I only need my imagination for the things I want to do and the places I want to go. — Asano
The same could be said of Christopher Doyle, the Australian-born, HK-based cinematographer who directed Away With Words. It's the kind of movie I savor and rhapsodize over, because it hasn't been die-cut from some existing convention. It's not so much a story as it is a reverie or a daydream, where various things swim in and out of our view and gain connotations of their own. It is wonderful, in the most literal meaning of the word — full of wonder.
I should say upfront that Away with Words has no plot to speak of, no concessions to conventional movie genres. This will no doubt scare off a fair number of people, and I don't blame them — there was a time when I didn't want to see any movie that did more than just walk me through a story and leave me at a clearly-defined ending. Now I'm at a point where I'm more interested in movies that freely break the rules, when so many others are all too willing to follow them slavishly. Sometimes such movies fail; sometimes they work. This one works.
Words stars Tadanobu Asano (the young Japanese star of both art-house and big-budget movies, like Gojoe, Gohatto and Mizu no Onna) as a man with a strange sort of synaesthesia. Words stick in his mind and inflate themselves until they occupy his whole consciousness. He remembers everything from airline flight schedules to beverage distributor orders, but he does not have the faintest idea who or what he really is. He was able to hold down a decent job for a time (having a near-perfect memory helps), but his odd, quasi-autistic behavior caused him to pull up roots and go drifting to Hong Kong. He also does not know why he is the way he is, and is not happy with it, but is unable to really do much about it except find moments of solace and comfort where he can. Asano does a good job of embodying this dreamy young fellow, with his oddball smile and his face hidden behind a beard and dark glasses.
In Hong Kong he wanders into a gay nightclub run by a perpetually-drunken Briton, Kevin (Kevin Sherlock), who spends his days and nights inebriated and is often thrown into the lockup by the police. He only knows how to get home when he's drunk, he tells the camera at one point, but when he's drunk, he can't pronounce the words correctly. Damn Cantonese. Even the manager of the local 7-Eleven is wise to him by now, and steers him angrily away from the beer. "She wants me to drink water!" Kevin splutters. "Turtles fuck in water!" Like Asano, language is an impediment for him; he just wants to feel someone close to him to stave off loneliness, and... well, do away with words.
A tentative and charming relationship begins to develop between Kevin and this "yellow boy," as he calls him, who seems to have taken up permanent residence on one of his couches. (Asano says it reminds him of the ocean, his one obsessive childhood memory.) He doesn't understand Asano most of the time, but he likes him — he admires his childlike fascination with the jukebox, for instance (even if that's only because it's one of the few places Asano doesn't feel threatened by his environment). Like so many people, he sees in Asano what he wants to see, but that seems to be something that both of them benefit from.
The film is not, however, a serious study of psychological disorders, homosexuality, alcoholism, or Britons (or other foreigners) in Hong Kong. It's more like a dream state, a place where images and ideas and concepts float into view and are processed by the dreamer into symbols that take on a larger, more abstract meaning. When we see Asano's childhood memories of an amusement park, it's intercut with shots of little toy versions of the rides. We're seeing things as he wants to remember them, or as he chooses to remember them. Most of the film seems to revolve around the notion of remembering, or seeing, in a certain volitional way. The film itself often feels as if it were drunk, or giddy, or overwhelmed, and there isn't a shot in it that isn't somehow beautiful.
Asano finds himself becoming the object of care and attention,
even when he's almost autistically withdrawn.
There is a third member of this group, a girl (Mavis Xu) who works with Kevin and who treats Asano with great kindness. "Why are you here?" she asks him. "Imagine what you want," he replies, "or what will happen." He's living in a dream, but so are they, in their own ways, and maybe it'll all be OK if they dream together — something suggested by the ending of the movie, where they all wind up in the police station together, talking (or dreaming) about what the most important things are to them. In strictly realistic terms, this is hardly tenable, of course — but the movie isn't realism, and isn't even about realism.
Away with Words is closest in its outward feel to a comedy, in that there are many funny and deliriously wild moments. I loved a scene where an old grandmotherly type gets up in the club and starts doing an improvised version of Grandmaster Flash's "The Message", and Kevin's one-liners are inexplicably hilarious. But the main feeling of the movie is gentle sadness and poignant longing. If there was ever a film that seemed to be able to make present time into an occasion for nostalgia, this is it.
Doyle is most commonly known for his work with groundbreaking director Kar-Wai Wong, whose In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express electrified audiences to the possibilities of Hong Kong movies outside of the usual corporate channels. Here, he tries something wonderful and different, and shows that he too has the talent on his own to be a pathbreaker.