Surprises big and small have peppered Rotterdam as they will any film festival, but who could have guessed that Madame Butterfly, the new 30 minute short work by Tsai Ming-liang (whose feature Face is also in the festival), would be made up of 3 shots, 2 very long takes, all shot handheld on a digital camera by the filmmaker himself?
The first sequence follows actress Pearlly Chua around a Kuala Lumpur bus depot as she tries to leave the city after a trip to visit her lover, getting more sick and more frustrated as she both fails to leave and he fails to come through for her. Named after Puccini, this is actually an unlikely homage (perhaps) to that great antsy scene in Jackie Brown where Pam Grier wanders aimlessly through an L.A. mall. Madame Butterfly also explores its banal public space, following Chua up and down 3 floors with its grubby little camera to watch her try to buy tickets with not enough money, call her unresponsive lover, quaff lots of water and cough quite a bit (guaranteeing, despite outward appearance, this is a Tsai movie afterall), and, in the insert shot that breaks up the verité long take, she phantasmagorically finds a hair of her lover in a steamed bun.
This would probably be the point in a Tsai feature, one shot on film from a fixed camera, where we would transition into a musical number. Madame Butterfly also cuts to a reverie, but a real one: the video’s second handheld long take, presumably a flashback to Pearrly back in bed at her hotel rendezvous, is of her waking up to the morning sun, drowsily finding a pillow to hug instead of her lover’s body, and, again with a strange sense of bodily romantic whimsy, finds more of his hairs scattered on the bedding. Is all of the sickness in Tsai’s cinema romantic illness? Where the first shot was quietly anxious, circling, unsettled, exploratory and very public, the finale is languorous, confined, sensual, intimate, and private, dappled by the light only a morning could make, the video texture as soft of the bedding. Indeed, the final shot softens the bristling, busy textures of the Malaysian bus depot, nervous with its sense of being lost and lonely in a crowd, and the video ends gently, swaying as in a cool breeze, still warm with memories of a night before the would intrudes, rude and realistic.
Paired with Madame Butterfly was a short not directed by but starring Tsai Ming-liang, this time directed by his usual actor, Lee Kang-sheng. Dedicated to Taiwanese dancer Lou Man-fei, Remembrance enjoys a strong, late night cup of coffee in a closing café, a speaker-shredding dose of Franz Lizst, and Tsai and shop-owner Lu Yi-Ching nostalgically twirling and dancing in Lou’s memory. A melancholy, wood paneled location, the process of making rich, fresh food, a simple atmosphere, good music, and sad evening thoughts result in a modest and touching video.