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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!