In the nearly three decades since his debut feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), Tsai Ming-Liang (b. 1957) has built a contemplative body of work that ruminates on fundamental experiences of existence. His focus on themes of solitude, alienation, and desire early in his career eventually expanded to explorations of the passage of time, memory, and spirituality later on; Tsai aspires to observe life and, consequently, has put his inner self on display. A maverick whose long takes have stretched the limits of filmic minimalism and stillness, Tsai has also reconsidered the very concept of cinema by borrowing elements from performance and Conceptual art. Nothing encapsulates this evolving exploration like his Walker series (2012-18), a set of short films or, rather, recordings of live performances, depicting his muse/alter ego Lee Kang-Sheng as an ancient Buddhist monk moving through contemporary settings at an impossibly slow pace, pushing against currents in time and space.
Tsai, a Malaysia-born Chinese, moved to Taiwan from Kuching, Sarawak, to study theater at the age of 20. This, he said, had “a huge impact on [his] mind and psyche,” perhaps later mirrored in his films. “Even today,” said Tsai, “I feel I belong neither to Taiwan nor to Malaysia. In a sense, I can go anywhere I want and fit in, but I never feel that sense of belonging.” He found himself immersed in a Taiwan gradually opening up after a long period of martial law, which ended in 1987. It was in this new political climate that Tsai established himself with films dealing with queer themes, personal space, social taboos, and unspoken desires.
Tsai’s honours include a Golden Lion (best picture) for Vive L’Amour at the 51st Venice International Film Festival; the Silver Bear “Special Jury Prize” for The River at the 47th Berlin International Film Festival; the FIPRESCI award for The Hole at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival; the Alfred Bauer Prize and Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement for The Wayward Cloud at the 55th Berlin International Film Festival; the Grand Jury Prize at the 70th Venice International Film Festival for Stray Dogs.
In 2014, Tsai was named an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the government of France.
excerpt (from http://tylercoburn.com/tsai.html)
How did you first become involved in cinema? What about the cinematic form was particularly appealing to you?
My childhood really was a golden age for movies, in the ’60s and ’70s there was no other entertainment, all we had was movies. My grandparents were such fans they had to watch one movie a day. They lived in a small city in Malaysia where there were seven or eight huge theatres. [My grandparents] would sell noodles on the side of the street, and take turns to see movies; sometimes I double-shifted and saw the movie with each of them. Later I had to go back to my hometown, because my father found out I was just watching movies everyday.
[In college] I chose theatre without really knowing what difference there was between theatre and film. After graduation, I did theatre, experimental theatre, TV, but never thought would turn into film director. I didn’t know I would be here today.
Film really chose me, this type of film chose me. Unfortunately I don’t have a swimming pool, my films are more abstruse. (laughs)
As your films use verbal dialogue sparingly, it puts an even greater emphasis is put on the relationship between your characters and the urban spaces of Taipei. What is the place of this dynamic in your films?
The themes I am dealing with are small, localized. They are all about my feelings and understanding of life. The urban space is only a background for me. I throw my character into a space and isolate them. That space could be very populated or very empty. I believe that humans are not different in nature whether they are in a crowd or on a toilet. Their isolation or sense of loneliness is for me an effective way of representing human nature.
I’m very careful with the quality of a setting, including its colors and sense of age, because the character is in a state of isolation. He has no chance to talk – therefore I often have to rely on the setting and the elements of the setting to convey these feelings in the viewer. I spend much of my time looking for sites. When I find a great site, it will alter my feelings. I will start to feel like the sites have their own characters.
Your body of work seems to question the status of the erotic in the modern city. The sense of alienation that inhabits your characters is frequently augmented by libidinal repression. Certain of your films – Vive L’Amour, The River, What Time is it There? – conclude with failed or distorted realizations of sexual desire. How do you view the role of the erotic in these works?
I want to express the failure of erotic desire to be realized in contemporary urban space. I would like to make my films about disappearing, like The Skywalk is Gone  and Goodbye Dragon Inn. The whole theatre is disappearing in that film! This subject is important to me because society changes so fast and everything disappears so fast – historical sites, culture. One day I walked to the area where Lee Kang-Sheng was selling watches [in What Time is it There?], and I realized that ‘the skywalk is gone.’ It happens in Asia like that, things just disappear. People in their forties have no way of finding traces of their childhood. Modern people are afraid of disappearance. Living in Taipei, for example, we constantly have to deal with compelling visual change. We ask the question: what do you love the most? Who do you love the most? You will lose them – it will happen in modern society. My films ask the question: how we can face the disappearance? The loss?
