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Well, I never thought I would be ticking things off my bucket list already. Never gave my bucket list much thought, nor do I have any great urgency to do so - rest those racing minds, I read back over that opening line and suddenly found my phrasing a little too Jack Nicholson sky-diving with Morgan Freeman.


To be honest, I haven't really accumulated one at all, not properly. Just the slapdash comment here and there about seeing this or doing that, with half-hearted intent. Snagging a chance to see E.T on the big screen doesn't seem like such a goliath task, I'm plenty aware that bougie picturehouses do reruns of eighties classics all the time. Still, I had yet to find one. Until I noticed that the 40th Anniversary screenings had begun at my local. Of course I had to book it and went rather feral in the process. It may just be the most excited I have been to go to the cinema in months.

E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (Universal, 1982)

I saw it with mother and sister, the former who experienced it 40 years ago on original release and was smitten. We all are by that goofy, thoughtful, squat guy. It's one of my favourite movies of all time. The list is long, sure, but E.T is an unbudge-able - we're talking top three tier, cannot be usurped, half of what makes me me now is due to that film, my perception of suburban America and coming-of-age cinema and space is all through this. I'm not naturally scared of aliens, ugly things are always cute, I own a red hoodie for this film alone and would wrap my dog up in various blankets over his fifteen years (wish I had the upper body strength to get a thick-boned spaniel into a bike basket), I'm adopting it as my yearly Halloween viewing - this is my vocabulary. Whatever I may think of Steven Spielberg's output of the last ten years, my heart is still nursed and cradled in his filmmaking.


But it's not just nostalgia or blind adoration that has me irrationally obsessed with this classic feature. No, it's because it simply is so good decades later. And damn was Spielberg a pioneer - can I just note that motivated pan with the lamp when Elliot fakes his sick day; chef's kiss. The cast as well, the performances he gets from those kids are so believable and natural. The script and the quotability; Where's Mexico?, E.T Phone Home, It was nothing like that, penis breath...

E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (Universal, 1982)

If anything, seeing E.T was one of those beautiful reminders that come along at just the right time. A how to fall in love with cinema moment; a film that was the beginning of a lifelong love with storytelling, messy and riddled with anxiety though that relationship has been. E.T was like coming home. I was missing something I hadn't realised I had been.


All sorts of ages have been attending the screenings I have ben able to note; the perfect example of a family film; a term I have struggled to apply accurately beyond the works of Ghibli and Disney for the longest of times. There was a time where these films were rich, bold. I imagined what it would have been like, to experience it for the first time, to have seen the effects and those iconic moments before they had become ingrained in film literacy. Before the homages and spoofs, before filmmakers borrowed and nibbled and tried as they could to capture the magic, there was this, the boy on the bike across the moon. And it was still enchanting. I felt like I was there as the moment was made.

E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (Universal, 1982)

I was reminded of what traditional Hollywood storytelling can achieve. Its formula doesn't have to be exhausted; what one finds in E.T is a soul. A thoughtful, film that became deeply personal to the director, the cast and crew and eventually it's audience too. To see the opening scene both unsettling but captivating, the looming presence of the government investigators as the foraging aliens go about their space horticulture. Spielberg's tight pacing, utilising his six minutes establishes the extra-terrestrials harmless natures and curiosity, the bonds amongst their kind. And then he's left behind. Every time he is left behind, devastating with the aid of Spielberg and John Williams heart-rending score. Every time, I feel that ache. Ouch...


Nothing looks like E.T. Nothing feels like E.T. Even E.T himself feels so real. Dated though a few of the effects are, it's still looks brilliant; he's organic and cute and weird and breathing and pulsing - you can see the veins twitch beneath his skin). The night sky, the Californian suburbs stacked and familiar, those scorching sunsets. The soundtrack is simply breath-taking. E.T is a simple story on a proportion I can only compare to cinema; a cinematic scale.

E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (Universal, 1982)

One of the most significant things in my childhood was the melody, so much so that I would have to avoid hearing it for fear of sobbing, Williams powerful work is so full of wonder and scope. Now I can listen, and dab at my eyes, and be certain I will not become hysterical. Yet, as a child it felt astronomical. In the cinema, I was that child again. It pierced by heart, right through the rusty armour that this decrepit aging shit had formed, and I was once again in sync with this film. Holding my breath, my lip trembling, smothering my sniffs - imagine the floodgates shattering when they said goodbye, the finger glowing bright, the doors sealing one last time, and the devastation that ensued during the end credits. Williams works that motif.


