Impossibly Chaste

On Wim Wenders and Celine Song.

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty has written for The Guardian, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. He was a Provost's fellow at the Iowa Writers'...

Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film. 

I kept thinking of an older cousin while watching Celine Song’s Past Lives. Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo) seemed to have both that cousin’s physique and threshold for emotional pain. In the film’s climactic scene, Nora (played by Greta Lee) walks Hae Sung out of her New York apartment late at night. The two of them were once childhood sweethearts in Seoul; now she is married to a white husband who is waiting for her on the stoop of their East Village apartment building. Something about Hae Sung’s gait—nervously gripping his backpack while looking for his rideshare to the airport—reminded me of watching my cousin from across a street once in Bangalore. A look of uncertainty passed by his face while he considered the evening traffic. Then his eyes resumed their focus on the road ahead. But for a moment, it was as if he were reminded that he was alone, and defenseless, in the world.

In Wim Wenders’s Perfect Days, Hirayama (played by Koji Yakusho) appears happiest when alone. He must be the first sanitation worker in the world who doesn’t mind pulling double shifts day after day, not so much for the overtime pay as the fact that cleaning Tokyo’s public toilets (many of them resembling swanky art installations) feels like communion to his lonesome soul. Every dawn, he’d rather be driving to work in his camper van, listening to Lou Reed or Van Morrison, instead of indulging himself with, say, a lazy breakfast in bed. The rapture with which he goes about doing mundane daily tasks—sprinkling water on houseplants, watching the sunlight fall at a certain angle on the street—suggests that he is free of most worldly obligations and responsibilities and living in what the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze called “the pure form of time.” Wenders does sprinkle a few cracks in Hirayama’s Zen self-containment: his estranged sister shows up halfway through the movie with a chauffeur and a limousine, apparently still unimpressed by his life choices; and a mysterious woman materializes with alarming regularity in his black-and-white dreams. But you can count on your fingers the total number of words Hirayama speaks from the first scene to the last, and despite Yakusho’s avuncular screen presence, sooner or later you do grow tired of his crinkly, perpetually amused eyes. Wenders has spoken in interviews of the spiritual quality of Hirayama’s silences, of envisioning the character as “a kind of secular monk.” I don’t know many monks who vibe to “Brown Eyed Girl” in the mornings.

To be fair, there is a certain pathos to Wenders’s portrait of a superfluous 21st-century man, a flower child who has lived long enough to see the glorious music of his youth become analog keepsakes. Those long shots of Tokyo’s futurist skyline with Patti Smith crooning in the background seem not so much harmonious as tragic: you can’t help but rue the inevitability with which late capitalism has subsumed every aspect of the ’60s countercultural zeitgeist. But Wenders overplays his hand by exotifying silence and solitude as an Oriental trait. In Past Lives, too, I wonder why Hae Sung is such an archetype of emotional simplicity. He is stunted enough to still be hung up on his first love in his thirties—and yet too shy to own up to his feelings. In contrast, Nora’s husband, Arthur (played by John Magaro), is allowed to stumble through his predicament. We come to admire his magnanimity toward Hae Sung partly because, in an early scene, we see him wonder aloud to his wife if he is the odd one out in a love triangle.

I hankered for a moment to witness Hae Sung work out his responses onscreen, as well. A decade before their meeting in New York, he’d reconnected with Nora online, and they had quickly fallen into the habit of Skyping each other across time zones for hours. Then, without any warning, she broke up with him, but not before delivering the film’s sharpest line: “I want to commit to my life here, but I’m sitting around looking up flights to Seoul instead.” How does Hae Sung not harbour any animus over the way things ended the last time around? Or does Song think he lacks the intricacy to be slightly resentful in love?

It could be that Song—who now lives in New York but moved from South Korea to Canada in her childhood, just like Nora—doesn’t trust herself to imagine the thoughts of a single, thirtysomething Korean man. But Wenders is temperamentally closer to Hirayama, and you wonder why anguish and shame are utterly absent from his vision of a radically simple life. Despite being full-fledged adults, both Hirayama and Hae Sung are portrayed as impossibly chaste. The nearest Hae Sung gets to Nora is when he sits next to her on the Statue of Liberty ferry ride. Hirayama, it seems, only remembers his body when he visits the sauna every Sunday. It’s one thing for a protagonist to forego his appetites and desires, quite another for a filmmaker to let him unfussily forget them.

The antiseptic quality of these portrayals led me to rewatch The Lunchbox last week. The lead character, Saajan (played by Irrfan Khan), is again a quiet and forlorn man who happens not to be white. Yet his silences never feel like a shorthand for his inner life. “The word ‘alone’ is as general as the word ‘bread,’” the French writer Maurice Blanchot once wrote. “As soon as one utters it, one makes present everything that it excludes.” And so it is with Saajan, whom we get to know by turns as an employee on the verge of retirement, a man who’d rather stay back late at work in the evenings, and then as a widower who still misses his wife. A misplaced tiffin box presents a break in his routine. For the first time in decades, he starts paying attention to fellow passengers on his daily commute, the colleague who shares his office desk, the food on his plate. He writes letters to the woman who sent him the tiffin box by mistake. Here is a character whose apartness doesn’t seem idealized. With every passing day, he grows to appreciate that he isn’t alone in the world.

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty has written for The Guardian, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. He was a Provost's fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.