Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Film Comment Selects" Review: Lin Tay-jou's "Bardo"

Bardo (Chui-si Zao-wu Ai-ge). 2005. Written, directed, photographed, and edited by Lin Tay-jou. Produced by Hsieh Chia-kuen. Music by Lo Song-tze. Sound design by Chou Chen.

This year’s “Film Comment Selects” series got off to a very strong, and unusual, start for me with Taiwanese experimental and documentary filmmaker Lin Tay-jou’s Bardo, a 70-minute triptych about the stages of life death, and rebirth. As Lin himself explains on the film’s website, the film’s title is a Sanskrit word meaning “between two things.” The film’s subtitle, “The Lamentation of the Dying Creatures,” is from a medieval text referring to Christian notions of hell, purgatory, and divine judgment. This mixture of Eastern and Western philosophies informs both the subject matter and structure of this astonishing film. The extreme images and sound design of this work are quite indelible, and amid the images of death, cannibalism, rough sex, decay, rot, and blood that flood the viewer in this film, there is also a hopeful vision of the unending cycle of life’s birth and rebirth. I’ll briefly explore each section of this film, preceded by the filmmaker’s statements regarding each one.

Bardo Part 1:
In this merciless universe, everything is expendable.
When the stream of life is exhausted, does any humanity remain?
Time is short – do the gods have any answers for us?
If all will vanish in the end, then why these unending waves of desire?

In this first, dialogue-free section (as is the rest of the film), the black-and-white misshapen-iris images portray a withered and dead post-apocalyptic landscape in which civilization is not only absent, it’s as if it has never even existed. Men and women in tattered rags wander zombie-like among dead trees sprouting rotten fruit. The sacred and the profane intertwine greatly here, as a Buddhist temple looms over these ravenous and murderous creatures. A woman greedily licks and sucks on a statue of Buddha; the pages of an illustrated erotic book are turned; a man masturbates in front of a painting. The survivors of this unspecified disaster are all appetites and animalistic impulses. The only food in sight is rotten and decayed, and the people feed on their dead. In the climactic sequence, a black rain of what is probably blood comes down on the people as they stop, open their mouths to let it in, and rub it on their bodies. The sounds we hear are chanting, growls, murmurs, electronic music, among others. This first section could superficially be classified as yet another example of the “Asian extreme” vogue so prevalent in recent years. The difference here is that this is not done as a cheap shock tactic, but as an expression of a philosophically rigorous examination of Lin’s themes of the life cycle, and his portrayals of these way-stations between levels of existence.

Bardo Part 2:
Legend has it that at the end of life,
we cross a bridge. Old women on the bridge
offer you a bowl of broth, and drinking it,
you forget all. Since the end has been
reached, why look back? If,
at the end of the bridge,
you forget your own face,
then beyond the Door to Yesterday,
will you find your own footprints?
If all is to be forgotten,
when did we actually live?

In the second section, a dead man revisits scenes from his own life, in the film’s words, “like a movie on fast forward.” Actually, the life-as-film metaphor is taken literally here, in both this section and the one following, as scenes play out on a movie screen, and we see the projectors working. The young man in this section has been killed by riot cops during a protest, and he wanders through these scenes and the ones leading up to his death. He sees his happier days as a young radical, reading a Che Guevara volume with his girlfriend on a hill, and later giving her a cross in his car. He travels to these scenes through theater curtains and doors. However, we see that he is not as principled in his personal life as he is in his political life; his girlfriend catches him with another woman, whom he has given the cross to. Lording over it all is death with his scythe, sitting in the screening room and later waiting to chain him. The sequence culminates in an ultrasound image, reiterating the film’s themes of the circularity of life.

Bardo Part 3:
Babies keep being born in hospital beds; pigs’ heads still drop to the
slaughterhouse floor. Entries, exits, in this wailing sea of blood. Do they
represent life – or death? Do dreams still exist in a gigantic earthquake?
Can a poem be found in the depths of ashes?

The third section begins with a piano’s dulcet tones, and the soft-focus image of a woman sleeping at a desk, her head in front of an open book lined with seashells. This gentle beginning soon gives way to what is perhaps this woman’s dream, as a succession of images of death ensues: slaughtered pigs and frogs; a body being cremated; bloody, dying geese. Also, a man and a woman have auto-asphyxiation sex in a hospital bed, and the sequence climaxes with footage of an actual childbirth. Once again, projected images form the basis of what we see, as the woman looks both into the projector and out to us as viewers. This sequence, and the film itself, ends with the gentle piano tones, and the woman sleeping. After all these images of despair, there is a hopeful note, as the baby is returned to the safety of the womb, and the notion that perhaps all we have seen is just a dream contained within the peaceful, restorative world that we see at the film’s conclusion. Or perhaps both sides of this equation are necessary to maintain the holistic balance of the universe.

Whatever the ultimate meaning of it all is, Lin Tay-jou has created a visually, aurally, and philosophically challenging work that will probably haunt me for weeks to come.

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