It's got layers, what can I say. My Ogre of a film. Funny after so long and exploring a multitude of dynamics with the broken family, Elliot's lonely childhood, empathy and compassion (maybe it's also why I'm a vegetarian...), I couldn't get over how much I kept mining from the story. Mum kept uttering as we walked home in the euphoric daze of good cinema, an approaching storm over the see sparking ominous flashes on the steady tides, "There are so many messages, so much to take from it, it teaches so much." She's right too. I feel like the handbook to the human heart can be found in E.T.

E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (Universal, 1982)

Before it never crossed my mind. I didn't make any connection before until I was sitting in the front row that night. The thing that struck me most of all, what I fed my mind from for all these years, was how significant it was for me growing up to see stories of the real world being changed by something magical. Despite being a total escapist, losing myself in Middle Earth and Fantasia and wishing to whisked away from the stifling everyday, I delighted in the magic finding it's way home.


Stuff like Edward Scissorhands (my other favourite) and E.T were a comfort to me. That this boring reality had a chance to be turned upside down. That magic could be found somewhere. And Maria came into their lives an saved the Von Trapp family, Paddington Bear polite-ed his way through London, the Hogwarts letter popped through the letter box, even Pokémon was wholly plausible, maybe I had found a Pidgey.

E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (Universal, 1982)

It was little things, and they changed everything. And they were no longer lonely, their lives changed forever. The journey's were bittersweet, as is life, but it was for the better even when things didn't always work out how we wanted them to. He and Elliot would never forget, that their friendship could survive galaxies apart. There is magic, even in that, just around the corner, hiding in the garden shed. E.T still reminds me of that.


Well, I think I just wanted to say that. That I love E.T, and after seeing it in cinema (twice by the time I finally finish this article) and it's still one of the greatest films ever made. No matter how high-brow or pretentious, avant-garde or broad my cinematic interests get, this is where story is. This is where my heart lies. It returns to the soil, ready to be foraged again by the croaky lil alien. He'll be right there.

E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (Universal, 1982)

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I don’t feel old. I’m not, I really am not in the scheme of it, but damn do I feel something. I say it a lot, too, but it’s not the right word. Weathered? Weary? Tethered? Unforgiving skin will eventually sag, yet there’s even less room to move about in it; the path is narrow and overgrown, and what once was tended was neglected by me, I kneeled to tie my shoe and when I stood up I could not see the path ahead of me, naively believed it would always be clear. That clarity with age is another myth amongst the masses.

'I don’t know, but I think very badly of myself. Even as I say that, in a corner of my heart something stubborn that trusts in itself, that says there is one good thing in me somewhere, darkly and firmly coils its roots. More and more, I don’t understand...' - extract from Chiyojo by Osamu Dazai

Happy Birthday to me; It’s my birthday eve, and I’m aware that I have failed to deliver on anything with this blog. I’ve been busy. I’ve been working begrudgingly, reading a lot, unfortunately struggling to work through my watch list (plenty to write about and no energy to see them) trying to edit this second draft of my novel which I am a third of the way through. Excuses? Sort of. I want to watch more – the Arrow sale was raided for goodness sake - I want more variety, I want to get off that YouTube void. I suppose the best way to describe it is simply surviving.


I’ve not really thought about my birthday. This for anyone who knows me is wildly out of character. This time of year I am unashamedly gleeful at my birthday, relishing in gifts and indulgences and a day all about me; think Richard Richard and his stacks of self-penned birthday cards. I’m the same at Christmas. I love events, I love getting people gifts and relishing in that kind of celebration.

Tatami Galaxy (Yuasa, 2010)

Mostly, this year, I haven’t had time to think. Maybe I should take it as a big warning sign; I have been in cruise control, stepping back to get through each day. Makes sense that I have blitzed some more romantic, fantastical fiction; of the limited films chosen only the most magical (Leslie Cheung as a debt collector is somehow the peak of art and romance, I be swooning). Reality is hard and I need some kind of release. Something so detached from reality.


