A Movie, A Book:
Wong Kar Wai and Jesse Ball
What lies between words, under the phrases one utters? We think often about words, the importance of communicating, but seldom about the space between them, where much of what is unheard is lost. Embracing the silence has a special place in Zen Buddhism, which proclaims that ‘words are the fundamental hurdle to true understanding’, because however much you add, you always take away more, and however much you speak, it is the listener who gives meaning to what is heard. Nevertheless, is true understanding attainable at all or is it just a mirage?
Maybe, true understanding is in knowing that it is unattainable or at least not attainable in the way we imagine it to be. It is found in the intangible and so if it exists in silence, it can’t be expressed in words, just perceived in the corners of one’s being.
In light of these words follow thoughts on a movie and a book, that explore the different qualities of silences that pervade these characters. Aptly enough, they are both set in the heart of Buddhist tradition, Hong Kong and Japan, respectively.
Fallen angels (2005, Chris Doyle and Wong Kar Wai)
A hit-man, a woman and a mute, all meet each other at different times as strangers, and somewhere a story develops, as in the midst of chaos there is some comfort to be had, if only for a while. When they talk they don’t look at each other, there are chasms of darkness between what is said but not heard, understood but never acknowledged. Their relationships rely on this, any closer and this existence could be lost to who knows what deeper hell.
Wong Kar-Wai wants to tell you a story without words, really it is more of an exhibit or an adventure ride through the belly of the beast. Like rats in a sewer, it is perpetually night time in Hong Kong. We meet a hit-man and his partner, a woman. There is work to be done, ‘friends’ to visit and obliterate into oblivion. And like rats, black leather-wearing, gun-toting rats, who move like clockwork, the mad dash of life in the sprawling cosmopolitan has them jaded as they seem to walk in stupor, numbed by their pent up emotions, having lost to the big city. But winning and losing is subjective and that keeps them going. Chris Doyle’s camera moves as if through jelly; unsteady, tilted and slow, as our contract killer wreaks havoc in a restaurant and finds himself in a public bus, an unwilling participant in a mundane conversation about wives and children. He is disconnected from the lives of the common folk, living on what he perhaps perceives are his own terms as the agent of anarchy. Disorder is woven in the fabric here as spontaneous fights break out in random places, and like insects, everyone scrambles for an exit until later when it is all the same. Just another day in the underground. A visually compelling movie, full of brilliant acting, that is presented like vignettes of characters that are mere devices through whose eyes we observe the city, forever under the feeling we are below the surface of real life in its narrow, seedy back alleys. The streets are mostly barren and dimly lit, a sign for all not looking for trouble to return to their matchbox residences, but there are those that don’t, the rats of the underground and those who are mad.
It feels like a documentary that’s high on drugs and we see the people as if at a carnival; at the mercy of its wild rides. They have submitted to its whims, given themselves and their meagre desires up for the beast with his speeding trains and white noise.
But even a hit-man can’t always stay immune to his trade and so he decides to quit, leaving his partner a message on a jukebox to let her know he’s gone. She mourns the loss of an unsaid love in isolation. With no job to go to, he sits in an empty Mc Donald’s on a rainy night like an average bloke when he is cornered by one of the mad ones, a girl who is smitten with him and starts a relationship with him. Relationship is a generous word though, it is as empty as the streets, her loud delusions and antics compensating for everything that isn't there between them.
Then there’s the mute, silly but adorable goof ball who is the rebel in the story, I suppose in their own way they are all trying to be the rebels, but he weaves his own tales, cornering people at night and forcing them to buy things and services from shops he breaks into, to put in his version of ‘an honest day’s work’. He provides comedic relief to which we alone are privy, in his silence he expresses an intense madness as he breaks into an ice cream truck, abducting an entire family to ride with him and eat ice cream, confiding in us that he believes it brings them joy.
