JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

At home: Lai and Ho’s shared moments are defined more by the intimate quarters of their apartment in La Boca than by the dimensions of downtown.

 

 

Only inside, can the uprooted Lai and Ho carve out the time, space ...

 

... and tumultuous emotions of their tango for themselves.

 

Chang, another displaced, solitary soul from Taiwan, finds a kindred spirit as he gazes longingly at Lai.

 

Chang and Lai’s shared time in obscured shrouded spaces and shots ...

 

... suggest the spatial marginalization of queer characters.

 

Away from the outside world, only the cover of darkness allows Lai to feel more at ease and engage in the encounters of his choice.

 

Surrounded by meat carcasses rather than humans, Lai confirms his underground existence—but to escape, or to bring himself closer to Hong Kong?

 

The iron confines of the Río de la Plata never allow it to flow too far from its industry-ridden past and that of La Boca.

 

 

The margins of home

The southeastern barrio (neighborhood) La Boca bordering the Río de la Plata is where Lai and Ho call home. According to Wilson,

“Barrios are a kind of beautus ille, a salutary counterpoint to the ever-changing, sordid city.”[14] [open endnotes in new window]

Indeed, while the dynamism of downtown Buenos Aires is highlighted in the aforementioned shots of the city, it is the quiet stillness of the barrio that comes into view. As the shot resembles a still image, time in La Boca seems to slow to a stop. The sense of stasis and halted time can be adequately expressed through Bakhtin’s chronotope of a provincial town, in which

“[t]ime here has no advancing historical movement . . . and therefore almost seems to stand still.”[15]

Indeed, a variety of chronotopes will appear suitable to defining and shedding light on Lai and Ho’s situation. Evidently, then, their disorientation cannot be defined by a single, limited experience of space and time. Rather, as they find themselves living in a continual state of flux, their circumstances are defined by a mélange of chronotopes—that is, a constantly shifting experience of time and space in relation to their surroundings.

In this case, while the suburb is not the equivalent of a provincial town, it is inarguably a space that has been relegated to the margins with respect to the city center: as the downtown remains “ever-changing,” the time of the barrio operates in direct opposition. Thus, at the margins of the city’s industrial glory lies the residue of industrial immobility. Although this imagery scales down from the monumental dimensions of the city center with the camera now placed at eye level, the deadened road also excludes the presence of human figures. Tellingly, as the only accents of color, the caution tapes in the foreground forbid the treading of footsteps.

This therefore begs the question of why the space of the barrio, too, has become so hostile to receiving human inhabitants. The faded colors and view of the ships docked at the left provide a glimpse into the layers of La Boca’s past. As Wilson describes, “More than elsewhere it was the port that reflected this leap in modernization,” with “ships docked in La Boca... to give Buenos Aires its grand (and decaying) port look.”[16] In contrast to the rapid, on-going modernization that has reconstructed downtown, this suburban space presents us with the “decaying” effects of development. That is, unlike the lights and speed of the city center, herein remain the discarded, forgotten pieces of industry that have lingered for too long and ultimately congealed.

Indeed, now existing as one of the “unchanging” parts of the city where time “seems to stand still,” the barrio has been left behind vis-à-vis the rapid development of the city. Furthermore, not only has the space itself become marginalized, but such results have also marginalized its residents, as the road and port appear unfit to receive human visitors. Doyle describes the space as a “stinking oil-slicked port,” as its smell and surfaces prove unwelcoming to those who come across it. [17] Thus, Lai and Ho find themselves not only residing in the spatial and industrial margins of Buenos Aires, but also banned from frequenting the environment of their home.

At the same time, beyond revealing La Boca’s industrial past, the dilapidated image of the port also hints at its socio-political background. Tambling describes how

“one of Buenos Aires’ poorest barrios, La Boca, [was] originally one inhabited by Genoese and other Italian immigrants.”[18]

Thus, La Boca has historically been home to those living in the economic and social margins of Argentinian society—down-and-out immigrants who have, similar to Lai and Ho, uprooted themselves from their origins in order to seek a new life in Buenos Aires. By settling in this barrio defined as much by its port as by its immigrant history and impoverished status, the characters’ residence in La Boca thus reinforces the degree to which they are both geographically and socially alienated from the rest of Buenos Aires. Furthermore, with limited economic means, Lai and Ho are forced to relegate themselves to such an area.

