REVIEW: The Deserted (2017)

A disabled man lives in a decrepit house up on a hill, with only two ghosts and a shape-shifting fish for company. The Deserted is a 55-minute short feature written and directed by Taiwanese arthouse master Tsai Ming-liang, and shot by him for the first time in virtual reality.

VR strikes me as a difficult medium; not to mention one in a nascent period. It is a form of filmmaking that places the viewer in command of where the camera is pointing, and in doing so cedes significant creative control to them. While a writer and/or director may supervise the story content or setting, the exact manner in which the viewer absorbs the film becomes democratised. One looks where they want in a scene, and the filmmaker has to find a way of leading the gaze where it is supposed to go. Tsai achieves this remarkably well thanks to smart limited editing and a tremendous sense of space.

The Deserted consists of several long takes as the mysterious man lives out his life in a ruined and water-logged townhouse. From shot to shot Tsai sketches out the geography of the building, allowing the viewer to slowly assemble in their mind where each doorway or staircase connects to the other scenes. At the same time the characters undertake deliberately slow and simple activities, leaving the focus solely on that sense of place and tone. There is no dialogue, making it a universal and language-free experience. There is not really a narrative to follow either, but rather an emotional feeling created by the mise-en-scene and the actors’ ambivalent behaviour.

That seems the current limit of virtual reality as an artistic medium. The picture quality remains primitive, restricting many possibilities for dynamic visuals. With a live-action production the camera is effectively stuck in a fixed point, with the viewer able to simply rotate their view in a spherical pattern. It lends itself to art installation over narrative, which actually makes Tsai one of the more suitable directors to experiment in the medium. The Deserted is rather reminiscent of his acclaimed 2003 drama Goodbye, Dragon Inn, in which a late night showing of the King Hu wuxia Dragon Inn is haunted by the ghosts of the film’s characters. There is another supernatural haunting taking place here, with a similarly low-key approach. Look for a story and one is largely left to their own devices. Look for an opportunity to sink into a certain geography and The Deserted is a fascinating one-off experiment.

Where does the technology go from here? Tsai’s effort does demonstrate a certain potential for virtual reality, but in all honesty it lacks sophistication or ease of use. The video headset is relatively heavy, and does strain comfort at almost an hour in duration. The picture quality is insufficient to really present a comfortable image. The Deserted is a fascinating experience, but the true potential of the VR technology still seems more of a cautious promise than an imminent reality. Tsai has taken a bold shot, but only found a partial success.

The Deserted has recently been playing at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

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