Lee Kang-Sheng is not your average actor. He has become the face of Tsai Ming-Liang's laconic films, and as a result the emblem of Taiwan's alienated youth now grown into adults. Tsai has placed Lee in compromising situations that few other actors would be willing (not to mention able) to do for over 15 years. The collaboration between the two of them has obviously been mutually beneficial, with Tsai feeding off Lee's odd presence and Lee reveling in Tsai's abnormal dramas. Although Lee has acted in other's films, Tsai has gone on record to say that he would never make a film without Lee Kang-Sheng. Even if Tsai mentioned this off-the-cuff, it is a pretty strong affirmation of the bond between the two of them.
The similarities and differences between the two of them became noticeable when Lee decided to take the director's chair with his first feature film The Missing. Originally The Missing was to be a one-hour companion piece to Goodbye Dragon Inn, but once Goodbye Dragon Inn evolved into a longer film, so did The Missing. Although the two films are connected at the hip, The Missing is a work that stood on its own under Lee's name, receiving awards at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and the Pusan International Film Festival.
Despite what might seem as an international success with The Missing, Lee came up with no offers for his next feature. After three years of trying to sell the script, it was a filmmaking grant from the Taiwanese government that got the ball rolling for Help Me Eros. The reality of trying to get a film made is not something Lee took lightly. Participating as writer, director and actor was not so much a choice, but simply a more economical way to get the film made. Tsai Ming-Liang lent a helping hand as producer and production design, and, inevitably, as the silent influence on Lee's style. Portions of the film seem like misplaced Tsai Ming-Liang scenes, but overall, and perhaps to its demise, this film is 100% Lee Kang-Sheng.
Lee Kang-Sheng plays Ah Jie who is clearly down on his luck: his girlfriend has left him; he has lost a bundle, maybe even everything; he is not gainfully employed; and only finds solace in smoking weed and calling a suicide helpline. Ah Jie's connections to the outside world are Chyi, the case worker at the helpline, and Shin, a Betelnut salesgirl where Ah Jie buys cigarettes. Chyi is in an unhappy marriage, and pours her depression into the absurd amounts of food her chef husbands cooks for her. Chyi longs for someone to need her, and in lieu of her husband, it is Ah Jie. Shin has newly arrived to city to work in the Betelnut stand but is burdened with aimlessness. All seem complacent with their situation while silently yearning for more. The connected stories are driven more by coincidence that plot, with a pace not unlike a stoner's dream.
On a superficial level, Help Me Eros is a film about fetishes, with food and sex at the top of the list. On a more serious level, it's about the bigger issues of life and how we find a purpose to keep going. In the long run, those two don't gel so well and you are left with something that is much less poetic than it is intended to be. Lee has said that he tapped into some personal experiences for the film, and there is no doubt that some aspects seem very personal, where others have a self conscious distance. The opening scene does not mince words with a cruel analogy of Ah Jie's desperation that most will find totally inappropriate. When these poor lonely souls do get a reprieve, the morphs into some sort of male fantasy of weed smoking and endless three-ways. (If it is not obvious thus far, the film has a fair amount of sex.)
But Help Me Eros is anything but literal. As a matter of fact it is pleasantly abstract. Whether it is two men playing pool without their pants on or a woman taking a bath with a tub full of eels, Lee is keen on setting things slightly askew. When the narrative slides into a dreamy music video it is actually quite beautiful. As a director, Lee has a great eye for film and does an incredible job in setting up some of the shots, but the emotional inconsistencies left me cold. Outside of a joy-filled moment hanging out a sun roof of a stolen car, Help Me Eros implodes on itself with its apathy.
Senses of Cinema interview with Lee Kang-Sheng here.
Twitch interview with Lee Kang-Sheng here.