Preview: Taxi Stories and Discreet at VQFF

The Vancouver Queer Film Festival is running from August 10 to 20, and we're so excited! We'll be posting reviews for a handful of noteworthy flicks until the festival start date, so our readers know which titles to look out for. More details regarding the VQFF program can be found on their website. Yay!

Still from Doris Yeung's Taxi Stories

Still from Doris Yeung's Taxi Stories

Things normally go ‘right’ in a taxi. When they do go wrong, they either go minutely wrong (a spilled drink, a mispronunciation, a forgotten bag)—or they go terribly wrong. In Taxi Stories, things go terribly wrong: serrated knives are pulled on passengers propositioned for sex favours; phones are stolen mid-call and dumped out of open windows; a libidinous Indonesian boy falls in love-lust with a foreigner whom he takes to the “most beautiful place in Jakarta”—a zoo. Nobody gets to where they’d like to go in Taxi Stories. The sweet promise of a taxi, the simple trip from A to B, becomes a chaotic trip from A to Z to C to D with much lurching in-between.

Let’s back up: Taxi Stories is a film by Doris Yeung. It was released in 2017. And it will be playing at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on August 17 and 19. Nominally, it is about three characters who make poor attempts to cross sociopolitical divides in three Asian countries. There is Adi, an overworked teenager who nets fish and taxis customers around in his Bajaj, who sees the visiting backpacker girl from Australia as a romantic way out of his lower class position; Monica, a blonde-skinned trophy wife from Hong Kong with the blush perfection of someone who’s just showered, and who’s neediness is eclipsed and exaggerated by her maid Serafina's real need; and Zhang, a goateed, fire-angry closeted man from Beijing who experiences a simple delight when two rich men kiss in the back of his cab. None of these characters meet. They are instead implicated in the manner of a Jennifer Egan novel, woven together by shared thematic concerns—connectivity, instability, and an attempt to reach outside of one’s class.

This turns out badly. The relationships are eroticized, confused and overcome by the success and failure of cross-cultural communication. Sometimes, as when Monica expects Serafina to carry her baby, it is as if they are speaking from either side of a wall; sometimes, they might push a brick through, or scale the boundary for a few moments of earnest communication, as when Serafina wears Monica’s five-thousand dollar spangled dress, but more often they fail: class and culture rub shoulders and end in fight.

When this movie screens on August 17 and 19, I recommend watching it. When you’re finished, go outside, see all of the yellow and black bumble bee taxis cutting through yellow lights and honking at your leisureliness. Watch them go by, and maybe hail one, and maybe ride one. Now tell me: What do you think?

Still from Travis Matthews' Discreet

Still from Travis Matthews' Discreet

Last month, I read a book about cruelty.

The book, The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, is about the potential usefulness of pitiless art. She wonders why we make it. More so, she wonders why we still make it. If advertisement has so persuasively proven the awful power of repetition, that a few coke-shaped bottles on a screen means more coke-bottles sold, more swoop-haired Biebers mean more swoop-haired cuts, why not dispose of the notion of ‘art as catharsis’ and all of the perversity-purging art it has legitimized (mock-rape scenes, testicles nailed to the ground, Eli Roth’s torture-porn). And why not?

Discreet, an upcoming VQFF film by Travis Mathews, is the first cruel movie I have watched since encountering Nelson, and these questions hang over its release. It is brutal: a Texan visits home to discover his child abuser, an overwhelmingly tall man—taller than the average NBA player—is both still alive and living with dementia in a nearby gated community. In a move that approximates either self-torture or extreme empathy, Alex decides to become the man’s caretaker: he spoons shredded cereal to his mouth, cloths down his milky beard, helps him with his showers. Only occasionally does he bring out the steely titanium bat to prod his abuser's uncomprehending arm.

The longer he stays with the man, the darker the movie becomes. He begins organizing fetish meet-ups and robbing those who show-up. He breaks into a boy’s house, sniffs his underwear, and commissions him to eat dinner with him and his abuser. Later, he rapes him in his closet. Between these uncomfortable scenes are the equally disturbing shots that communicate the state of Alex’s psychic environment: shots of frying bacon, corridors of Trump/Pence posters, the breathy talk of his favourite spiritual Youtube star.

I don’t sit at the edge of my seat while I watch Discreet. I sit at the back of my seat, uncomfortable, my hands nimble and ready to cover my eyes. Insofar as I watch these movies–and I’m never sure I should watch these movies—I think about author/consumer motives, wondering how I’m meant to respond. Maybe I’m supposed to scan the movie for the crumb trail of Alex’s pulverized subjectivity—a kind of isolated voyeurism, in fidelity to discreteness.

Or maybe my job is to empathize with a character I’m uncomfortable with. I did empathize, a little. I also fidgeted in my seat. Hid my screen from anyone who might be watching, looked for reflective surfaces. I paused the movie when it become dark, turned away, wished I would have noticed the little “horror” tag before I started watching. I bought a very large, very comforting croissant. [SPOILER:] When he murders his exploiter though, I felt exploited.

In her book, Nelson cites the quote-length dictums of cruel artists. She references Kafka's desire to write the “kind of books that wound or stab us,” along with Francis Bacon and Artaud’s project to horrify us "closer" to life. But what does this mean, in terms of ethics, when they succeed? And more importantly, what is this ice that needs to be axed? Why axe it? Mathews has said that his movie was meant as a cautionary tale for what could happen if Trump were elected—but what does that matter now that we are living in the movie’s apocalypse?

I am sure there are good reasons to watch an unambiguously dark movie like Discreet—only could someone tell me what they are?

 

Taxi Stories will be screening on August 17 and 19, at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. Discreet will be screening on August 14, at International Village Cinemas. Tickets can be found here and here.