Illness is a pervasive theme in your work, be it the mysterious sickness in The River or the apocalyptic disease in The Hole.. You also made My New Friends, a 1997 documentary about AIDS. What is the significance of this theme to you?
To answer, I need to return to the issue of the human body. The body of course has its interior as well as its exterior properties. I feel that the cause of sickness nowadays is people not exploring their internal realities. The reason why I decided to incorporate sickness into The River was because I witnessed this episode when Lee Kang-Sheng became sick. It lasted for nine months. That was the first time that I began to understand the relationship between human psychology and illness. I realized that he probably got sick because he wasn’t able to adapt to the changes in his life, such as becoming involved in a filmmaking circle. I think it’s true for everyone that we have a hard time confronting and recognizing the dark corners of the mind.
How do you approach writing your scripts? Do you provide much space for improvisation and spontaneity when shooting?
My scripts are very small. They’re like poetry, only containing instructions on how to make my films. When I write my scripts, there is no dialogue for the actors, but I communicate a lot with them so that when they are in settings, they have an idea of how to communicate their characters. This style lets actors experience life and act in the film. My actors are not like Hollywood actors-they are not taught how to act or speak. My actors seem like real people. You don’t think of them as performing. I always give the actors a lot of time within the shot. I wait and then they act naturally. This is the best technique.
10 of Tsai’s 11 feature-length films (plus a VR project):
Rebels of the Neon God (1992)
Tsai’s first feature film is a relatively conventional tale of rebellious youth. The Chinese title translates roughly as “Youthful Nezha”; Nezha is one of the few Chinese mythical characters who personify hotheaded young people in (well-meaning) conflict with their elders. Tsai is already working with motifs that will become familiar in subsequent films: the household detritus floating in water on the apartment floor, distant and cryptic family interactions, and hilariously uncomfortable sexual encounters. The scene with Hsiao-Kang on roller-skates might be a reference to Nezha’s preferred mode of transport, a Segway monocycle-like set of “wheel of wind and fire”. We meet four actors who will work with Tsai in a number of films, usually in similar roles: Lee Kang-Sheng as a disaffected young man, Chen Chao-jung as a charismatic, more worldly youth, Lu Yi-ching as the mother figure, and Miao Tien as the father figure.
Vive l’Amour (1994)
One of my favorite Tsai Ming-Liang films. I remember how radical this seemed for Asian cinema in the mid-90s, with no dialog for the first 20-odd minutes, all the surreptitious voyeurism, that initial extended cruising scene, the hints of gay desire from Hsiao-kang for Ah-jung (note the character names are derived from the actors’ names), and the long static shots of tense situations, broken up by the occasional (almost slapstick-y) humorous gestures. And of course, water melon.
The River (1997)
By this point, we recognize Tsai’s ensemble of regulars: Lee Kang-Sheng (as the hapless protagonist), Miao Tien (as the distant, inscrutable, but supportive father), Lu Yi-Ching (the worrying and mostly helpless mother), Chen Chao-jung (oddly omitted from the imdb credits, but he plays his by now customary sex object role), and Yang Kuei-Mei, who joined the team in Vive l’Amour, and will be along for quite a few more films. Tsai created unconventional roles for them that I find totally fascinating through multiple films, even though the roles didn’t change that much.
The opening scenes are funny but deceptively conventional. There’s actually dialog! Characters with relatively clear motivations going about their business! Hsiao-kang makes a delivery, and was asked to play a drowned corpse in a polluted river, in a movie shoot. (The director in the shoot is celebrated Chinese director Ann Hui.) But then the long, static, mostly silent shots take over, and we get another extended cruising scene. Water is everywhere, from the river, to the torrential rain, to the leaky apartment, and all the scenes of characters drinking.
There’s also lots of sex, mostly of the uncomfortable variety, and several discreetly lit, painterly bathhouse scenes. The climactic darkroom scene is restrained and hypnotic. And the final resolution statement is more indirect than my faulty memories, but Tsai’s absurdist “conclusion” is quite clear.
