The Deserted in VR: Visions from the Astral Plane

Slow cinema is a paradox. Its languorous, immaculately staged compositions aim for total immersion; yet they rely on complete isolation to achieve transcendence. Audiences need to be dragged inside these films and become physically trapped in the flickering celluloid image, but their minds must wander far beyond the constraints of the visual medium. In doing so, they are able to reach understandings closer to ecstatic truth than traditional morals or thematic realisations.

Fittingly, virtual reality is both the best and the worst medium in which to do this. Imperfect, distracting, and gimmicky, it’s a nascent technology which encourages hyperactive behaviour and induces headaches – one that’s already synonymous with gaming and interactivity. On the flipside, it has the potential to realign the user’s coordinates in space-time, achieving close to total immersion. If one can simply forget that one is watching VR, in other words, teleportation (in a psychological sense) is possible. On first glance, then, Tsai Ming-Liang would not be the obvious choice to helm a feature length VR film, but first glances can be misleading. With The Deserted, he uses the medium to startlingly beautiful effect as a seamless extension across the fourth wall from his usual work, marking the 61 year-old auteur as a luminary for serious VR filmmaking.

The programme synopsis of The Deserted describes the film as about an aging, unwell man visited by ghosts in his crumbling house, but one gets the sense that this is the opposite of the truth. This a film set in a spiritual dimension – a dimension filled with dying architecture and dead people, enveloped in tropical undergrowth – our living protagonist is merely visiting, or rather, he is transitioning to a new home. It is not exactly clear who these people are – one, who stares lovingly at him through the steam of a rice cooker, could be his mother; another, who lingers in what looks like a wedding dress, his daughter or wife. Or he could know neither – they could merely be previous occupants of the decaying flat-block, or spirits sent to ease the man’s transition into the underworld.

Our protagonist is constantly touching death, and death touches back. The imposing, at times slightly creepy and at others almost endearing, concrete landscape of his isolated life feels at any point like it might collapse – mirroring his own internal struggle to stay alive. One gets the sense that the topography of Tsai’s reclaimed landscape reflects his character’s failing body – once strong, monolithic even; now disintegrating. He becomes more attuned to the phantasmagorical, hence the ghosts, and the spiritual. A beautiful fish he keeps in his bathtub is also more than just an ‘object’, but a creature with a soul. In the most wonderful sequence in the film, and one of the most triumphant sex scenes in recent memory, the silhouette of the fish morphs into a beautiful woman who makes love to  the protagonist. In the background, a vicious tropical thunderstorm ravages the fractured concrete shell of a house, building to an elementally stunning crescendo of bullet-like spray, the raging roar of water smacking off tiles, and orgasm.

It’s a pity that, after this monumental, elemental display, Tsai settles into a more languorous long-shot that demands a little too much reflection of his characters and audience in the post-coital moment. My frustrations have more than a little to do with the grating, loud and repetitive laughter which both parties utter seemingly without end (it might have been ten minutes, who knows).

Still, this is the one off shot in an otherwise stunning piece of work. Tsai displays a master’s eye for ephemera: smoke drifting from cigarettes; steam floating from kettles and rice-cookers; the mirage-esque shimmering reflection of bathwater on the ceiling; lush green vegetation poking through windows, reflected in oscillating pools of rainwater. There’s a tangible feeling of presence to this work, a feeling that engages the sixth sense more than any other – one that suggests the spirit realm is diffusing through the barrier that separates the here and now from the afterworld.

In one particularly experimental scene, he puts us in a cramped space inside the house which appears to have no way in and no way out, occupied by the younger woman spirit, who simply sits on a chair amid trash and a frog that had no way of getting in in the first place. How, we think, did she get there? What is this space for? There are implications which are hard to put into words; ideas and emotions at play not too dissimilar to those one would find in House of Leaves – a sort of cosmic undoing of physical logic. There is, indeed, some fear at these implications – in much the same way as our protagonist must surely fear his imminent demise (at least in an existential sense) – but there’s also an uncanny sense of calm and comfort about the way the spirits handle it as if the uncanny is the norm.

In another scene, we face a road – but if we turn our heads to face the house behind us, a lone figure stands – cloaked partially in darkness, staring ahead. The initial effect is, it has to be said, a little frightening – at least heart-rate increasing – but this quickly dissipates. The spirit gazes longingly, caringly at the woman walking down the road. In this ghost story, the dead remain startlingly like the living.

Even in virtual reality, Tsai’s grasp of blocking and colour are immense. He masterfully balances ash greys with the most astounding mint green, channeling his man/nature narrative through a singular, beautiful use of colour. At night, yellowing lamps cast sunset hues over our characters face and the walls of his house, warming us from the cosmic chill of the cloudless sky hovering above. The Vive, despite featuring relatively pedestrian-looking on ear earpieces, creates an impressively immersive sphere of sound around viewers that cements the illusion of presence – at times, during thunderstorms, I wanted to put on my coat.

This is a film about the blurring of borders: between man and nature; light and dark; sun and rain; life and death. It is fitting then that we, as the audience, spend the duration of The Deserted in a moony ether – an astral plane between being and non-being that spectacularly illuminates both as sides of the same, eternally spinning coin.

4/5

The Deserted is showing at Taiwan Film Festival until 8th April. Tickets:
https://filmtaiwan.org/taiwan-film-festival-uk-2019/


James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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