What you need to know
Where should one begin to understand Tsai Ming-liang? From the beginning.
For many directors, there seems to be something intensely personal about their first films. Malaysian-born filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang’s (蔡明亮) Taipei trilogy feels like that. In those films, he explores youthful anomie, unspoken longings, and familial dysfunction in ‘90s Taipei. By his admission, much of his inspiration comes from his own experiences.
Knowing where to begin with any director can be a challenge, particularly with one as deliberately paced as Tsai. For him, though, it really is best to begin at the beginning. To do so is to watch Tsai struggling to find a cinematic language, just as his recurring cast of characters struggle to find their place in a fast-changing world. No one can maintain that level of vulnerability, personally or artistically, over a lifetime. But that’s why it’s beautiful when one dares. By shedding many of the conventions of New Wave predecessors like Edward Yang (楊德昌) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢), Tsai freed himself to depict love and loneliness for a new generation and cement his place among the great auteurs of the century.
Tsai’s first feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), tells the story of a restless youth called Hsiao-kang (played by perennial friend and muse Lee Kang-sheng (李康生), who stars in all of Tsai’s subsequent works). At the film’s opening, Hsiao-kang is unable to focus on his studies, instead impaling a nearby cockroach with his compass. His superstitious mother is convinced her son is the reincarnation of the mischievous god Nezha, who in Chinese mythology detests his father and ultimately returns his flesh and bones to his parents, due to Hsiao-kang’s strained relationship with his father.
When an older punk gets in a row with his cab-driver father by lopping off his mirror before speeding off, Hsiao-kang decides to follow this stranger who has just emasculated the family patriarch. The nature of this fascination is never spelled out, but there are hints: After failing to befriend the older teen in their lone interaction, Hsiao-kang vandalizes his idol’s motorcycle at one point with the word “AIDS,” a projection, perhaps, of his own buried feelings.
Just as importantly, the example of a young person willing to stand up to his father and, by extension, the world of authority ultimately inspires Hsiao-kang to withdraw from his cram school and reject the compulsory heterosexuality represented by a dating call center toward the end of the film. Suddenly awakened to new possibilities, Hsiao-kang refuses to go back to a life of monotony.
Tsai’s second feature, Vive L’amour (1994), develops these themes of alienation and unspoken longing further. It explores the triangular relationship between three family outcasts unknowingly sharing the same apartment: Mei-mei, an overworked real estate agent; Ah-jung, a drifter who steals a key off Mei-mei after sleeping with her; and Hsiao-kang, now a shy funeral parlor worker who has left home for unspecified reasons.
However, this time around, scenes in which Lee’s character attempts to slit his wrists, secretly dons Mei-mei’s dress, and finally — in one of the most moving sequences of the film — dares to place a furtive kiss on the sleeping drifter’s lips leave little doubt as to the nature of Hsiao-kang’s situation.
Following Rebels with Amour can be a disorienting experience. Whereas Rebels still made use of non-diegetic music and a minimal narrative structure, by his second feature film, Tsai had already done away with non-diegetic music and stripped the narrative down to the bone. He also drastically slowed down his filmmaking, experimenting with what are now his characteristic stationary long takes. In part, this is because Tsai wanted to better capture Lee’s laconic bodily rhythms without imposing artificial standards of naturalness on him. Thanks to this and the filmmaker’s refusal of straightforward cinematic relationships or resolutions, Amour is an almost voyeuristic look into the crisscrossed lives of its lonely protagonists.
Often said to be the bleakest work in the trilogy but arguably the most fascinating, The River (1996) rounds out the three by centering the father-son duo. Forced to leave home to seek remedies for the son’s mysterious neck pain, the estranged pair set out together, leaving the mother to meet with her lover as the father’s bedroom literally floods with water — a common trope in Tsai’s body of work symbolizing pent-up desires.
As this synopsis suggests, the subject of The River is the secrets family members keep from one another, or, read another way, the patriarchal Confucian order that makes it impossible for these individuals to say what it is that they really want. When father and son, thinking themselves far from home, unknowingly both set out for the same dimly lit gay sauna, the film makes its most shocking statement about the price of that silence — and, in an almost unbearably long five-minute take, contrasts those strictures with unthinkably egalitarian pleasures.
Today, Tsai’s reputation as a world-class filmmaker precedes him. His cinematic slowness has congealed into an artistic trademark of sorts, and his works have influenced contemporaries like Thai director Apichatpong Weerasthakul.
His films have become increasingly experimental as the years have gone on. In his Walker series of short films, Lee dons the robe of a Buddhist monk and walks at a glacial pace in a variety of fast-paced urban settings, from Hong Kong to Tokyo. As film scholar Tiago de Luca observes, following his 2013 film Stray Dogs, which ends with a ten-minute unbroken sequence of Lee’s character staring at a mural in an abandoned space, Tsai has arguably even moved beyond cinema itself.
His work now regularly features in museum programs and has even veered into virtual reality. But through it all, his subjects have remained the same: time, desire, and the body. As the Walker series suggests, his body of work itself could be taken as a kind of meditative practice, a reflection on both the beauty and absurdity of living and longing in a world that is always changing before our eyes. Nowhere are those themes more intimately or honestly explored as in his first features. To understand Tsai, start there.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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