For a detailed analysis, with many shot comparisons, Tony (tectactoe)’s review is indispensable: https://letterboxd.com/tectactoe/film/the-river-1997/
The Hole (1998)
From Tony (tectactoe)’s review (https://letterboxd.com/tectactoe/film/the-hole/):
I guess if you’re familiar with Tsai’s work, you could say even his themes are too often recycled — loneliness, isolation, crushing desperation — but he works with so many different canvases that the material is always exhilarating, never stale. Wasn’t at all prepared to see his recurring signifiers applied to his interpretation of a rom-com / musical. Yes, there’s romance (girl meets boy). There’s comedy (Tsai’s most laugh-out-loud work to date). There’s music (complete with choreographed interludes). Rain is still his favorite element, the enforcer of solitude : in this instance, its presence is even more ominous than usual, its heavy patter always in the background, drowning out much of the foreground sound (only emphasizing how little he relies on dialogue to make his points — something I’ll forever admire) and sequestering our protagonists from the world around them.
… As his curiousness and alienation continues to grow, so does her “condition,” and the film’s final, most touching connection is one prodded by the inevitability of mother nature and pure inconvenience. Cynical? Maybe. Touching? Strangely. Fascinating? Always.
What Time is it There? (2001)
From Tony (tectactoe) (https://letterboxd.com/film/what-time-is-it-there/):
As self-assured as any of Tsai’s other work — perhaps because it was such a personal film for him — and his formal conviction is remarkably patent throughout, translating to a sincere respect for his audience : he never feels the need to coddle or pamper us, and I can’t explain how invigorating that is. A haunting parable about Time — about its irrevocability, its persistence, its unforgiving nature, and the inevitability that it will one day separate us from what we love — that thrives in the details.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)
From Tony (tectactoe) (https://letterboxd.com/tectactoe/film/goodbye-dragon-inn/):
Denoting this as a simple parable of the Death of Cinema glosses over the much richer prying of the human desire for connection — with ourselves (the handicapped ticket ripper gawking zealously at the adept on-screen swordswoman), with our peers (the tourist relentlessly trying to spark up chance encounters), with other generations (as an old man ushers his grandson to the final showing of a film he starred in), with clandestine lovers (the endless search to share a steamed bun with the projectionist), and with the places and things that mean so much to us : that final walk alone in the rain, knowing it will be the last time she’s exiting that historic theater, is instantly heartbreaking.
The Wayward Cloud (2005)
Tsai again works with familiar actors and motifs, but the absurdist musical numbers come to the fore. And more water melon.
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006)
Something of a departure, this is set in Malaysia instead of Taipei, and features a larger cast outside of the core team.
Tony (tectactoe) (https://letterboxd.com/tectactoe/film/i-dont-want-to-sleep-alone/):
Probably Tsai’s least overtly humorous effort, which elicits a certain helix of sincerity and compassion-values present in most of his work, but the effect is amplified here because there’s nothing even remotely lighthearted to fall back on. As others have noted, it’s maybe Tsai’s most “wholesome” film, given that each central character is, in some way, in service to another ; but ringing stronger than genuine compassion is the inescapable millstone that our physical bodies place upon their spiritual counterparts.
Stray Dogs (2013)
Tony (tectactoe) (https://letterboxd.com/film/stray-dogs-2013/):
…it’s obvious that Tsai is in complete control of his languid domain, every other long-take littered with spurts of visual and aural virtuosity; take e.g. the opening shot, where he captures a sort-of nonsensical foreboding from the simple image of a disappointed (?) motherly figure (?!) sitting apprehensively over her sleeping children (?!?), intensified by nothing but the sound of a comb running through thick hair (which, in the moment, may as well be booming thunder).