'It's like God gave you something man, all those stories you can make up. And He said, "this is what we got for ya kid, try not to lose it." Kids lose everything unless there's someone there to look out for them.' - Stand By Me, Rob Reiner (1985)

I feel odd. Not quite empty, a vessel of kind-of’s, almosts, a near empty jar of marbles rattling around the bottom, each now precious. It’s all I have left to give, after that I cannot fill it, no resources, no experiences to stuff it to brim and any value of what is left is delusional.


Twenties are a ridiculous age. I’ve read enough; respect enough poets to know that. It’s a joke, a total lie that is offered to us by all the loudest few; that it’s good to be young. Maybe it is in hindsight, but in the thick of it, age is already reminding me of what I regret, missed out on, wisdom reminding me that I have to make the most of time I have now. The child in me screams something else: Unfair.

'Ground continually trampled on gets hard; people get to be somebody by being buffeted and banged around.' - extract from For All My Walking by Taneda Santōka,

It was sold to me that it would get better. Twenties and thirties, they’re messy for some and coming together for others. Life is a foolish game, I reject that I should need to play by any of its rules but cannot bear the blindness that comes with no guidance.


Three weddings in one year, friend with babies and houses and incomes and lives yet I determined to live a life separated from reality. Assumed that more would find me one day, when I was ready. I want to live in fiction yet I’m scared of what I say or pen, that it won’t be good enough or won’t be true enough, or so true that it will show me for the child I still am. Then the regrets follow, then the child screams and demands to go back to fourteen years old.

Cowboy Bebop (Watanabe, 1998)

Reading late into the night and avoiding homework as she annihilated film after film and memorized dates and directors and actors; it was all I was good at. Writing crappy stories, re-watching TV shows until I knew everything Mulder conspiricised with Scully, every fight between Sam and Dean, every turn of phrase between the Pythons. It was all I knew. There was rejection, then beating the rejection to it. Making friends, and thriving in school, in subjects that equally relished in my interest until finally escaping home. Then becoming an adult and finding no use in all I knew.


I’m trying to find a use. Something that still feels authentic to me. But life wields a baseball bat, and I’m too cowardly to carry a few broken bones and bruises.


"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." - Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, John Hughes (1986)

Mad to believe I was raised on Disney and eighties movies… they’re all about being braver, crawling up and holding onto your young spirit, facing adulthood with that spark forever. They warned me and still ring so bloody true yet I can’t heed any of the advice. Why am I so bad at listening to it? Maybe because I’m impatient… also very rich from someone who has sat around and avoided a whole lot of stuff for a whole lot of years.


What’s my goal before my next birthday? It’s the question that makes me dread them more and more, one I have half-answers and hazy dreams about. I was happiest when I reveled in my semi-delusions, and I’m trying to hope a little bigger. I’ve allowed myself to wish for less and less as it felt less likely until all I had left was passing each unsatisfying day with nothing more. But it was never unreasonable to dream, none of them were. I just lost bits of me, beneath the weight of things.


I have plans. But I don’t want to voice them. Perhaps it unhealthy to believe in jinxes. But to voice it makes it real and terrifying and I can no longer breathe, smothered and choking. One day I will say it, manifest something. Optimism is either insincere or foolish, unfashionable most of the time. But everyone has hope, no matter what they say. Hope is devious, a root too deep to pluck but flowering something worthy of the wait. I have to wait, and work and believe in the hope, and see the world around me and find the good amongst the shit. There’s so much of it.

Bungou Stray Dogs (2016)

I’m getting older. Things are getting clearer, and I need to believe that my jar can filled. Maybe it won’t be with marbles; maybe it will sit empty for a while longer, or suddenly overflow with perishables, moreish forgettables. But one day it will have something in it. Time is going to fill me up. Life has more to offer than I believe. It’s going to be… okay?



 

I had to indulge in a little sentimental reflection. It's on a bi-monthly rota it seems. I've got some film blog ideas in the works, I just need to wrap up some filmographies to work on them. But there's something. And all will be filmic soon.