His is a deep desire to really live, an urge to break through the surface and get to where life is and beat the city, his eccentricities seem to be a reaction to the conformed drone-like existence lived in tight quarters with its stagnant routines and little joy. They all break the rules but he breaks the unspoken rules, the ones that matter, because he dances to his own tune carving out an imaginary life in the midst of noise.
One day he finds another like him, utterly out of her mind, and here starts his short lived one-sided love story that ends abruptly as she moves on, without ever knowing him or his feelings for her. There is a wonderfully tender moment when he realizes he is in love and he seems to bathe in her aura keeping his hands a few inches from her as he tries to absorb her essence while she stares blankly into space, unaware. His is where we see the child-like heart in the story who equates the shops he breaks into with people, each with their own feelings. In a way, being mute and unemployable has set him free, somehow he is not bound by the ideas of conformity and an emotionless existence that trap everyone else. Instead, he seems to want to make up for everyone’s share of spontaneity. We hear them speak to us, all the characters in what is closer to a graphic novel than a movie, their internal dialogues as if to God, but rarely to each other.
It is hell but at least it’s something.
Love in this city is a cumbersome myth, in search of which they all are but which takes a back seat to the demands of life here. The last scene shows the survivors riding out of a tunnel onto a bustling road as finally day breaks above, marking a reprieve that can’t last and so must be absorbed in silence.
Stay away from this if you have preconceived notions about what a movie should be, otherwise, get along for a bitter-sweet ride.
Silence Once Begun (2013, Jesse Ball)
The cover and title instantly drew me to ignore my extensive list of unread books and storm through this one with very few pauses. Luckily, it only gets better.
A man has the words ‘a novel’ written where his mouth should have been, but a dramatic red line attempts to scratch out the words, while also highlighting the permanence of his silence. Not apparent and not unapparent, it stands there, daring you to reconsider how definite anything really is.
‘The following work of fiction is partially based on fact’.
These words are placed above the picture of a young woman. I feel, as on the cover, here too the writer teases us with a photograph as proof of reality, while reminding us not to believe everything we read because much of it is fiction.
Although you have been warned about this as a work of fiction, there is a high probability that as you gingerly walk through Jesse ball’s carefully constructed world you will begin to lose the sense of just where that partial truth of this story is. You find yourself wondering and wishing to know what little shred of truth there is to be found here, among all this duplicity. In a way though it doesn't matter. It could all be true, maybe not in one person’s life but distributed throughout the world there could be many truths, many things similar to those in these pages that have happened.
Words that have been said that don’t ring loudly but settle like a feather in the back of your throat, patiently insistent.
Jesse ball wrote a book about a man called Jesse ball, who had a wife he lost to silence. Not as a euphemism for death but literally; she simply fell silent and brought his perfect life full of love’s light into a still dark place.
This is a broken man. You can tell this by the way he picks his words, simple common words and puts them in a line in front of you, one after another, tentatively and carefully, hoping you will understand his fragility and provide him the distance he needs to balance his pyramid of glasses as he walks a line, knowing he could collapse any time and so he must say and do what he does deliberately and completely. Pain slows you down and you live as if in a daze. The beauty of this book is that in every word you are lured into that haze, you are pulled deeper into it even as you know no good is to come of it.
‘There were several accounts of how that evening went. One was the version that had been in the newspapers. Another was a version told by Oda Sotatsu’s family. Still a third was the version held to by Sato Kakuzo. This final version is stronger than the others for the reason that Kakuzo taped the proceedings and showed the tape to me. I have listened to it many times, and each time, I hear things that I have not heard before. One has the impression that one can know life, actual life, from its simulacrums by the fact that actual life constantly deceives and reveals, and is consistent in doing so.’
I will not claim this to be its effect on everyone, however. It is entirely possible that one who lives at the crest of life simply is unable to understand what could possibly be fascinating under the waves when he has the wind in his hair, his heart is soaring and he feels he is free.
Having found no answers within himself, Jesse Ball sets out to find the truth of a matter that happened many years ago, in Japan, choosing to find the truth in other people’s lives instead, partly in the hope that it will offer him something he didn't know he was looking for.
