Tsai Ming-Liang, a Director of Consistency

by Smart

Tsai Ming-Liang has yet to repeat himself as a filmmaker. Ironically, he has accomplished this by never changing. The aesthetic and symbolic similarities observable across all of his films are impossible to ignore. He is perpetually concerned with themes relating to youth, alienation, the urban setting, human relationships, confinement, sex, modernity, the lower class, loneliness, sickness, and so on. A number of visual motifs also make frequent appearances throughout his films, such as water, industrial structures, food, elevators, bedrooms, cultural practices, televisions, the cinema, and more. To date, every one of Tsai’s feature films have stared actor Lee Kang-Sheng, and he is but one on an extended list of performers that Tsai repeatedly casts. Lee has never strictly played the same character twice, although it would be naive to see him as anything less than a tying point in the greater context of Tsai’s thematically and stylistically consistent oeuvre. In all of Tsai’s films it is common to find extremely long takes which create a pace so deliberate that tension is generated through the simple belief that something is going to happen. More often than not, nothing happens. Tsai’s characters spend a lot of their time lying in bed alone or sitting in empty rooms. They act in ways that can only be understood in solitude.

Humour is one of the most uniquely defining aspects of Tsai’s films. He has a natural ability to find humour in situations that are overwhelmingly bleak. Occasionally musical numbers will break out inside his films, shattering the established melancholic mood and indulging in a dreamlike world of imagination. The ability to strike a balance and contrast between depression and comedy is one of Tsai’s many directorial trademarks. His approach to filmmaking is unmatched in the world of cinema, although comparisons can be made between him and any number of other directors. However, none of these comparisons even come close to fully encompassing Tsai’s vision, and are better suited to representing individual facets of his work. Direct influences on his style can be seen coming from directors as diverse as Truffaut, Antonioni, Keaton, Bresson, and Fassbinder.

In 1992 Tsai released his directorial debut Rebels of the Neon God. By this point he had already gained a substantial amount of experience working on teleplays, both as a writer and a director. The film opens at night in a phone booth. It’s raining heavily and two male youths are stealing coins from the machine. Instantly Tsai has established a number of ideas that he will return to incessantly in his future films; alienated youth, a society in decay, and water. Perhaps the most interesting of these concepts, and certainly the most symbolic, is the use of water, which in this case is appearing in the form of rain. Inside the phone booth the two characters are confined, metaphorically trapped by the downpour surrounding them. In the next scene we are introduced to another male youth, sitting alone in his room, restless and silent. This is Lee Kang-sheng, and he will be our protagonist for the second storyline, which will eventually collide with the story of the two thieves that was established just moments earlier. Having multiple storylines running parallel to each other is a common narrative structure for Tsai. It allows him to explore the nature of brief encounters and missed opportunities with an innate simplicity.

The opening scenes of Rebels of the Neon God are decidedly more action orientated than is typical of Tsai, but he soon moves the film into his most familiar territory, that of alienation and loneliness. Just 15 minutes into the film we watch a young woman go to the toilet. This is only shown briefly, but it does signify Tsai’s interest in exploring characters at their most private and solitary, as he believes “that a person’s body only really belongs to them when they are alone.” Nothing about this scene is sexualised; in fact it is deliberately the opposite, as the bathroom is a rather depressing mess and her action awkward and mundane. Dialogue, in all of Tsai’s work, is sparse, and this implores us to focus our attention on the small amount of action taking place. Conflict arises when Lee’s character gets into a fight with his parents. The dysfunctional family is a key aspect of Tsai’s exploration into the decaying urban society that has produced the alienated youths his films frequently focus on. One recurring image in Rebels of the Neon God is that of the two thieves, and the young woman who now accompanies them, riding their motorcycles around the city at night. Over these scenes plays a bass heavy, ominous, droning score. It perfectly reflects the sinful, rebellious and destructive lifestyle of the three characters, which is soon illustrated more directly as they drunken watch pornography together in a cheap hotel room.

Tsai’s second feature film, Vive L’Amour (1994), opens with a characteristic long shot, establishing a wide hallway as well as the key to an apartment door that will play a major role in the film. With a strikingly minimalist narrative approach, Vive L’Amour follows three city dwellers that happen to be unknowingly sharing the same apartment. Their lives are explored with calm observation, as the majority of the film is devoted to showing these characters as individuals, with their own quirks and internal struggles. Tsai’s slow pace creates an atmosphere of emotional resonance, without the need for words or even music. These characters are real people, and that is what makes them so fascinating. Events play out in real time, such as the undressing of two lovers before they have sex. Meanwhile, in a different room of the same apartment, Lee’s character is cutting his own wrist, only to be interrupted by the noise coming from the nearby sexual liaison. This culminates in a humorous moment where Lee sneaks comically out of the apartment without being noticed. His suicidal depression is alleviated through this contrast, and done so with enough sincerity that it does not undermine his character’s suffering. Here Tsai’s dark sense of humour is far more apparent than it was in Rebels of the Neon God.

