Tsai Ming-Liang occupies a peculiar point in the bright and expanding constellation of internationally successful Taiwanese filmmakers. While Edward Yang’s expansive, multi-generational intimate epic of life in modern day Taiwan has made him an art-house star and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s contemplative and primarily historical films have won him a warm and secure place in almost every serious critic’s heart, Tsai Ming-Liang seems contentedly wrapped up in his own limited but very distinctive little galaxy in a quiet, lonely, distant part of the sky. He’s made five features so far – Rebels of a Neon God (1992), Vive l’Amour (1994), The River (1997), The Hole (1998), and What Time Is It There? (2001) – and the unique thing about them is not just that they’re all highly successful but that they’re of equal merit. All five have supporters, but I find ranking them impossible, and pointless. Many of the greatest directors return compulsively to similar thematic terrain, with an arsenal of characteristic stylistic tools; but Tsai’s artistic progress has been more peculiar. His body of work consists not so much of five separate films but of one film seen from five different angles, or perceived under the influence of five different moods. Like Piet Mondrian’s paintings, their similarities are, at first glance, more striking than their differences; but precisely because they’re so similar, the differences take on a great significance.
Indeed, Tsai seems less like a conventional filmmaker, tackling various subjects and genres, filming scripts written by others and often adapted from other mediums, than a painter, obsessively exploring a single color, making minute variations on a basic compositional idea, laboring patiently to capture something very precise and elusive. The color that he continually explores is the mood and texture of loneliness and urban isolation, and the compositional idea that frames these explorations is minimalism, a detached perspective. It’s this omniscient point of view that allows tragedy and comedy to coexist so comfortably in Tsai’s cinema, perhaps its most distinctive quality. The tragedy in his films is obvious – the characters are terribly lonely and unhappy; the comedy lies in the way Tsai shows us what his characters cannot see – that though they may feel lonely, in fact they’re not nearly as separate as they think.
Tsai’s first feature, Rebels of a Neon God, is his most conventional. It is also, as it turns out, a sort of template for the following four films, marking out his thematic and narrative territory and introducing his vision. The following films are like abstracted, distilled versions of Rebels, each organized around a unifying and metaphorical central image: the vacant apartment in Vive l’Amour, Lee Kang-sheng’s neck ailment (and perhaps the water leaking into his father’s bedroom) in The River, the hole in The Hole, and in What Time is it There?, the related concepts of time and distance.
The beauty of the five films, apart and together, is their sincere and persistent preoccupation with the junction between the comic and the tragic. Tsai’s mood is absolutely unique because it can be deeply sad and deadpan funny, highly metaphorical and stubbornly concrete at the same time. Taken together, the variations from film to film prove to be highly significant. Each of the five films is about loneliness, but the mood, especially the relative emphasis on comedy and tragedy, is slightly different in each one, a beautiful and profound demonstration of the truth that life is neither comic nor tragic until someone chooses to see it as one or the other.
Sad is easy; comedy, especially when it has to coexist with, rather than dispel the sadness, is less so. Tsai’s most important collaborator in this respect is his lead actor, Lee Kang-Sheng, who has starred in all five of his films. Lee is a non-professional with a remarkably strong, unusual screen presence. He’s not called upon to act, exactly, but simply to be and to behave. If Tsai provides the comedy, Lee takes care of the deadpan. His expression never changes, but he seems entirely comfortable before the camera and, most importantly, he has the rare, elusive, almost metaphysical gift of being able to convince us that he is truly alone in a room, completely unaware of the gaze of the camera. Tsai and Lee are perfectly suited to celebrate the comedy of solitude. In film after film, Lee spends a great deal of screen time alone, behaving the way people generally behave (but are rarely portrayed behaving) when they’re alone – that is to say, very oddly. In Vive l’Amour, Lee buys a melon, spends some time kissing it, and then cuts out several finger holes and bowls it into the wall; in The River, he brushes his armpits with his toothbrush; in What Time, he pees into whatever container he can find – a soda bottle, a plastic bag – rather than get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. This is behavior that seems a stone’s throw from insanity, but it’s behavior most of us would indulge in (assuming we don’t) if we didn’t take such care to observe ourselves when no one else is around. Tsai’s affection for this side of his characters is one way in which he locates the comedy in their solitude.
This preoccupation with filming people alone with themselves (not just Lee but all the characters, and not just eccentric behavior but their most private actions – masturbating, going to the bathroom, and so on) has several peculiar results. For one thing, it helps to explain the strangely static quality of the movies. Tsai’s project, in a sense, is to photograph loneliness, and so there’s very little development or drama in most of his scenes – they don’t so much progress as they do simply last. And taken together, they don’t flow into each other, creating a strong sense of forward narrative movement – they simply accumulate, falling into place like pieces in a puzzle. One of the key examples is the final shot of Vive l’Amour, an unforgettable six minute long shot of May Lin (Yang Kuei-Mei) crying on a park bench. There’s simply no reason, narratively-speaking, to hold this shot for six minutes. The idea is not to carry us along on a narrative wave, but to let us engage with the here and now, to enter into the scene and feel May Lin’s sadness fully. This is what gives Tsai’s films their remarkable sense of presence, and their tremendous emotional weight. Tsai brings his films to a halt to let us in.