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  • Kerry Chambers

A neon dreamscape; a lonely meander through the cities, bodies meeting bodies, missing one another in a breath. Tsai Ming-liang has captured perpetual isolation like no other filmmaker. The Malaysian born, Taiwanese filmmaker defines little in aspects of his work; gender, sexuality, place and time – all that matters is people. Absurdist, magical realism, social slice-of-life, tragedies and comedies of love and longing, he’d trodden it all. His contribution to ‘Slow Cinema’ pretty much defines the genre, the best of it anyway; it is slow, but the minutes ooze by.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Second Run, 2003)

Like Wong Kar-wai’s silent cousin, as outrageous as Pedro Almodóvar and as meditative as Andrei Tarkovsky, Tsai is everything that makes an auteur. Ever busy with VR projects, documentaries, art installations, theatre productions and short form experimental works, Tsai is relentless as creatives go. Yet still his features strike violently, personal to the core and stifling in its depiction of familiar alienation. Always refreshing, always honest. The ultimate patience-tester, more often he pays off.

Vive L'amour (Film Movement, 1994)

Of course he is all the more for his collaboration with Lee Kang-sheng who has appeared in every feature to date, delivered solemn, vulnerable and introverted performances treading the line between reality and fantasy. This article will practically be about the pair. You can’t have one without the other. If Lee is the personification of Tsai on screen that is, his vessel and our guide through the labyrinthine affairs of the human condition - the desire, the hunger, and the solitude - then he is also the key to understanding his style and motivation. Furthermore, his use of recurring actors, (such as Lu Yi-ching, Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Chao-jung, Miao Tien etc.) and non-performers and locations captures a universe all of Tsai’s conjuring bordering on the perverse.

The River (2007)

If you’d asked me ten years ago, I would have told you to shove your ‘slow cinema’, I’m having a nap. But now, since delving into Japanese cinema I have discovered a wealth of heartrending stories across the continent of Asia, some clocking in at staggering times, and not a moment feels wasted – An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo, 2018), A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991), Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998), comes to mind, not all quiet ‘slow cinema’ but ethereal and hypnotic... I feel another list idea coming on.

The Wayward Cloud (Axiom Films, 2005)

It only made sense that I would find my way to Tsai. I suppose I’m pretty outspoken. Never in a million years would I have guessed that I would be shacking up with ‘slow cinema’. I used to be first to scream pretentious… now I wear it like a badge of honour. So what if it is? My life has been salvaged by the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang. Offered a voice to the void, let it weep where it would scream and claw.


So I want to talk about the films of this great filmmaker. I rinsed them, loved some, struggled with others, but was never at any time questioning his originality. Tsai has story, character and creativity to his very marrow in every tale he tells. So here I rank my top ten of the mysterious and pondersome cinema of Tsai Ming-Liang. Hopefully, you will never look at a water leak or a watermelon the same way.

Rebels of the Neon God (Big World Pictures, 1992)

Honorable Mention: The Ongoing Walker Series most notably Journey to the West (2014) and No No Sleep (2015).


10. Days (2020)

I’m being controversial already, I can tell. But remember this is a favourite’s list; I really like this movie. Days is also kind of the ultimate patience-tester. Nothing really happens; more than in any other Tsai film. Intentionally un-subtitled, the film is slow and quiet. Intimacy is captured between the characters, highlighted by the long lengths of screen time spent in isolation.

Days (2020)

Opening on a long static take of Lee Kang-sheng’s character watching the downpour, we watch him. Where it seems nothing is happening at all, the weight of the world, the drawn-out oppressiveness of time matches the aging actor’s sullen, contemplative expression. Lee suffers from an unknown pain and seeks a masseuse, the masseuse is a young man and following his work is gifted a music box. They eat a meal and then go their separate ways. Tsai examines isolation in the modern world, the class divide, and mundanity in real-time and feels more real than ever since the Pandemic.

Days (2020)

9. Stray Dogs (2013)

If you talk to any Tsai buff, they’ll indulge in some watermelon languishing and then lament his cabbages. That is proof of a true master if ever. Sure enough, so cabbages take on an entirely different image following Stray Dogs, probably Tsai’s most crippling dissection of poverty. Rain and cities swallow a family whole, an alcoholic father and his young son and daughter endure day after day on the streets of Taipei, he works long hours holding signs in the torrential weather, ignored for just meager money. And late at night they find shelter and wash in public bathrooms, sleep in cavernous abandoned buildings perpetually leaking water at the whims of the city around them, watched from afar by an enigmatic mother-like figure.