Vive L’Amour operates almost as a silent film, except that it emphasises environmental sounds to a level where they feel significant as a reminder of a world that is so large and encompassing, yet still so full of lonely people. The apartment fulfils a double role as both a narrative device and a greater metaphor, and this is a technique that Tsai will continue to utilise in his films, although each time with a different object or place. This gives his films a substantial depth and places significance on every action that happens in relation to his chosen allegorical apparatus. Even the sex in Vive L’Amour is just as much a victim of modern alienation as everything else. It is shown to be casual and meaningless, and it ultimately leaves the woman with an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, as the film ends on a harrowing 5 minute static shot of her crying endlessly.

Tsai’s next feature film, The River (1997), marks his first complete usage of water as a ubiquitous metaphor. It is also a return to the family structure first explored in Rebels of the Neon God, once again with the focus on a dysfunctional relationship between two parents and their son. It begins with a chance encounter between a woman and Lee’s character. She leads him to a film set she is working at and before Lee realises he is floating upside down in a polluted river, pretending to be a dead body. Lee tries but is unable to wash the polluted water away, and soon develops a debilitating neck pain that worsens as the film goes on. His anguish over this affliction is very real, persistent, and difficult to watch. The symbolism related to water in The River is conflicted. At first water, especially in the form of a river, evokes ideas of flow and the progression of life. However, here it has been contaminated by a terrible disease, insinuating a negative, destructive vision of society, which is then mirrored in the distant and isolated family unit, who barely speak at all for the entire film.

Transgression had been a small issue in Tsai’s earlier films, primarily found in his realistic depictions of often odd sexual practices and masturbation scenes. In The River the taboo is far more at the surface, as the film harbours incestuous undertones and culminates with a resoundingly disturbing scene between Lee and his homosexual father. It is by far Tsai’s darkest and most emotionally dead film. Unlike with his other films, there are no glimpses of hope to be found in The River. Returning to the water symbolism, it also appears alongside the sexually putrid acts of Lee’s father, which take place in a bathhouse where he has frequent affairs in the near total darkness. There is also a leak in the family house, which has worsened substantially by the end of the film, resulting in a flood. The leak is a constant reminder of the decay and neglect that society breeds within the film.

The Hole (1998) is Tsai’s first foray into musical territory. Though this genre does not dominate the film, it does offer a unique juxtaposition against the narrative backdrop, which is plagued by a mysterious disease and the looming threat of evacuation. The Hole is also somewhat of a low-key sci-fi film, set one year in the future at the turn of the millennium. From the opening scene the film is absolutely saturated with water, both inside and outside. Once again the metaphoric intent is admirable, and this time it seems to represent the love and connection between the two main characters, which they are unable to experience physically due to the state of their decrepit tenement building. The title of the film refers to the hole accidentally caused by a plumber which allows the main characters to communicate between their apartments. It functions as both a necessary narrative device and a symbolic impediment to the connection between lonely souls. Tsai himself says on The Hole that:

“The musical numbers play a different role here than they do in other musicals. For me it’s more like the statement of the inner world, particularly of the female character. This woman apparently is very cold, on the surface she has to be very fierce to fight her environment, she’s very defensive. But her inner world is very passionate and she craves somebody to love her.”

The characters in The Hole represent universal ideas of men, women, and people in general. Tsai is portraying their struggle to form connections as being a global concern for humanity. The film is far more hopeful than The River, and develops more affectionate and non-destructive relationships, such as the one between Lee’s character and the cat he feeds. The final shot of the film is one of Tsai’s most emotionally powerful. We watch as Lee’s arm reaches down through the hole into the woman’s apartment and lifts her up into his, finally uniting the couple. This glimpse of happiness comes when things had reached their most distressing and expounds on Tsai’s interest in love as an integral part of human life, despite the film existing inside a dystopian landscape.

It is no secret that Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) is Tsai’s favourite film, and What Time Is It There? (2001) can be seen as a unique tribute to it, even going as far as to star Jean-Pierre Léaud in a cameo role. Two separate narratives tell the story of a man, played of course by Lee Kang-sheng, and a woman who he becomes infatuated with after a brief encounter during which he sells her his watch. It was Tsai’s first film to move outside of Taipei, as part of it takes place in Paris. Love is looked at from a different angle here than it was in The Hole. Now love is an obsession for Lee and Tsai examines the lengths to which he will go to attain a connection, despite knowing that the woman he desires has no idea of his actions. Another reason Tsai made this film was to deal with the death of both his and Lee’s fathers, which is replicated in the death of Lee’s character’s father early in the film. This returns once again to the theme of family, but in a way that creates a sense of closure instead of alienation. Many of Tsai’s trademarks increase in frequency in What Time Is It There?, such as sex, masturbation, and observing characters in bed or alone in the bathroom. The emotional longing visible in all the characters seems to hinge on Tsai’s personal attachment to the film as an exploration of his father’s death, which is illustrated magically with the possible, yet ambiguous, appearance of Lee’s father’s ghost in the poignant final scene.

