Lê Bảo’s debut feature, Taste, is a stark marvel of oblique storytelling and some pretty wondrous imagery. It tells the story of Bassley (Olegunleko Ezekiel Gbenga), a Nigerian immigrant in Ho Chi Minh City who, upon losing his contract as a soccer player, takes up a tenuous, marginal existence with a group of four female factory workers (Thi Minh Nga Khuong, Thi Dung Le, Thi Cam Xuan Nguyen, Thi Tham Thin Vu). The group partly inhabits an abandoned industrial building, with some trips to the slummy huts that jut on the water, and embarks on long, ritualistic bouts of fragrant cooking.
Taste is an exquisitely quiet film, often told through silent, arresting tableaux. But in one of the rare scenes where Bassley speaks, we learn that he’s lost his father, and that his own small son—whom we watch in a gorgeous scene in which father and son mimic each other eating a watermelon—can only see one another through videos, played on an old screen. Bassley’s confession is matched by one of the women’s own story of how her father and son had traveled to a far-away wedding and then never returned. Outside of these snippets, however, Bảo skips contextualizing and simply immerses us in the world’s physicality. Which, at first glance, is forbiddingly lusterless, made up of drab, decaying industrial spaces.
And yet, even though this world seems as devoid of comfort as Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs (the one immediate reference that comes to mind for Bảo’s austere aesthetic), it also proves very tender. The group’s communal, co-ed, and naked washing, massaging and cooking all feel primordial and strongly matriarchal. Then there’s the proximity of all living things. For example, one of the women’s white pigs is washed and coddled, just like a baby, even though it is also being weighed, suggesting that it may someday be eaten. In this world, bodily functions and sex don’t give rise to any prudishness either. Instead, Bảo invites us to relish in the women’s soft, sagging flesh as much as the athlete’s statuesque muscles. The dreamy flourishes, such as the image of the naked Bassley in a tight embrace with a giant swordfish, or of an enormous blue balloon “breathing” inside a claustrophobic factory space, lend this beautiful debut a truly unique flavor.