Stray Dogs (New Wave Films, 2013)

Lee gets one of his most trying long-takes, an actor pushing his limits physically and mentally. Depression is rife in this film, a glaring weight on its lead, manifesting in apathy and anger. He stand sings as the rain lashes against him, tears fall and endures. All he represses, he unleashes on the cabbage his daughter keeps as a doll, unflinching in its harrowing undertones. It’s a miserable life for the family, but Tsai explores it with genuine compassion and a biting starkness.

Stray Dogs (New Wave Films, 2013)

8. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006)

A film of parallels shot in Tsai’s native Malaysia, the sick bed sparks an unusual romance between its patient and nurse. A day laborer is badly beaten and cared for by a Bangladeshi migrant worker, meanwhile a paralyzed man, abused by his mother, is tenderly tended to by the family’s maid. These two stories, with Lee in a dual role as both patients, intertwine in messy fashion.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Axiom, 2006)

A love triangle of scope, smog that descends on the city thwart attempts at intimacy, illicit trysts in the back alleys, it’s interlaced with scenes of domestic comfort-ability and familiarity. The migrant worker falls hard for the day laborer, and silently endures the complications of a physical requited relationship. I struggled at first with this one, felt the minutes in places where otherwise I would get lost, but its final half an hour brings together a love story, optimism, dreamlike in its execution and surprisingly tender.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Axiom, 2006)

7. What Time Is It There? (2001)

Perhaps the best example of Tsai’s extended universe begins with this tragic romance of chance meetings and instant connections, What Time is it There? followed by the 2002 short The Skywalk is Gone and concluding with 2005’s The Wayward Cloud, each can be seen individually and appreciated but as a whole there is something uniquely staggering. Like the works of Eric Rohmer, with the feel of The Before Trilogy, Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi unite as one of Tsai’s most interesting couples.

What Time is it There? (2001)

A street vendor mourning the death of his father peddles watches for a living. He falls for a young woman about to embark to Paris, their connection deep but not enough to stop her leaving. Unable to forget her, across Taipei he changes the clocks to French time and religiously watches Francois Truffauts The 400 Blows. It is of course obvious that the film tackles loneliness and longing, the mother figure if mourning the death of her husband, her son is also grieving and now more so with the absence of a stranger, and the girl struggles to find a place for herself in Paris. Hiding in phone booths and there is an impatience waiting, a desperation to connect and feel anything at all.

What Time is it There? (2001)

6. The Hole (1998)

The closest Tsai comes to anything resembling a science-fiction, post-apocalyptic feature that really captures the anxiety found in the approaching new millennia and it’s executed in the only way he could; with lashings of long takes, lonely people and vibrant musical numbers. Absent from his later works, The Hole lavishes in its extravagant musical sequences (where I really start to think of the flamboyancy of Almodóvar), to convey the emotional journey of his protagonists. The hole of the title could represent the emptiness in the characters own lives, lonely and resistant of one another’s world, forced to collide though circumstance out of their control and possibly finding salvation.

The Hole (1998)

A mysterious virus has struck the world; it causes it’s victims to regress until they are scurrying around like cockroaches. A man lives in a tiny apartment; below him lives a woman who hoards paper towels. One day, a maintenance man, investigating the persistent leak in the woman’s apartment, breaks a hole in her neighbours floor, dividing their homes. They can never get through to him again, the hole gets bigger, it causes many an issue. They resist one another and we follow their mundane lives, the paranoia that seeps into their everyday as the threat of the virus lurks, with the inconvenience of the hole between them causing the pair to intrude further on one another’s existence. The woman battles her leak; consumed by it all the while their longing for one another begins to bloom… its murky and grimy, unsettling in a lot of ways and funny in others. Yet when you reach that final scene, (that shot, the hands) a dream or a chance to finally breathe, Tsai leaves that for you to decide.

