I won’t bother explaining what “Taste” is about. It’s more dreamed up than a term like “about” can capture. The movie is all tableaux — pacific, surveillant, surreal. Three naked women ride a motorbike around a tiny room. Those same women arrange a boxy television set on a top bunk while, in an adjoining room, a man pumps himself into a fourth woman. The women drag that man (he’s naked, too) from one room to the next, careful not to wake him as he sleeps with his arms around a swordfish as long as he is. A scene later, the five of them are hacking the fish up, cleaning it, for the meal we later see them eat. Later on: karaoke.
“Taste” is set in Vietnam, and the man I mentioned is Nigerian, the women Vietnamese and seemingly older than he is. I’m telling you this because the movie doesn’t disclose much. It’s got a shaved-down quality. The man’s an injured soccer player who has been cut from the team, and is now settling for recreating matches in miniature, with bottle caps. I was taken with most of this movie. It’s got a firm sensualist grip. It proceeds nearly wordlessly. The camera does most of the talking. A pet pig does a lot of the rest. It’s spare — spiritually and sartorially.
The scenes arrive as a collection of images that seem meant to reveal themselves with a cosmic or karmic logic. The film starts in a beauty spa, where the man sleeps and performs massages with his hands and by standing atop his customers’ backs. At some point, he and the women move into the rooms that occupy the movie’s center. I’m calling them rooms when “realms” is more like it. They bring tombs and wombs to mind. But also: site specific art installation. Yes, there’s a staginess to it all: the quintet sitting around on the floor husking vegetables, dismantling a chicken, dining. It’s artisanal and boutique and gourmet. Vague, too, in just the way a title like “Taste” implies. There’s just nothing underneath, no control to these images. A little of their handsomeness — the blue tones, the billowing fabric, the transitions from vast spaces to cramped ones, all of that natural flesh — goes a long way. And the way here feels circular.
You can feel the director, Le Bao, pushing for the unusual — like having the man hold his penis while giving it a rueful pep talk before using it with a woman in the following scene. You can also feel him searching for some kind of humanity. To that end, grief perfumes this movie. All five members of the main cast — Olegunleko Ezekiel Gbenga, Khuong Thi Minh Nga, Le Thi Dung, Nguyen Thi Cam Xuan, Vu Thi Tham Thin — do their work with an abiding sadness. Even a scene in which they huddle over the camera and laugh it up feels more like coping than anything I’d call mirth.
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Le is new to filmmaking (this is his first feature) but not to movies. He seems to have watched a lot of those, the best ones. By Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Carlos Reygadas. And maybe a few by the exasperating animist dreamcatcher Naomi Kawase. The persistence of the television set channels the video art of Nam June Paik. There’s something here. It’s just undercooked. The cinematic philosophy around these minimalist hallucinations comes down to whether the images ought to amount to anything, as they always do with Weerasethakul and almost always with Reygadas. You’ve got to work your magic to erase the strings. Le gives us one shot of a hot-air balloon that never meets the sky and another in which a rodent approaches a morsel then backs away: metaphors. He’s not a magician, not yet. This movie feels like a secret he’s keeping from himself.
Not rated. In Yoruba and Vietnamese, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. Watch on Mubi.