Wilson summarizes the barrio’s history as

“the immigrant, essentially Genovese, area, associated with tango and lunfardo, the dockside, underworld idiom of Buenos Aires.”[19]

In effect, in the shot preceding that of the decaying port, we see Lai and Ho echoing La Boca’s past as they attempt to dance the Argentinian tango. In close-up, Ho tenderly guides Lai to carry out the steps in their apartment whilst the Astor Piazzolla tune begins. It is a rare, tranquil moment that they share in their increasingly fragmented relationship. Whether they are calmly watching each other sleep or dancing in sync, the nuances of their shared present are visibly and audibly conveyed through intimate, fluid exchanges. Consequently, I find that the spatial-temporal realm occupied by the tango proves particularly enlightening in contemplating Lai and Ho’s situation. That is to say, in contrast to the dimensions and tempo of the city center and suburb, the tempo kept by their dance, relationship, and the intimate quarters of their personal lives appear to reside largely in the realm of the tango.

Meaning, Lai and Ho’s experience is not only exemplified through the tango’s intimacy and fluidity, but also tied to the time and space occupied by the dance’s social history. Stokes and Hoover provide further insight into the tango’s past:

“The origins of tango were in the multicultural working-class slums and docks of Buenos Aires along the La Plata river in the late nineteenth century. The history of the music and its dance conveys suffering, sadness, and displacement.”[20]

As the tango originated within the immigrant community, it has long been associated with resettlement as well as its accompanying difficulties . Thus, when the external environment proves incompatible with Lai and Ho’s subjective experience, they seek a momentary respite in their re-creation of the tango, shadowing the steps and sorrow of past immigrants. While this instant appears to provide a glimmer of calm, the shot ultimately reverberates with a sense of despondency, marking one of the last instants of harmony between Lai and Ho.

Thus, it is the dimensions of their own sadness that they must reside in, as their present rapport—their tango—hardly follows the rhythm dictated by the outside world. Doyle reinforces this notion of a distinct temporality created through the lovers’ personal space, stating,

“Our interiors are consciously ‘timeless’, they’re not ‘logically’ lit. Time of day is not a concern in this film. Tony and Leslie’s world is outside time and space.”[21]

Instead, their experience is conveyed through the 1-2 of their steps that follow the tunes of the dance, whose sounds flow beyond the shot to envelop the view of La Boca’s port.

Indeed, the first locations that we see Lai and Ho frequent are the late night tango clubs. Here, Lai works as a doorman as they both pass their nights alongside unfamiliar company: unruly customers for Lai, short-term affairs for Ho. At the same time, although satisfying the Latin aura that Doyle claims the filmmakers wished to access as well as providing a temporary home and occupation for the characters, the tango may have been foregrounded due to lack of choice. In other words, while coming to grips with their exile, the dance may be one of the only means of survival and expression for past immigrants as well as Lai and Ho. For instance, Lai declares how he only works as a doorman at the club since

“I want to go back to Hong Kong, but I don’t have any money.”

Wong, too, seems to have found the tango mainly in his beginning attempts to understand his newfound filming experience. Brunette describes how the director only came across Piazzolla’s work through buying a CD in the airport on the way to Buenos Aires.[22] As a result, the tango ’s  history, tune, rhythm, and steps also offer a way to approach this new environment and home.

Moreover, while mention of the queer aspects of the film would deserve an entirely different discussion, it is necessary to remember that, most likely, Lai and Ho find themselves displaced from mainstream society not only due to their immigrant status and financial struggles, but also as a result of their sexual orientation. Queer, too, for Lai and Ho becomes intrinsically linked with marginal, obscured spaces. For instance, Ho follows his wealthy lovers to the club under the cover of nightfall; Lai has a sexual encounter with a stranger in the darkness of a movie theater; and, in a kitchen behind a restaurant, Lai comes across fellow “exile” Chang from Taiwan (whose sexual orientation is unclear but suggested to be queer).[23] Similar to the “timeless” sense of their apartment, these spaces become just as atemporal, lacking any light or windows that could provide some indication of the outside world. In a way, then, Lai and Ho are resorting to spaces that form the underbelly of the city—shrouded interiors that defy the spatial-temporal constructions of the external environment.

