A Tsai is just a sigh in “Afternoon,” a dallying, mildly disarming filmed tete-a-tete between Tsai Ming-liang and his beloved leading man Lee Kang-sheng that takes equal, undiscriminating interest in both conversational ebb and flow. Covering a lot — creative collaboration, sexuality, cooking, favorite countries — and concluding very little in the cheekily extended space of 137 minutes, this is a curio at once modest and wildly indulgent, with precisely nothing to offer auds not already entrenched in the Tsai cult. Card-carrying members, on the other hand, will delight in seeing one of the contemporary cinema’s pre-eminent auteur-actor partnerships at supposed leisure, with the director’s signature long-take gaze turned in on himself. Even they, however, may admit that whiling away an “Afternoon” doesn’t rep the most invaluable use of Tsai’s time and ability.
“Significantly less commercial than ‘Stray Dogs'” is something of a less-than-zero assessment, but beyond the festival circuit, “Afternoon” warrants programming only in the context of larger Tsai showcases — or, in the home-viewing market, bound to luxury reissues of previous works. Late in the film, Tsai voices his pride at seeing “Stray Dogs,” the singularly languid (anti-)narrative film that gave his auteur status a shot in the arm two years ago, screened in art galleries last year. “Afternoon” aspires to the same level of exhibition, even if it’s hardly an equivalently scaled artwork — with its two onscreen participants often jovially undermining the project’s significance in their stop-start chatter.
The setup here is almost perversely simple, as the film comprises just four static shots — which may as well be one, given the unvarying nature of their composition and content. (Even the editing-averse Tsai, it seems, can acknowledge that not all interstitial lulls need make it to the screen.) In one airy, crumbling room of a derelict rural house that could as easily be the mud-and-stone set of an imaginary Tsai opus, the shaven-headed director and Lee — the uniquely physical actor who has been his constant male muse since their joint 1992 debut “Rebels of the Neon God” — sit, casually flip-flopped, in low-slung chairs. (“Our films are all ruins,” the director proclaims, and his chosen location for this personal piece literalizes the point.) Together, they barely occupy half the frame, much of which is given over to a lush, wind-tousled view of treetops from a gaping picture window — a foregrounded visual escape route for when the talk drifts into thin air.
Which it does, often and rather deliberately. Those expecting a lively back-and-forth reflection on the pair’s 11-film partnership will be disappointed, as Tsai — the more active conversational partner throughout — prefers to meditate more nebulously on their “beautiful impermanent relationship.” That tack isn’t without its gently illuminating rewards, as Tsai essentially states his undying, knowingly unrequited desire for the heterosexual Lee in a variety of verbal permutations, while the actor — more reticent, but clearly familiar with such affectionate expressions — hears him out with tacit understanding.
Their collaboration is addressed in general, mutually appreciative terms, with Tsai admiringly describing Lee as “maybe the strangest actor ever,” though only “Stray Dogs” is discussed in individual detail. Between matters of love and art, Tsai also delights in banalities: An idle question about preferred destinations cues a lengthy, pause-ridden listing of shared travel experiences that, in turn, highlights their seasoned personal history.
Tsai doesn’t always protect the film’s illusion of intimacy, drawing attention from the outset to the fact that it’s still a somewhat contrived exercise. “How can we imagine the crew isn’t here?” he asks at the beginning, and the film does little to answer that for the viewer: A boom mic flashes calculatedly into the frame at one point, while an unseen speaker prods Tsai and Lee with questions whenever they float off into silence. There’s a sense, then, that their talk might not be wholly spontaneous, that their interaction is being staged onscreen as a kind of elegiac relationship study, moodily pained smoking intervals and all. Tsai, who has already spoken of his retirement from feature filmmaking, intimates that he might be dying, though Lee doesn’t seem especially concerned: When the director asserts that they may not have many more such conversational opportunities, the actor’s bemused response is, “Why? We haven’t said much.”
Some viewers will frustratedly agree; others will feel, perhaps with a soft ache in their hearts, that the indelibly allied pair could hardly say more. Whether Tsai sticks to his retirement plan or not, “Afternoon” is more wry, over-extended footnote than swansong, though its strange, circuitous rhythms and angular visual bareness are palpably those of its maker.