Lee Kang-sheng: "I Felt Totally Free About Exposing My Body"

By Michael Guillén

Lee Kang-shengIt's not Eros who came in to help Lee Kang-sheng's sophomore feature Help Me, Eros - which failed to achieve theatrical distribution and even as much festival exposure as originally predicted - but, Strand Releasing. Strand has had a longstanding practice of letting audiences decide for themselves where they stand on arthouse films that do or do not survive critical scrutiny and I have to admire them for such compensatory bravery. Their DVD release of Help Me, Eros might be the only opportunity fans of Lee Kang-sheng (and Lee's evident mentor Tsai Ming-liang) have to see this much-maligned film, which - despite its faults - warrants viewing.

Starting off with hopeful fanfare at in 2007 at the Venice Film Festival debut, where it was nominated for a Golden Lion, reception proved chilly despite the film's hothouse erotics. Variety's Ronnie Scheib predicted: "Outlook appears dim." Schieb interpreted the film's opening sequence, in which "the televised image of a carp being prepared alive - scaled, cut, sauced and eaten while its mouth opens and closes frantically" as a metaphor for the mental state of its hero Ah Jie (played with deadpan passivity by Lee Kang-sheng himself, in a performance "practically patented for Tsai Ming-liang"). The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Bennett, on the other hand, aligned the gasping carp with how the film's audiences might feel after watching "Lee Kang-Sheng's tediously self-indulgent film." Dan Fainaru, dispatching to Screen Daily, concurred that Help Me, Eros was a "niche item at all times" whose prospects of a wider audience were "pretty improbable".

Walkouts were likewise embarrassingly high at its 2007 Toronto International Film Festival press screening; but, notwithstanding, I found the film's imagery intriguing enough to persevere and welcomed the opportunity to sit down with Lee Kang-sheng to discuss the project, which took him 10 years to realize. He based the story loosely on his own experiences during the Asian financial boom of the 1990s when - as an unemployed actor - Lee occupied his free time day trading; he also wanted to approach problematic themes such as marijuana use and the cultural practice of betel nut beauties that Taiwanese society finds difficult to discuss. Though his original intention had been to interview people for a documentary about these topics, Lee found people unwilling to be filmed for fear of family reaction, so he shifted to a semi-fictional format for Help Me, Eros.

Help Me ErosFirst of all, congratulations on completing your second feature. I understand it was a difficult process and that it's taken four or five years to secure the funding?

It was very hard to come up with the money for this film. It took three to four years to get a grant from the government.

Can you speak about how you developed the script? It's my understanding it's based on your personal experiences of amassing a sizeable fortune via day trading during the Asian economic boom of the 90s, your uneasy reliance on the materialism that ensued, and the subsequent loss of your fortune when the markets collapsed?

There are some elements that are true to my life. Being an actor in Taiwan, there's not that much work and - because the industry doesn't really create enough films for them to subsist financially - I did play the stock market. Even as I was shooting this film, I was playing the stock market and - when I was making a lot of money - it showed on camera. But then when I wasn't making enough, it likewise affected the tone of the film.

You didn't end up on a window ledge like your character Ah Jie?

I actually did consider it for a second. Then I called the suicide hotline and couldn't get through because the line was constantly busy. Apparently, about the time I was doing so poorly with the stock market, the same was happening with everyone else and everyone was calling in to the suicide hotline.

So you didn't feel so alone, eh? Help Me, Eros skillfully captures how people get caught up in wanting to make money, and how that can fail an individual on so many different levels. I hope you understand that - even if you don't make a lot of money - you have an artistic visibility that has currency?

A lot of my film is about the youth in Taiwan and how they're under a lot of pressure to make money. They see all this wealth around them so they try to come up with ways to make fast money. I wanted the film to expose that or to tell their story.
 

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