His preoccupation with solitude also explains why Tsai’s films are often very nearly free of dialogue. In Vive l’Amour, the first real line of dialogue occurs 30 minutes into the film, and the first conversation between any of the three main characters comes almost 30 minutes after that. It feels natural – we see people interacting in the background, but the three main characters are alone and shy. Still though, it’s an exhilaratingly bold move to trust that we won’t be bored without dialogue. Tsai is probably the only contemporary filmmaker who would’ve felt completely unfettered in the silent era – he’s like a cross between Antonioni and Buster Keaton (actually, to give Buster his due, you could almost cut Antonioni out of that equation altogether).
If all the films share this silent comedy flavor, Vive l’Amour is the broadest example – it’s Tsai’s slapstick film. It revolves around a vacant apartment which indirectly binds together all three characters – May Lin (Yang Kuei-Mei), a female real estate agent, Hsiao Kang (Lee), a young man who finds a pair of keys left in the door, and Ah Jung (Chen Chao-Jung), a street seller who steals a pair of keys from the agent when she brings him up to the apartment for a one night stand. Tsai produces some of his purest comedy from the comings and goings of the three, but the film is as exquisitely balanced between tragedy and comedy as any of them. One of the scenes that best illustrates this balance comes early on, when Lee sits in one of the bedrooms trying to work up the nerve to slit his wrist. Tsai holds the shot for some time, until Lee does finally cut himself. But as he lies bleeding, he hears the door open downstairs. Tsai then cuts to May Lin and Ah Jung in the other bedroom as they wordlessly undress and begin to make love, and again Tsai holds the shot for several minutes until we’ve almost forgotten about Lee. When he reminds us, he does so with a shot of Lee, having wrapped his wrist, tip-toeing up to the door of the other bedroom. By so fully, but separately, establishing the presence of both Lee and the two lovers before alluding to the link between them, Tsai finds a comic angle on a situation that most would overlook completely. The balance in Tsai’s films is between the tragedy of the close-up (people enmeshed in a despairing loneliness) and the comedy of the long-shot (in which connections proliferate even if the people themselves are unaware of them).
Rebels of a Neon God is a relatively literal film in relation to its successors, every bit as assured but not quite as imaginatively conceived and constructed, and not quite as comic. The difference between Rebels and Vive l’Amour lies in the function of the apartment in the second film, and the clarity it imparts to Tsai’s vision. The breadth of this vision is clearest in a sequence very similar to the suicide scene. May Lin arrives at the apartment at the beginning of the day and makes her way to the bedroom where she and Ah Jung spent the night. She lies down, her hair spread out across the bed, and dreamily begins to caress the sheets beside her, a reverie Tsai captures beautifully in a tight, intimate, patient shot. It’s a moment of exquisite but overwhelming sadness. Eventually, Tsai cuts to a shot of the whole bed, and suddenly we see a hand (belonging to Ah Jung) reach out from underneath the bed, inches away from Ah Jung’s legs, place a pair of shoes and some clothing beside the bed, and slowly, quietly creep out of the room. This may be the key sequence in Tsai’s cinema – his vision in these moments is almost a cosmic one, like something out of Beckett (another artist for whom solitude was a central theme, and comedy a central tool). As in Beckett’s works, the tragedy is inherent in the material (the profound sadness of his characters); but he presents that material comically. Life is a comedy for Tsai because, from his point of view, people are so far from each other yet so close; they feel trapped in a bottomless solitude, while others crawl by inches away. The apartment then is far more than an engine for the plot – it’s an image of a universe full of unfulfilled, often unconscious connections.
Each of the following films is organized around a similarly metaphorical central image, but they get stranger from film to film. The apartment in Vive l’Amour may have metaphorical significance, but it’s naturalistic enough as well – it makes sense whether or not you perceive Tsai’s broad vision. But the later films are more enigmatic and inexplicable – more Beckett-like. Lee Kang-Sheng’s neck pain in The River has no rational explanation, and neither the hole in The Hole nor Lee’s obsession with the Paris time-zone in What Time Is It There? could carry a film all by their literal lonesome. The most striking recurrent image in the five films is of an uncontrollable, steadily worsening water leak – coming up through a drain in the floor, creating a near-pond, in Rebels, gushing in through the ceiling in The River, and cascading down the walls in The Hole. A profoundly ambiguous metaphor, whose significance can’t quite be put into words, it’s at once highly comic and yet full of horror and anxiety – especially in The River and The Hole, a sign that something is very, very wrong. These are films in which the metaphors become overwhelming, which take place in something like an alternative universe, but Tsai’s metaphors are so suggestive and fully felt that there’s no sense of impoverishment or disengagement from his humanistic concerns.
