This article is originally written in Mandarin and published on Funscreen, see 【北影】血之會飲（晦淫）篇──《性・愛饗宴》.
Movie fans might not remember the “HIV carriers intentionally injecting strangers with HIV-infected blood” case from 2007 in Groningen City, the Netherlands. Yet as we are hit with wave after wave of COVID-19 pandemic, Feast (2021), a film about a speculative journey revolving the spread of a “virus,” may suddenly bear “infectious power” to anyone who has been living vigilantly in terms of institution, body, and mind.
Feast, selected by the 2021 Taipei Film Festival for its “International New Talent Competition” segment, was director Tim Leyendekker’s first feature-length film; he worked with 7 directors of photography in putting together real event-based theatrical reenactment, interviews with original victims and experts, combined with homogenous chapters like extreme close-ups of body images and shots of a partial male body lying by the roadside that is almost merely still photography, and produced an essay film comprised of both documentary and fictional aspects.
The film opens with an out-of-focus shot—a pile of “flesh” lacking the boundaries of a skin paired with a string instrument’s ear-piercing noises and an alarm-sounding synthesizer. This starting uncomfortable gaze paves way to subsequent exploration into body issues of “over-intimacy/violation”, which reminds me of another film—Caniba (2017)—which also offers a simplistic, tangent perspective on a sensational event that utilizes abundant out-of-focus, shallow-focus close-up shots of people’s faces as they resist “cannibalism.” Caniba applied this approach significantly for shots of the face of Issei Sagawa—the legendary Japanese criminal who, when studying in France, murdered a female classmate, then mutilated and cannibalized on her corpse.
By contrast, while Feast shares a similar tone of firmly resisting or overturning evil happenings, it doesn’t share Caniba’s style of turning images of homogenous flesh into a holographic space. After the initial string of shots, the film glosses through body images such as body hair and flowing blood, even replacing the ear-piercing noises with the victim’s self-narrated divulgence; these different segments gradually “come together” into shape. Moreover, this series is embedded with other segments from different directors of photography with distinct texture; or like bone structures, skin, veins, subcutaneous tissue constituting the different parts and layers of this essay film, which once again echoes Feast’s heterogeneous layers of discussion around life and body.
Meanwhile, Feast invests significant screen time towards the three-man reenactment scene (at least in terms of conversational density). On the eve of the crime, the three men are sitting or lying down casually on the sofa, quoting and discussing Plato’s The Symposium, almost like a replica of chat scenes in The Symposium: the hierarchy between the abuser and the victim isn’t always clear-cut, especially when it involves controlling or lack thereof of one’s body or that of others. This makes the already hard-mapping relationship dynamic (e.g., to assert that “controlling=abusing”) even more complex. Some perspectives are no longer news to us—given 1980s’ sexual liberation and gay liberation movements, the identification of HIV virus, and subsequent sociological critiques towards medical stigma. However, Feast is most intriguing because it pushes forward the virus/human relationship to discuss “parasitic vs. symbiosis” in individual/body, individual/society, human/ecology relationships.
This idea is “enlightened” to us via an interview with a botany microbiologist. She uses tulips in her metaphor—while it’s hard to heal virus infection in tulips, injecting microdoses of a virus that wouldn’t induce severe symptoms can boost the plant’s immune system—this is not done to annihilate life but to help it live further. She then elaborates that “to live further” can be “to live in transcendence.” Virus microdosing might not only protect plants from severe attacks but at the same time change the flower’s color (as a service to economic crops for humans and not to service the plants themselves), such as microdosing a yellow flower and making it red-colored.
Feast may not have reconstructed the sex orgy scene from the night of the events, but the scientists conducting botanic experiments on site “accurately” captured the trio’s behavior—cutting off the infected petal, crushing into liquid with a mortar, and then extracting the juice with a syringe only to inject it into a non-infected tulip corm.
From here, the concept of how to live further instead of merely extending life generates endless metaphors by deduction; yet human life is more complex than that of plants, so the two types of “live further” are in constant and mutual push-and-pull between “how can it count as living if it isn’t a certain way” (quality) versus “if might not live long in this way” (quantity)—the rush from unsafe sex, “chemsex” culture, and recreational drugs are all touch on in Feast. Even more popular in reality are consumptions of legal addictive smokes and alcohol; even if we moved away from “guilty pleasures” towards “the pragmatic,” a top “human-induced” cause of death in developed countries is motorized vehicles. By contrast, aside from common death causes such as cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, in the past 20 years (roughly since the Groningen Case), other top causes in undeveloped countries are infectious diseases, standing in harsh contrast against developed countries, whose secondary causes are mostly “diseases of civilization” like metabolic disorders and automobile accidents. However, the COVID-19 pandemic might have shifted the lists, increasing similarity between the two sides.
The technical procedures operated by the microbiologists and the haunting actions of the criminal trio seem to symbolize a civilization’s sophistication and the “vampiric” shadows that inevitably follow. They are the undercurrents of life—constantly experiencing the mutual flow or reverse product between health and disease, the individual and others, intimacy and distance, or love and death.
Intimacy and distance are reinterpreted in experiences of infection. An infected plant will release volatiles or transmit signal via its rhizomes to other plants so they can become immune from infection. The transmission of a common cold virus between you and another person “is a special kind of give and take.” Is infection more than a malignant interpersonal connection? Could it be annon-biological (depending on whether viruses count as life) communication that is more unconscious than unconsciousness? And because both have the mechanism for infection, it asserts a shared intimacy for being “of the same kind”?
When she speaks of “virus spreading in blood being poetic,” it indeed suggests both intimacy and slight intrusion—perhaps even bearing a “sexual” sense in the body itself? If sexual excitement requires creating distance and somewhat objectifying another person, then what happens if you create such “sexual distance” within your own body? “Something of mine (virus and blood) is always with you” is sex offered to an object, yet when “the virus is always with oneself,” it’s like a different inner part within the inner body has become an exterior part. This sex which creates distance within oneself is, in my view, a radical reflexive illusion that is infinitely close to cannibalism of the self or others. In this sense, it echoes and brings us back to the movie Feast.
The fixed shot at the end of Feast fuses tourists coming and going a lake vacation. As someone swims pass the water’s safety line, there’s suddenly a déjà vu of Stranger by the Lake (2013)—questions of love and death resurface, inspiring me to contemplate the lifting of pandemic restrictions and vacationing crowds, reminding me of feelings of yearning, excitement, and fear that are always creeping up our daily lives. Repeated clashes between human and nature over a calibrated yet ambiguous realm, the pursuit of happiness entangled with problems of ensuring survival—all these supposedly menacing yet inescapable propensities make every hunter seem like their own prey in their infinitely alienated moments of life; they are intimate yet distant, even daily lives, like lust, are forced to become raw food.
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