote board. The remarkable thing about both of these scenes is that there’s almost no explicit nudity besides Lee’s rear-end (and, by now, counting this film and the Tsai’s he’s starred in, I’ve probably seen his naked butt more than any other actor or actress I can think of).
Even if one were to remove the sex scenes, Help Me, Eros is a proverbial Freudian wet dream. Of course, like the ‘bloodlessly bloody’ Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the chills come from the obvious suggestion rather than anything that’s actually shown. The most cringe-inducing one involves a tub full of eels that Chyi’s chef husband brings home; at first, she just enjoys feeling them with her hands, but as the film progresses, she keeps getting closer and closer, eventually climbing right in the tub with them and removing her underwear. Of course, any hardened Freudian knows that food represents the eternally ultimate sexual metaphor, and Lee couldn’t make it any more obvious than in the scene where Chyi’s husband is making sausage (and anyone who’s ever seen sausage made will instantly know what I’m talking about). Chyi, in a less clichéd example, rips into a vaginal hunk of meat. Other examples are more humorous, like Ah Jie offering a giant, phallic lamp in exchange for the bad coin he offered to one of the sales girls at the restaurant.
Sadly, all of these elemental strengths don’t add up to a movie that’s more than the sum of its parts. Tsai may direct scenes that almost play out like miniature movies themselves, but he always manages to keep the bigger picture in focus, and that’s a quality that can’t be said of Lee in this film, which never quite comes together into a coherent whole. Besides the blurry macrocosm, overall, Lee’s direction can’t help but feel like Tsai-lite in most respects. While there are many stunning shots, for example, Lee doesn’t have Tsai’s impeccable sense of pictorial framing, which is especially noticeable around the edges (always the toughest plane to account for with wide angle lenses). Most of the provocation feels perfunctory instead of inspired by a higher purpose, especially the Chyi plot which never gains any vitality and momentum. The humor isn’t quite as biting, the minimalism isn’t quite as understated, and the “big moments” are never as devastating. The ending tries to aim for the kind of transcendence that Tsai achieved in a film like What Time Is It There? but feels cheaper in its ambiguity rather than genuinely ascendant.
All of this is merely to say that Lee has quite a ways to go to live up to his cinematic big brother. All of the parts are here, but he hasn’t yet the talent to fit them into a Picasso. But so many parts are so good that I would still unhesitatingly recommend at least a rental. The moment when Ah Jie first takes Shin home, but ends up dropping by the dealer where he pawned his car to take her out for a drive is worth the price of admission alone, especially when the two decide to poke their heads out of the sunroof and smile, flashing peace signs at the stoplight’s speeding cameras. It’s indicative of the freewheeling spirit that marks this film at its best moments, especially when it’s aided by the wonderful Taiwanese pop soundtrack. Lee might not nail Tsai’s patented modern loneliness and angsty aesthetic on the whole, but the pieces that do hit it do so to such an indelible degree that the images will stay with you forever.