The River is unique in that it concentrates almost entirely on the relationships within the family that we first meet in Rebels (and which will reappear in What Time). It is also the darkest and most disturbing in the series (though there’s plenty of dark humor in it), focusing on the separate attempts by Lee and his father (Miao Tien) to connect with another human being, and culminating in an encounter between the two of them which is one of the few passages in Tsai’s cinema that’s entirely free of a comic dimension. Most of Tsai’s movies end with at least a suggestion of hopefulness, and if that’s not untrue of The River, here the hopefulness is inextricably linked to something traumatic and irreversible.
The Hole and What Time Is It There? both take up almost precisely where Vive l’Amour left off, tracing the indirect connections between lonely souls. The Hole may be Tsai’s most pleasurable movie, the first to venture into any sort of genre territory (two for the price of one, actually – it’s a sci-fi musical). It’s certainly the most fantastic – the only one that’s not set in the present (made in 1998, set at the very end of 1999) and the only one to enter into its characters’ fantasy-lives (via the Dennis Potter-like musical numbers). The comedy is almost as dark as in The River (its vision of dystopian absurdity suggests Terry Gilliam’s Brazil ), but it may also be his most hopeful film. Nowhere else in Tsai’s movies do we see such a direct, unambiguous connection between people – in its apocalyptic way, it’s almost a love story.
What Time Is It There? is marginally lighter and more grounded than the previous two films – the world it depicts is not at the same metaphorical remove. But it’s as full of loneliness, isolation, and disconnection as any of them – if there’s a difference it’s not a crucial one, but more in the manner of an adjustment of the levels on a stereo. What is different is that Tsai has expanded his scope geographically to take in Paris as well as Taipei, and thematically to take in the subject of the cinema, represented by The 400 Blows (1959) and by an actual appearance by Jean-Pierre Léaud (encountered in a cemetery by Chen). What Time is also a kind of companion piece to The River. In that film, Lee established a certain connection with his father (though it was as disturbing and problematic as it was healing). In this film (which begins with the death of the father), there’s a suggestion of some sort of connection with, or at least tenderness towards, his mother (Lu Yi-Ching).
The title, however, refers to Lee’s character alone, and in What Time, Tsai and Lee take his characteristically odd private behavior to a new level. The bulk of the film involves his obsession with changing every clock he can find – beginning with his own, extending to those in stores, and culminating in a giant one on the side of a building – to Paris-time, which is his way of establishing a tenuous connection with a woman (Chen Shiang-Chyi) he sold a watch to on the eve of her departure for France. She is in almost exactly the same position as May Lin in Vive l’Amour, wandering around Paris in solitude, entirely unaware of Lee’s gestures towards her. If his compulsion to change every clock takes the place of the apartment in the earlier film, so does The 400 Blows. Tsai doesn’t so much pay homage to the cinema as he does bring it into the fold – for Lee, it’s simply another way of reaching out, however privately, to others; a connection that becomes even stronger in this case when the woman encounters the film’s star, Léaud, in a cemetery (although Tsai comically downplays the significance of the meeting by making Léaud a sleazy old man).
The death of the father and the connection between Lee and the mother suggests a progression across the films, at least within those involving the same family. But there’s no such quality to the characters played by Lee Kang-Sheng, where each performance seems like a variation on the one before, a circling round the character rather than a biographical narrative. When most filmmakers revisit a character, their goal is to create a continuation of that character’s story, to show how he or she has changed over time. Not so here – Lee’s varying performances are like a painter’s varying studies of an apple. The point is not to portray the aging process of an apple; it’s not the apple that changes, it’s the painter’s perception of it. The closest cinematic comparison may be to the series of Westerns Budd Boetticher made with Randolph Scott in the ’50s. There too Scott plays essentially the same character, with slight variations, in each film – the character never literally carries over from one film to another, but the similarities between each of them are too great, and of too much significance for Boetticher, to be simply a function of the genre. All genre films rework very similar material, but for most filmmakers, it’s the variations that set the films apart. The similarities in Boetticher and Tsai’s films are not a function of convention but of compulsion, the variations not a matter of distinguishing their films from each other, but of encompassing their preoccupations more fully than could be accomplished in a single film. Now, as in the ’50s, it’s an approach to commercial filmmaking that’s highly unconventional – however distinctive one’s style or thematic concerns, a filmmaker’s career is not supposed to feature the kind of stubborn compulsiveness that is celebrated in certain authors or painters. Filmmakers are expected to devote themselves to their work, and then move on. Tsai Ming-Liang, in his feature filmmaking career, has not budged an inch. He has not simply followed his own distinctive path; he has found his distinctive little patch of land (whose human face is Lee Kang-Sheng) and has spent ten years studying every inch of it, from every angle. It’s a mistake to suggest that he has been repeating himself, or even that the five films are simply chapters of a greater whole. Rebels of a Neon God, Vive l’Amour, The River, The Hole, and What Time Is It There? are five different sides of a single, object-like film.