In the limbo between waking and sleeping — a state deliberately induced by Vietnamese director Lê Bảo’s striking feature debut — the framework that allows you to judge dream from nightmare is absent. And anyway, how many of our reveries can be so easily classified as one or the other? “Taste” (the name itself a strange tease for a film that despite its opacity is sensuously preoccupied with food and flesh) is defiantly dreamlike, submerging a barely-there plot into an aesthetic so arresting it becomes the story. Nothing much happens inside its 97 minutes, but take any single one of its frames, and everything is happening inside that.
Inasmuch as it is has a narrative, here it is: A Nigerian footballer (Olegunleko Ezekiel Gbenga), who left his 9-year-old son to come to Saigon as a player, is dropped from the team when injured. He works now as a barber and lives with four Vietnamese women (Thi Minh Nga Khuong, Thi Dung Le, Thi Cam Xuan Nguyen, Thi Tham Thin Vu) in a stilted slum, in cement spaces dingy with lack of sunlight. He washes the women’s hair, massages their feet, occasionally has sex. Together, they make food, maybe watch TV or sing karaoke. Sometimes, he plays a makeshift game, on a chalked outline of a miniature soccer pitch, pinging bottlecaps into a mousehole-goal. Once, we see the mouse, its beady eyes little more than tiny pinpricks of light.
Even those sketchy details are revealed only slowly by an approach that more closely resembles an amble through a gallery installation. DP Vinh Phúc Nguyễn practices the cinematography of stillness, letting his unobtrusive but keenly focused lighting create a tableau’s eloquence. And colorist Yov Moor renders the livid palette of bruised gray and navy so uniform that the bursting-bright redness of a slice of watermelon seems luminous, like it contains all the pigment drained from the rest of the world. Plants, animals and foodstuffs are the only elements exempted from the film’s crepuscular dimness. Even naked human flesh — and there’s a lot of it — is mostly matte and mid-toned. The brightest white we ever see is the starchy milk-water runoff from rice being rinsed in a bowl.
Speech is infrequent, and comes Apichatpong-style, as a monologue spoken by one character to an impassive listener — often in a language the listener does not speak. The footballer talks about his son in Nigeria; later, a woman tells of her own lost family. Another relates how she has never seen a hot air balloon actually flying, though her job is to sew them together — there’s a goosebump-raising sequence in which wind riffles through a massive sheet of pale blue silk until it looks like a bulging slice of evening sky that has somehow been trapped in a warehouse. And instead of music, there’s a symphony of room tone, courtesy of Vincent Villa’s perfectly modulated sound design, set off by eerily specific ambient noises — slow exhalations, husks being shucked from corn, fingers massaging shampoo into scalp.
The doleful shadow of Portuguese master Pedro Costa lingers. But Lê Bảo is less concerned with portraiture: The stories here are not etched in closeups of his actors’ faces but in the triangulations of their bodies, and the tiny choreographies of their pared-down movements. And where Costa’s dark corners are alive with ghosts, the empty areas in “Taste” are dead spaces between the scrubbed-back walls and floors of Le Van Thanh’s surreally spartan production design, in which a bed or a bench is merely an abstraction of itself.
The presentation is placid, but the action summons troubling political memories. The dark-skinned footballers (the practice of importing African players to Southeast Asian leagues has become a phenomenon recently) are prodded with calipers, suggesting slaves on an auction block being assessed like livestock. Naked Asian female bodies flanking a military-style bunk while a couple rut in the background, cannot but recall WWII “comfort women” and prostitution during the Vietnam War. But Lê Bảo’s rich film reaches further back too, beyond the politics of globalization and migration, beyond even culture, into a pre-ethnographic past, to see us as trapped animals, paradoxically dehumanized by the sunless concrete ugliness of human civilization.
Of all the art-house titles that warrant an actual art house, this visionary debut must sit top of the list, not only because its thematically appropriate low-contrast mournfulness could use the luminescence of big-screen projection to make out its finer details, but because those very themes would flourish best in the suspended-animation surrender that a cinema invokes. Then again, perhaps “Taste,” for the admittedly small niche of dedicated cinephiles to whom it will chiefly appeal, is the perfect film to invite into your living room during these strange days, that so often take on the texture of a waking dream all by themselves.