The Hole (1998)

5. The Wayward Cloud (2005)

My first Tsai was also half-heartedly purchased at first. I ignored its reception and admittedly really wanted to see what freaky stuff was happening with the melons. They play a big part in what could be considered one of his most controversial features. I knew I was onto a winner with the director when I checked the time, believing I had been watching for ten minutes and discovered that the film was already half-way through. Is it the gateway film for all? No. Is it some damn good, explicit longing? Is it ironically funny and deeply tragic in some bizarre, off-beat way? For sure. After all it concludes the characters journey from What Time is It There? And it’s got even more musical numbers, utilizing classic songs of the fifties in some chirpy Hollywood style way to contract the ever strange and unwholesome content on screen.

The Wayward Cloud (Axiom Films, 2005)

A heat wave hits Taipei. We open on an explicit audition in which Lee Kang-sheng has his way with a woman and the watermelon between her legs; the water has run out, and the shower does not work and sticky form their activities on set, ants infest in the lift shared with the porn crew. It’s funny and stifling, uncomfortable yet the start of things to come. Lee’s watch seller has become a porn actor; Chen Shiang-chyi’s girl is now semi-neurotic, complacent and restless has taken to filling water bottles at work and other thieving methods to replenish her supply of bottled water. The vendor and the girl somehow reunite, and an emotional intimacy reignites. He does not share what he does for a living. ‘Do you still sell watches?’ She asks. Lee’s iconic performance, his long thought on the question, the submersion of all that has come to be is met with a shake of his head. Their scenes beneath the table, intimate and relatively chaste, tainted by his secret world, perpetually looming over their what-could-have-been romance and met with a finale that is Tsai’s most violent and extreme.

The Wayward Cloud (Axiom Films, 2005)

4. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Nothing much at all happens (is there a parrot) in Goodbye, Dragon Inn but it also was the shorted eighty minutes I spent on a film. Less about action, more about layers, Tsai weaves an intimate portrait of the final evening of the Fu Ho cinema before its temporary closure and all that takes place within the depths of the auditorium. Everything about it screams film lover. It’s a love letter to King Hu’ 1967 Dragon Gate Inn, a love letter to cinema, an anxious examination of the shifting trends of cinema that we had unfortunately witnessed come to pass, yet it weeps with a love for the experience.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Second Run, 2003)

A perpetual leak in cinema, the torrential rain outside somehow failing to draw many to the final screening, the cinema is haunted by the final spectators made up of aging actors and familiar faces, a young boy, an obnoxious woman with her toasted watermelon seeds, the homosexual community half-heartedly cruising the auditorium and back of house, the ghosts. The cinema is run by two people, the ticket-girl with a club-foot, wandering the corridors on a mission to maintain the building and to deliver half a steamed rice bun to the elusive projectionist. The lives interconnect on what feels like the curtain call of a picture house, lonely and echoing brought together by the ethereal world. Desire and longing, and people failing to ever really connect ooze out of every pore. Gosh, it’s some really good cinema… I could watch it over and over.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Second Run, 2003)

3. Vive L’amour (1994)

Tsai’s characters exist in the in-betweens. Their lives unfold in the empty apartments for sale, the love hotels, the murky streets, cinemas. Places people have yet to or never will call home. Vive L’amour plays with this and it’s sexy and strange for it. A real estate agent uses one of her empty apartments as the base for her romantic trysts; here one of her suitors begins to pine after her meanwhile a depressed squatter hides and bears witness to their meetings, all the while falling for the young man she has taken as her lover (and a watermelon too). It’s a pretty original love triangle and an even weirder flat-share.

Vive L'amour (Film Movement, 1994)

Young Lee Kang-sheng at his pouty, most vulnerable best strikes a fragile figure, bonding with the young man played by a charming Chen Chao-jung and longing for him as he in turn lusts for the woman (a sultry if troubled Yang Kuei-mei) who appears all together terrified for real intimacy. What Tsai does bets is capture something vital and personal in all his films; no matter how absurd or unfamiliar, one can seem to find themselves in a line, a look or a mood. Tsai is a mood. Vive L’amour is one of his lonely Neon odysseys; from his examination of lust and identity - his characters often examining their reflections if passing shop windows, in convenience store mirrors, in the sterile safety of the bathroom - and lust, both fun and melancholic he blurs definition and examines people and all the desires and miscommunication that come with being human.

