Vietnamese director Lê Bảo returns to this edition of the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition with his film, Vi (Taste); after presenting his previous short, Mui (Scent) in last year’s competition. According to its synopsis, Taste chronicles the story of Bassley, a Nigerian football player in the Vietnamese football league who suddenly finds himself working in a seedy sex parlour shortly after experiencing a career-ending leg injury. All just to support his family back home. Although the story did not come clear to me, what came clear was Lê Bảo’s attempt to create a strong distinctive environment that is asphyxiated of any life. This attempt, I found was achieved through the play of space and symbolism which was delivered with a strong surrealist expression.
A heavy sense of abandonment and alienation could be felt throughout the film most strikingly through the film’s environment. Taste opens in a highly textured cave-like environment, which serves to be the film’s main setting for the first half of its duration. The dimly lit cave reminded me of the catacombs in Paris with the rough texture of its bricks and its serrated placement which highly resembled the arrangement of the skulls and bones in the catacomb’s ossuary. While the catacomb acts as a place for remembrance similar to a mausoleum, in the film, Bassley and the rest of the cave’s inhabitants are put away from society, abandoned and forgotten.
This sense of abandonment is magnified during the second half of the film where it shifts to a more ambiguous setting. The setting is highly decontextualised providing little signifiers for one to reference to. This prevents one from gettin a firm grasp of time or space. The strongest signifier comes from its walls where its colour and texture resembles the lower half of Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Black on Grey). This abstract expressionist piece features a restricted palette of luminous black and greys providing the viewer a tense viewing, exuding a sense of desolation which too is reflected in the film. The film’s sound design complements this weight where we hear little of the outside or ‘real’ world, but rather accentuated diegetic sounds of the cave and its occupants, providing a hyper experience. This emptiness of the image directs our eyes to the other forms on screen: the bodies of Bassley and the women. Accentuated by lighting and perhaps a little baby oil, their bodies take centerstage in the film unfolding as a space where we observe the stark contrast between Bassley’s lean and muscular structure and the women’s corpulent forms.
The environment is given a oneiric treatment with Lê Bảo’s use of symbolic metaphors. Striking images of a pig and swordfish are featured. When noticed, it becomes impossible to ignore. Like the surrealists, animals have a prominent place in Lê Bảo’s films. Pigs in particular have been a mainstay in his work reoccurring throughout his films. In his debut short, Phim ngắn Cục Than, pigs play a central component as the film details a young boy’s journey of selling his two
pigs in order to pay for his father’s drug rehabilitation. While the pig takes on a strong narrative function in Phim ngắn Cục Than, it takes a more symbolic form in his later films Scent and Taste. Although the pig only makes a brief appearance in Taste, its presence stays with you, leaving you to ponder on its cameo. While Lê Bảo claimed (during his post-screening Q&A at SGIFF) that both the pig and the swordfish carry no significant meaning, I feel contrary to that, as both animals could potentially carry an esoteric reference that liberates the unconscious whether he is aware of it or not. Perhaps both animals address the disquieting anxieties of virility since pigs while known for their laziness are also recognised symbols for fertility and abundance in both Eastern and Western cultures. The swordfish, too cannot be ignored in this context where it functions as an highly ambiguous organ. We witness Bassley stick his arm down into its oesophagus eventually pull out what it seems to be a piece of dried chilli. This highly bizarre encounter clearly acts as a sexual metaphor where the act of penetration is evoked, as well as hinting at some sort of castration anxiety as Bassley carries on to compare the chilli with his fingers, indicating a strong phallic reference.
Clearly in this case Taste is almost like a non sequitur. It doesn’t intend for us to come up with an coherent explanation. There is no conscious narration nor there is any conscious ordering. Our experience and reading of the film is intended to be disjointed similar to the consciousness of our minds. From the film’s narrative and mise-en-scene, the film clearly rejects any reason or logic seeking to play with our subconscious and frailties. For me, the film is about abandonment and virility. However the film invites viewers to make a different reading; one thing for certain is that through its imaginative eccentricity, the film seeks to find reality in the surreal.