During a Q&A after Aerotropolis‘ U.S. premiere at the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival, director Jheng-Neng Li was inevitably asked about his most polarizing aesthetic choice: What was up with all those static shots?
I’m not talking about a static shot here or there—the entire film is comprised of about 25-30 static shots that allow scenes to unfold in real time. It’s an ambitious approach, considering it’s not the mainstream thing to do, ya know? In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of mainstream. Aerotropolis is practically begging you to walk out on it, as almost every single movie made these days—especially mainstream films—employs a variety of tracking shots and continuous movement.
It’s quite similar to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest film, Cemetery of Splendour, which clearly tested everyone in my audience (there were several walk-outs), as it also employs nothing but static shots throughout.
However, in turn, if you choose to stick with Cemetery of Splendour and Aerotropolis, they present the opportunity to experience films that are truly transcendent, films that stray from the norm and challenge you, as a viewer, to allow that aesthetic and that stagnancy to consume you. If you do, you might just find yourself in the headspace of the main characters, hypnotically immersed in their subdued states of mind.
Actually, “subdued” is a gigantic understatement. In fact, in his response to that question after the films Slamdance premiere, Jheng-Neng LI offered the perfect answer: “He is a man without a soul.”
Soulless. Can you imagine a film that attempts to put the viewer into the state of mind of a soulless person? Someone who wanders without ambition or drive or emotion?
Same goes for Cemetery of Splendour, which depicts characters sleeping the day away in hospital beds. The static portrayal of their hospital stays lulls you into their states of minds, creating a sense of lethargy as you watch them slowly attempt to regain their strengths.
That’s where both Cemetery of Splendour and Aerotropolis offer a unique, mesmerizing cinematic experience. Because in addition to allowing content to meet form in depicting the kind of characters we’re not accustomed to, they also happen to be characters that yearn for more. Thus, the static form becomes a prison of sorts that the characters wish to break free from. It’s a visual, sensual way of putting us, as viewers, in their place and allowing us to empathize with them.