- Desola Olaleye
Thoughts on Taste - A Film by Lê Bao
“...the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream. Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others, stimulating one another.”
— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Lê Bao's debut film Vi (Taste) is both a product and expression of endotic sensibilities. Set in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, this experimental film places importance on what the French writer Georges Perec refers to as the 'infra-ordinary' — the most banal and seemingly trivial phenomena that surround us. For ninety-seven minutes, viewers can follow the lives of Bassley (Ologunleko Ezekiel Gbenga), a Yoruba-speaking Nigerian footballer, and four middle-aged Vietnamese women (Thi Minh Nga Khuong, Thi Dung Le, Thi Cam Xuan Nguyen, and Thi Tham Thin Vu) who engage in mundane tasks in a building that is so naked, even the beds are left without mattresses. Through its occupancy by individuals seeking respite or room to daydream, this abandoned building becomes a house or home in the Bachelardian sense. Like the house, its occupants remain nude as they wash each other and prepare meals together. With Bassley removed from his Vietnamese football team following an injury and the women having toiled in factories, it is obvious that they have not led luxurious lives. As victims of Saigon’s urban poverty and precarious labour conditions, their lives have felt disposable. Bassley's despair is worsened by his experience of dislocation as an immigrant. But in this dimly lit and secluded space, they bask in a freedom to indulge in unrefined desires, sharing an unusual intimacy.
The cinematic brilliance of Nguyen Vinh Phúc is complemented by the authentic performance of the non-professional actors Lê Bao hired to induce his bold visions. Taste defies traditional storytelling and illuminates the power of non-verbal communication; it shows the magic that unfolds when the tongue is held and the body is at liberty to speak. Besides lacking a substantive and complex plot, Taste embodies a fusion of installation art and elements of physical theatre. The film is filled with scenes in which some protagonists remain still while others tell a story with their faces and limbs. A notable scene is one where Bassley engages in sexual intercourse with one of the women he shares space with, while another woman squats over a latrine in the corner of the same room for an extended period. In a way, this scene reveals that although intimate moments occur in this house, the concept of privacy is unable to materialise. This scene also captures the great extent to which the dwellers of this grey and bare building live in primal conditions. Still, their way of life is not completely primal — it includes karaoke, a rather modern indulgence.
Taste is informed by an appreciation of the fact that duality and disruption characterise human life. Although this house enables its inhabitants to reminisce, nurture dreams and prepare colourful, fattening meals, it doesn't allow for a total utopia. Along with succour, there is spite and misery. It is difficult to ignore the scene where one woman spits at the woman with whom Bassley enjoys a sexual initimacy. In another scene, the same spluttering woman uses the recently washed towel of Bassley's sexual partner to wipe herself after urinating. Through such scenes, Lê Bao seems to highlight that the dystopian and utopian are inextricably linked. To be human is to know joy but it also means being robbed of it sometimes. Although members of the household cook, laugh and perform karaoke together, Lê Bao reveals that there is more than enough room in the house for resentment to grow and for bitter memories to resurface as they do for Bassley, who lost his father in Nigeria and misses his young son for whom he is toiling in Saigon. Similarly, viewers discover that one of the women lost her husband and son not as a result of death but through deliberate desertion. This portrayal is in line with Bachelard’s claim that the house is defined by unity and complexity, and so thoughts, memories and dreams are bound to clash.
The opacity of Taste is reflected partly in the attempted dialogue between protagonists. It is attempted because in the few scenes where Bassley speaks to another household member or is spoken to, it becomes clear that the speech is essentially a monologue since the listener remains unresponsive and the language spoken is understood only by the speaker. This film's enigmatic quality pushed me to continue watching, hoping for greater clarity. Yet, while much remains ambiguous, one thing became clear to me as I observed the interactions of these five people. Taste demonstrates the universal nature of loneliness and why understanding the language of loneliness trumps an ability to understand Yoruba or Vietnamese. The women may not understand Bassley’s eloquent confessions in Yoruba, but the melancholy buried deep within radiates. Taste also shows how loneliness can be soothed by companionship, through giving into the habitual and focusing on the details of the space that surrounds us, recognising ‘space as reassurance’ as Perec notes in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces.
In Taste, there are several instances of what may feel like awkward silence but they aren’t more awkward than the vapid silence that fills our lives on a daily basis. Many of us try to disturb this silence with, to quote from Perec's Species of Spaces, 'the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary'. In the same way, viewers who feel uneasy watching this mostly quiet film may be quick to turn off their screens in search of greater stimuli or walk away before the film concludes, but there may be something to gain from being still and trying to live comfortably in the silence like the protagonists of this film because, as Bachelard warns in Poetics of Space, 'as life grows older, we are besieged by many a silence'.