Thus, as Wilson describes La Boca as the “underworld” in the aforementioned citation, Lai and Ho’s home and mode of existence indeed resemble living in a certain “underworld.” Lai’s last job in Buenos Aires has him working laboriously in a slaughterhouse, carrying out night shifts while the rest of the city is asleep. He is not only handling the beef carcasses normally hidden from public view, but also removed from the time and space regulating the world above. Indeed, Lai and Ho’s escape has always been about escaping to the other end of space and time: Buenos Aires’ night is Hong Kong’s day, and the former’s summer is the latter’s winter. Furthermore, in being hidden and hiding from the outside, Lai and Ho are removed and removing themselves from the issues that are taking place in their present reality. As Teo argues, the film is really about

“depicting two Hong Kong men consciously escaping from the contemporary time-reality of Hong Kong by depositing themselves in another time, another place.”[24]

That is, they not only isolate themselves from the external reality of Buenos Aires, but also, and even more so, that of Hong Kong and the impending political changes that will affect their cultural identities.

At the same time, I diverge from Teo’s opinion that the film is purely about an escape: instead, I find that Lai is largely attempting to place himself back in sync with Hong Kong. By working mostly at night and distancing himself from his new surroundings, he is, in a way, resituating himself into the rhythm of his hometown. Indeed, in his voice-over during a nighttime shift, he admits:

“The hours suit me fine. Work all day, sleep all night. I’m back on Hong Kong time.”

Thus, he deliberately turns away from the components of the city and suburb in order to come closer to himself, his own desires, and to the other side of the world where he originally came from. After all, Buenos Aires is only ever meant to be an interim period in his life.

Thus, the spaces that Lai frequents, works in, and calls a temporary “home” become, in a way, shadows of the home Lai seeks to eventually head back to. Indeed, the choice to film La Boca’s port not only reflects a significant element of Buenos Aires’ history, but also echoes Hong Kong’s port status. Ackbar Abbas describes Hong Kong as “a port in the most literal sense”—meaning, a space of transit and ad hoc residence to those passing through.[25] Similarly, La Boca’s multicultural, immigrant population and history as a receiving port to newcomers provides a mirror, reflecting as well as rendering Hong Kong’s contemporary space and history even more distinct from the opposite side of the world. Finally, according to Tambling, the imagery of the abattoir represents the role that Buenos Aires plays in “the production of food for a global market,” situating the city within the world economy.[26] Thus, from cooking at a Chinese restaurant alongside Chang to working in the abattoir, Lai’s seemingly random job changes may not be entirely without direction and purpose. In fact, his spatial, occupational trajectory leads him from seeking the company and tastes reminiscent of his hometown to repositioning himself within the transnational trade and processes that define the global economy, time, and space.

Both Lai and Ho thus wander through various occupations—from doorman to beef handler for Lai, from pimp to pimp for Ho—just as they drift through time and space, forced to create their own moments of calm and shelter when incapable of handling the extent of their surroundings. Indeed, in contemplating their existence through this underworld labyrinth of various jobs and encounters, a certain drifting comes to depict their alienation and primary sense of movement. This is not to say that this movement is necessarily an inadequate mode of navigation, but an alternative one, and potentially a means of beginning to grasp the surroundings.

In effect, this motion culminates in another glimpse of La Boca’s port when Lai, having just been hit by Ho and reaching a definitive break in their rapport, floats around the harbor of the Río de la Plata.

This two-minute sequence is, according to Tambling, a “ghost-like sequence,” highlighting the drifting mode of existence that Lai has come to occupy in exile. Unable to set his roots down, he must glide and tango his way through the slippery surroundings that can only provide a temporary shelter for his worries. Accompanied by the soothing tones of Astor Piazzolla’s “Milonga for Three,” he floats along this river that takes him nowhere in particular, confined to the boundaries of the industrial structures that reign in the background. Leopold Marechal, a twentieth century Argentinian writer, describes the Río de la Plata:

“He who has never heard the River Plate’s voice will never understand the sadness of Buenos Aires. It’s the sadness of mud pleading for a soul.”[28]

Strikingly, this description echoes Tambling’s aforementioned claim of the downtown having had its heart torn out: here, too, something has been lost as a result of modernization. Perhaps, with the concrete avenues having torn out the heart and the mud having buried the soul, such “heart” and “soul” refers to the sights and sounds of previous organic life—green space, free-flowing water, and human presence.

Noticeably, although the steel structures remain in this sequence, they grow blurred and are pushed towards the background. The camera is visibly caught between the pull of steel and that of the river; at times, the river occupies the majority of the onscreen space. In those brief instants when the water fills the screen, it offers a cradle to the saddened Lai as a faint pulse of empathy sloshes through its muddied ripples. With Ho no longer there to tango with Lai, the stirrings of the music continue, perhaps indicating the debut of a certain dance and exchange with the landscape. The flowing time and space of the Río de la Plata thus begins to provide a potential partner to and mirror of the fluidity of his subjective experience—his time-as-lived.

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