March 2, 2012

The Most Distant Course - Taiwanese film review

I strayed. I confess.

I didn’t intend to. The program guide didn’t say where the film was from. When I tuned in a minute or two late, the screen was black, but there was sound. I was confused. I didn’t know whether to go or stay. Then it started, and the actor looked Korean, so I kept watching. There was no dialogue for the first few minutes, and by the time I realized what was happening, I had gone too far to stop. I watched The Most Distant Course right through to the end.

It was worth every minute. I have no regrets.

If you like films with short, action-packed scenes that fall all over themselves in a rush to the next scene, you’ll hate The Most Distant Course. It is languorous and meditative, with long, long shots of actors doing the same thing (such as sobbing, or listening) for minutes at a time. The names of the three characters are mentioned in passing, but don’t seem important, since the film is about their internal experiences. All of them are grappling with crippling grief over their love relationships.

The first is a young sound recordist. The film opens with sound. We hear the roar of an ocean before the first images, and his recordings, mostly of nature sounds, replace the usual music that tells us what to feel – in fact there is no background music at all until the final scene. The timelessness of the sound palette admits us to the isolation and introspection of the characters – we don’t just see it, we feel it. Yet, the sound also mutes the scenes of emotional misery. We feel compassion for the characters – we’ve all been there – but we don’t suffer with them. Of course, I haven’t broken up with someone recently, so I can’t guarantee the same distancing effect for someone who has.

The sound recordist has been devastated by an unexpected breakup with his longtime girlfriend. He literally doesn’t know how to live without her, losing track of his daily life and his job, and collapsing into uncontrollable crying jags on the curbs of busy streets. He sets off on a journey to record “Sounds of Formosa,” a project they had planned together, and continues to send her tape cassettes of the sounds he discovers, unable to break free of his habit of sharing.

His girlfriend has moved, however, and the new tenant, a young office worker, receives his letters. She is unhappily involved with a married man, and stuck in a boring, low-end office job. There is no return address, and no way to forward the letters. Eventually, while waiting for her lover, as she always seems to be doing, she opens one, and listens to the tape. Soon she is listening to the tapes everywhere – on the bus, at work – and the more engaged she becomes with the inner world of sensation and imagination they have awakened, the more alienated she becomes from her daily life. In one tape of a conversation with village children, he mentions his name, and becomes real to her. She leaves the city and sets off to the locations of each tape, trying to follow his path and locate the exact soundscapes he has recorded.

Meanwhile, a psychiatrist in the throes of divorce is having another kind of meltdown, engaging in bizarre role-playing with a prostitute, and reducing a client to hysterics by describing in all too minute detail the excruciating withdrawal from an addictively passionate relationship which he is also experiencing. He, too, takes off on a journey, and eventually meets up with the young sound recordist.

The scenes of the Formosan countryside are beautiful, and I hate to be disloyal, but it looks a lot sunnier and warmer than Korea. Interestingly, the ending echoes the final scenes of Freeze (recent review), where a beach “at the end of the world” is the setting for a long-overdue emotional transition. This film was released in 2007, a year after “Freeze,” and one wonders whether this is a coincidence.

The resolution for the young couple is delicate and open-ended, but
satisfying. The psychiatrist, however, is abandoned before the end of the story, and we don’t really know how he is, or what will happen to him. The pacifying effect of all that nature noise makes this less troubling than it might’ve been, but still, he seemed to deserve better.

While I have no complaints about the acting, it is not the primary vehicle for the mood of the film (unlike in Korean drama). The performances are just one thread in the the overall tapestry. The film it reminds me most of (though it’s been many years since I watched it), is the Vietnamese film, The Scent of Green Papaya. If you are the sort of person who enjoys a moment listening to waves, or birds in the morning, or wind in the pines, you’ll like this film.

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