Also showing: Lee Kang-sheng

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 August, 2008, 12:00am

When Lee Kang-sheng was casting for his latest film, Help Me Eros, he needed to find women to appear with him in a rooftop orgy scene, in which designer brand logos would be projected onto their nude, copulating bodies.

After a bit of searching, he found the F4 Girls, a group of Taiwanese variety show-grade actresses put together mainly because they all had F-cup busts.

'Very early on, we told them there would be a lot of nudity, and they were all willing,' says Lee (right), who both directed and starred in the film.

Lee, now 40, is best known as the lead actor for virtually the entire two-decade filmography of Taiwan's acclaimed art-house director Tsai Ming-liang. As a result, Lee and Tsai are seen very much as kindred spirits.

Help Me Eros is Lee's second effort as a director, and is a collaboration with Tsai, who served as artistic director.

The film tells the story of a man caught in a tailspin of cheap sex, marijuana and bad investments. Its slow-paced intertwining of the fantastical and the mundane are all very much according to Tsai's hallmark aesthetic.

'The main point [of this film] is the social developments underpinning sex,' says Lee. 'The important thing is the social problems.'

In a word, these social issues can be summed up as 'materialism', a variety so rampant that in Lee's vision, women's very emotions and sexual mores are becoming inseparable from the commodities they crave.

As evidence, Lee points to trends like enjo kosai, or 'compensated dating' in which teenage girls prostitute themselves, often to buy designer fashion. Women, he says, are becoming 'human handbags'.

But these are just Lee's themes. The story itself was inspired by one of the darkest periods in Lee's life, tracing the dissipation of a man who is in financial ruin after losing all his money in the stock market and holes up in an apartment full of marijuana plants.

His only human interactions are with an overweight woman who answers his calls to a suicide help line, and the scantily clad betelnut sellers on the first floor of his building who are lured upstairs for emotionless sex.

Like the protagonist, Lee really did lose all his money in online currency trading, an addiction he developed in the long breaks between Tsai's films to combat depression over his acting career, as no other directors were calling him.

'I had a lot of free time and didn't know what to do, so I started to play the financial markets,' he says.

'It was just buying a number, that's all. At first I made a little money, then later I lost a lot.

'I lost my entire initial investment. At that time, my moods were rising and falling with the market.

'If it was up, I was up. If it was falling, I was down.' Drugs as a quick solution for post-industrial emptiness is also a good fit for today's Taiwanese youth, though amphetamines would probably have been a more logical choice for a financially wrecked single male living in an industrial suburb - marijuana is still not very common. But Lee opted for pot mainly because he's tried it.

If Lee, very likely at Tsai's urging, managed to make Help Me Eros audacious in almost every way, one thing he failed to achieve was the sensational tabloid coverage that busty starlets in a four-way might otherwise guarantee. Help Me Eros is on limited release from tomorrow at Broadway Cinematheque