Vive L'amour (Film Movement, 1994)

2. Rebels of the Neon God (1992)

His debut feature is simply unforgettable. It’s not often either for a director’s freshman feature to be so watchable. The most like a Wong Kar-wai, there are parts that feel reminiscent of As Tears Go By, of Hou Hsaio-hsiens Daughter of the Nile; it’s the truest neon love story in his repertoire, faithful to its name. All the familiar motifs are there; the flooding of apartments, the longing, and the confusing desires, the violence, the phone booths… yet it’s also tender and volatile. I would go as far to say that Neon God is also his most optimistic and traditional in sense of story.

Rebels of the Neon God (Big World Pictures, 1992)

A criminal love story at its heart, it’s also a pure youth feature. That misguided, floating sensation that comes with your twenties, that fleeting yet choking loneliness, all captured though Tsai’s dreamlike lens. Forgiveness, fumbling’s and the chaos of youth run deep, against a pulpy backdrop of night in the restless cities, fluorescent arcades and stark fast-food joints. Chen Chao-jung is kind of irresistible in this as a petty thief, and he has to be to be the force that draws in a young woman, his needy best friend and attracts the complicated attention of Lee Kang-shengs unhinged student. He falls for his brothers one night stand, has a never-ending battle with a blocked drain that floods his apartment in times of emotional turmoil, must protect his best friend from their dangerous livelihood.

Rebels of the Neon God (Big World Pictures, 1992)

Lee Kang-shengs erratic character stalks Chen, in revenge for his father’s damaged property, bordering on homoerotic obsession, idolism. The title in Taiwanese refers to Chinese mythology, of the disobedient Nezha, the powerful child god born into a human family, and attempts to kill his father before being controlled by him, of whom Lee’s character references in his act of vandalism of whom his parents superstitiously fear he is possessed by as he rebels against them and himself.

Rebels of the Neon God (Big World Pictures, 1992)

1. The River (1997)

This one is brutal. Not a day has gone by, that I haven’t thought of it and I have a lot of thoughts in a day, some useless and some unutterable. But one I can utter it=s that The River is Tsai’s masterpiece. The perfect melding of his style and themes along with the familial undercurrents of his cast, Lee Kang-shengs personal experiences and a truly harrowing revelation it’s just perfection.


A little back story - during filming of the Rebel of the Neon God, Lee Kang-sheng developed a neck injury, one which I believe still causes him some pain. Feeling responsible, Tsai accompanied and supported Lee during the early attempts at diagnosis and treatment, eventually drawing inspiration to make The River.

The River (2007)

After standing in as a corpse in a river for a local film production his girlfriend is an assistant on, a young man contracts a strange ailment that is never diagnosed. Suffering from chronic neck pain, it eats away at his life, to the point that he wishes for death, as his parents desperately try and fail to help their sons suffering through traditional, herbal and spiritual remedies. Meanwhile, his father is a closeted homosexual who frequents the local bathhouse in search for some comfort and intimacy and his wife is having an affair with a local pornographer and manically trying to find the source of a leak. Chronic pain has never been more excruciating on screen, long takes of treatments all fruitless, some dreadful to endure, driving Lee’s character to madness.

The River (2007)

The family is made up of the same cast from Rebels of the Neon God and later What Time is it There? including Miao Tien and Lu Hsiao-ling as his stifled parents. This adds layers to the intimacy between his characters, and unfortunately, the struggles of communication amongst family, where that closeness breeds a kind of loss of transparency. The unit was fractured before the injury and further splinters as they head towards a climax worthy of Greek Tragedy. Relief is far from the grasp of these characters, Tsai thrusts them into a despair far flung from his later works; this despair, of physical pain, emotional absence and repression manifests in resentment. For them, there is no salvation. It’s bleak, and hard to endure, predictably ‘slow’ but not a minute feels like a drag, you feel its characters every breath, cry, sob. You feel it down to your bones.

The River (2007)

 

Well, let’s hope any of this makes sense. Given how hard it is to explain Tsai Ming-liang, I gave it my all. Though the plots are usually simply, all about mood or motivation, it’s pretty hard to sell. But it wouldn’t go to waste. Tsai is one of the most important living filmmakers of his generation, who has a lot to say and whole lot of heart and soul to give. I hope you find a new favourite in my recommendations today! Happy watching!

Vive L'amour (Film Movement, 1994)

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A Space for Reviews, World Cinema Appreciation, Essays and Reflections by Writer Kerry Chambers

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