The cinema as a location had already appeared in several of Tsai’s films before he made Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), which takes place entirely inside a soon to be closed down cinema during its final showing. Everything happens in real-time, and this allows Tsai to analyse the responses of the audience members, who are as much interested in the film that is playing as they are in the possible relationships they could establish in the dark of the theatre surrounding them. Outside it is raining, no doubt driving people into the cinema to avoid getting wet, although attendance is still relatively low at what Tsai depicts as a romantic last engagement between viewer and the screen. This intent is magnified by the presence in the audience of two aging actors who both star in the film being shown. With less of a narrative than any of Tsai’s other works, Goodbye, Dragon Inn is just as much about the cinema as it is about relationships, or more accurately, the desire to make a connection and the apprehension that comes with trying.

One element of Tsai’s direction that has developed throughout his career is his visual vibrancy and depth. He has not necessarily improved, as his style has never been in need of improvement, but he has become more ambitious and ultimately managed to achieve more breathtaking, expressionistic images. Although it is certainly the wide static long takes that are the most memorable feature of Tsai’s style, he also makes careful use of handheld camera work for certain scenes. Generally this is done to create a documentary feel, as it is commonly used when observing a cultural practice, such as public food preparation or a song and dance performance. He makes the switch between these two aesthetic approaches seamlessly.

There is an unavoidable perverseness in the premise of Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud (2005), a film that treats watermelons as objects of sexual desire. On the surface it is Tsai’s most transgressive film, filled with explicit, bizarre sex scenes. Underneath it presents a number of intelligent issues relating to urban civilisation in a time of crisis, as there is a severe water shortage. The watermelon can be seen as symbolic of a bridge between human connection, and also as a substitution for Tsai’s metaphoric water. As he says himself:

“I always regard the characters in my films as plants which are short of water, which are almost on the point of dying from lack of water. Actually, water for me is love, that’s what they lack. What I’m trying to show is very symbolic, it’s their need for love.”

Water is therefore a key symbolic and narrative element, and meaning can be derived immediately from the overshadowing water shortage. If there is a shortage of love in the world then humans will find a way to replace it. It is not something they can live without. Elevators have appeared in many of Tsai’s films, but never so prominently as in The Wayward Cloud. They are places of flux, transition, and movement. Fleeting moments, glances and exchanges can be experienced in elevators, and so can awkward, seemingly unending silences. There is an element of criticism being directed towards pornography, which is shown in the film as a degrading industry that wastes water and has no respect for human life. The Wayward Cloud is also Tsai’s triumphant and colourful return to the musical, and each song is used to verbally express the social and political issues the film is dealing with.

Tsai’s latest film, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), is a social commentary in much the same vein as The Hole and The River. It deals with a city that is drowned in a toxic fog which is causing widespread sickness. It is Tsai’s first film made in Malaysia, his native country, and he combines the multicultural aspects of this new location beautifully with his auteuristic themes of alienation and loneliness. Once again there are two competing storylines, although this time they both focus on a man being nursed. One of the men is paralysed; the other has been badly beaten. Both are played by Lee Kang-sheng, and in both cases he requires the care and attention of another for survival. Here the items of symbolic interest are mattresses and facemasks, which are used to filter the air for breathing. Mattresses have always played a role in Tsai’s films, which habitually featured characters in bed. In I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone they are given added functionality, mobility, and turned into a central narrative device.

Visually this is one of Tsai’s most textured and stylistic films. He mixes a range of hues together in every shot and makes great use of space through clever, artistic set design. His use of metaphor is just as present as ever, shown chiefly by a massive pool of water which appears to have flooded the centre of a construction site. It looks almost like a natural anomaly in the context of Tsai’s work. Nature is obstructing industrialisation, forging a meditative image that demands contemplation on the trajectory of human development. Long scenes of the paralysed man being cleaned are difficult to watch, but despite the ugliness of the process they still suggest a belief in the strength of love as a means to overcome hardship.

Over 8 feature films Tsai Ming-Liang has shown that he is a director with a vision. His humanistic concern for individual characters and greater social issues is explored meticulously through his consciously meandering stylistic approach. He is adept at weaving symbolism into narrative and creating atmosphere and emotion out of minimal drama. Each of his films is just as powerful and thought provoking as the last, as he repeatedly tackles familiar themes and structures, but always with a new and unique perspective.