Exercise in petulant anomie and sexless eroticism constantly sabotages its own potential strengths.

“Help Me Eros” opens on the televised image of a carp being prepared alive — scaled, cut, sauced and eaten while its mouth opens and closes frantically. As a metaphor for the mental state of its hero (played by helmer/scripter Lee Kang-sheng in the passive, deadpan wanderer role he practically patented for Tsai Ming-liang), pic hits an immediate high it strains in vain to duplicate or maintain. Exercise in petulant anomie and sexless eroticism constantly sabotages its own potential strengths, languidly repeating its most daring concepts while proudly parading its hokiest visuals. Outlook appears dim.

Ah Jie (Lee) has lost all his money in the stock market, living secretly in his repossessed upscale apartment and driving around in his repossessed car. Depressed, he often calls the suicide hotline, fantasizing about the woman he talks to, and carefully nurtures the marijuana plants in his closet.

Jie starts an affair with Shin (Yin Shin), one of several beautiful, scantily clad young women (the F4 Girls, of Taiwanese TV fame) who slide down stripper poles to sell betel nuts to drive-by customers. This deepening relationship does not prevent him from stalking an attractive woman he thinks is Chyi, his telephone lifeline. A parallel story tracks the real Chyi (Jane Liao), a sad sack who has become fat on her gay husband’s (Dennis Nieh) gourmet cooking, a poor but filling substitute for affection.

When Jie isn’t fantasizing about women (a veritable runway of bordello cliches — schoolgirl, dominatrix, bride, nurse, etc., who unconvincingly rub themselves against assorted surfaces in an empty simulation of eroticism), he is sexually engaged in stand-up duos and lie-down trios with beautiful betel nut girls, bathed in blinding white light or covered in colored psychedelic patterns.

Phantasmal images — Chyi lowering herself into a bathtub of eels, a veritable storm of lottery tickets raining down on a street of broken dreams — are intriguing, but never quite live up to their promise. By contrast, more “realistic” images often blossom into pure nightmare — an ostrich egg broken open with fanfare on Chyi’s husband’s cooking show (source of the live carp broadcast) delivers an unhatched baby ostrich into the waiting frying pan.

Unlike his 2003 directorial debut, “The Missing,” which Lee neither scripted nor starred in, “Help Me Eros” drowns in autobiographic fallacy, the experiences recounted apparently Lee’s own. Thus, his supposedly superficial antihero is limned with utter pathos, if far too few good gags. Borrowing his visual vocabulary from Tsai, but without the latter’s extraordinary sense of composition, Lee’s own style only rarely breaks away from that of his mentor (and executive producer/production designer).

Tech credits are suitably flashy.

Help Me Eros

Taiwan

Production

A Homegreen Films production. Produced by Vincent Wang. Executive producer, Tsai Ming-Liang. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Directed, written by Lee Kang-sheng.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Liao Pen-jung; editor, Lei Chen-ching; music, Fumio Yasuda; production designer, Tsai Ming-liang; sound (Dolby Digital), Du Tuu-Chih. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 3, 2007. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Vanguard.) Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Lee Kang-sheng, Yin Shin, Jane Liao, Dennis Nieh. (Mandarin dialogue)

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