What follows is a series of transcribed interviews from his tape recordings of the characters involved in an incident. Using these devices, the writer is able to stay true to the red scrawl on the cover. He reveals and then he confounds, explains and then befuddles.
But this is not the intention of the character Jesse Ball. Here is a man who sets out to discover the truth, and every testimony he takes, every word that is added seems to add another loop to the red scrawl on the mouth of the man who is punished for a crime he didn’t commit. A man who refuses to break his silence even as he stares right at death as punishment for something he has no knowledge of altogether. That man is Oda Sotatsu. We are told Sotatsu was talked into making a wager with a man called Sato Kakuzo and a woman Jito Joo. Upon having lost the wager, Sotatsu signs a confession and is apprehended.
Does the crime indeed exist if all that can be found to support it is a written statement signed by a man who cannot or will not verify nor deny it? This is one of the many questions that Sato Kakuzo wants society to answer, and hence he conjures up a scheme to make obvious what he considers the flaws in the justice system.
It is difficult, in a story such as this, to conclusively deduce who the winners or losers are. If a man made a wager and lost, and having lost he stayed true to his word until his last breath, whether he is a winner or a loser depends entirely on where you stand on the subject of morality and justice.
That the crime happened or not becomes irrelevant, as the courts, egged on by a society hungry for vengeance, seek to expedite his hanging. We receive pieces of information through people, opinions and recollections, which puts us in the same position that the judge would have been in during Sotatsu’s trial. There are no clear answers. All we have to go on are the words of other people, most of whom do not trust each other and urge us to not to trust the others’ word. As this is a tragedy, the pain of it is reflected in all the characters, often extremely poignant and in a language that is absolute poetry. These characters, with all their quirks and strange turns of behavior, precisely due to their unpredictability and unreliability, etch themselves in our memory as very real.
At the end of it all, Jesse Ball has written a story that is not real, but since we don’t know what is true therefore any part could appear to be so at any time, making all of it appear true as a whole, thus completing the deception. Just like Sato Kakuzo, who invented a scenario, and then to realize it, he wrote an account of a crime that allowed an innocent person to implicate himself in it. Some of it is true, some of it is false, but which is which cannot be separated. These multiplicities and layers of meaning continue to weave themselves in the text, challenging the reader to take what they will from it.
Among all this lies secretly the unlikely love of Jito Joo and Oda Sotatsu. Jito Joo’s testimony is the most beautiful piece of prose in this book. The irony is that Joo puts Sotatsu in his cell, and falls in love with him, therefore, she must encourage to keep him there for that’s the only place she is free to love him. The quality of her love as expressed through words is beautiful and yet, had she not loved him, her assignment by her partner Kakuzo, was exactly that which she did carry out anyway.
So it follows that we can doubt her loyalties and motivations but we cannot doubt that she was not free to choose her actions either ways.
This brings to mind the idea that perhaps she chose to love what she was tasked with to help ease her burden, as Sotatsu chose to love his oppressor to ease his. Perhaps Kakuzo chose to sacrifice Sotatsu to achieve true justice, or was it something else?
‘There on the farm, my disappeared people are standing in a line, looking down the mountain. There in the prison, Sotatsu is standing, looking at the wall. There in the bus, Jito Joo is sitting, looking at her feet. I am no one. No one knows that I am anyone, but my plan is inevitable. The judges are doing what I am telling them to do, simply because I understand better than they do this one thing: the absurd lengths to which human beings go to prove themselves reasonable.’
All narratives are possible, so they are all true and they are all false. What is truth and how much does it matter? Is it just a word we vehemently wave in front of others proclaiming it is the way to justice and goodness when in fact there is no singular truth and hence no clear way to a perceived moral high ground?
The book ends on a note that will leave you pondering these questions as you continue to try to untangle the red scrawl that keeps truth’s lips sealed.