The Deserted (2017)
Tsai’s VR project. A review: https://lwlies.com/festivals/tsai-ming-liang-the-deserted-vr-taiwan-film-festival-london/
RTHK arts show with interview with Tsai in Mandarin (with occasional Cantonese interjections for the Hong Kong audience!), English subtitles:
His latest. Hopefully on screens soon.
p.s. RIP Bruce Baillie. ** Your big treat for the weekend is an oeuvre overview of the fine filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang as thought-through and put in place by the fine musician/visualist/artist and d.l. Bill Hsu. Please dig around in his blog-housed treasure chest, pick up a few cinematic doubloons, and spend your day(s) suitably powered up thereby, which, yes, reads like very awkward hyperbole, and is, but blame quarantine, and you’ve caught my drift. Enjoy everything and speak to Bill, if you will, thanks. ** David Ehrenstein, As is so often the case in a perfect world. I don’t even know if I still have a copy of that Little Caesar issue. Surely somewhere. ** Tosh Berman, I agree! About his lordship. The French really know how to turn them out when do. Hope you’re getting through everything effectively. ** Sypha, It’s in my top 50, so quite possibly. One of these days I need to read more Delany. I’ve only read ‘Hogg’, which is great, and ‘Madman’, which I liked fairly well, and ‘The Motion of Light in Water’, which I didn’t like at all. Interesting about reading Freud. I think I prefer to have him filtered to me through other writers for some reason. ** _Black_Acrylic, He is. The ‘Zazie’ film is pretty good, not anywhere as good as the novel, but that won’t matter to y’all. I know nothing about ‘Limmy’s Homemade Show’, of course, being over here, but that little YouTube taste was very charming. Hope the first ep. lived up. ** Dominik, Hey, hey, hey!! Oh, thanks, pal, that does my head and heart good, thank you. Yeah, the pandemic, this quarantine … the French are being well behaved so far, but the French seem to have rebelliousness in their blood, and I don’t know how much longer they’re going to tolerate this lockdown before … I don’t know what. Right, okay, I see, about the written free-styles. Have you guys tried Zoom? Maybe it would work more smoothly? Or FaceTime? Hm. I think those three films you mentioned are Norton’s three acting highlights unless I’m forgetting something. Thanks, yes, it would be really great if we get the grant. It’s specifically for the script, for us to work more on the script, and, actually, it’s kind of bullshit a bit because we’re happy with the script, so we have to try to think of what to tell them. They want 20 minutes of us in a neutral looking environment laying out what further script work we want to do, and no doubt they want to hear that we have plans to normalise it, so we’ll blah blah about that. We would rather do it together in one place rather than do a split screen thing, so I guess we’ll defy the lockdown rules and meet up and shoot it in one place, my pad or his. I or he will have to say we’re going shopping or something on our forms, and hit a supermarket on the way back home. That should work. I have yet to be stopped by police whenever I’ve gone out, but, technically, we’re not supposed to travel out of our respective areas, and he’s all the way across town, so that’s where luck has to come in. Godard is tough to start with, I mean as a recommendation, because he has so many films and they’re all quite different from one another. Maybe start with one of the early, really famous ones like ‘Breathless’ or ‘Pierrot le Fou’? I think maybe my muse is starting to vaguely wake up. I started working on a new GIF piece, and it’s not good yet, but GIF works are fun to make, so I think that’s probably the best muse alarm clock. Yesterday I did very little. Emailed back and forth a bit with the US publisher of my new novel, and I think we can finally announce the news early next week. Made a couple of blog posts. Uh, I cannot remember what else. That kind of foggy day. But now I have two full days to do something of note, as do you, before we compare our cave lives again. Let’s try to dazzle each other somehow, what do you say? Love the size of King Kong, me. ** Bill, Hey, host! Thank you ‘in person’ once again for serving up such a tasty menu for the folks who look here. Thanks about the grant. Would be good, yeah. I’ll be amazed if we’re un-locked down before the end of May at the very earliest. Supposedly there’s some treatment or test or something over here that’s ‘close’ to being ready, and its existence and success are our only hope. No, my Switch is sitting in a storage space somewhere on the outskirts of Paris being held hostage until the quarantine ends. Thanks for the URL. That is a mysterious flyer, but I like it. I’ll check what’s the what when I wake up on Monday. Thank you about the Artforum work. There’s no manipulation of the original GIFs. It’s all about coopting or revising them via juxtaposition only. Yes, the new GIF works I’m doing now are not in the scrolling groupings anymore. I feel like I went as far as I can with that structuring. My new GIF novel, which comes out very soon, is one sequence per page, and the associations are created via page turning. I’m interested in the sequences themselves being attended to and absorbed, which the older scrolling technique did not encourage. Yes, RIP Richard Teitelbaum. The arts are really getting trounced by the awful combo of elderliness and this COVID creep. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. My anxiety seems to manifest itself in frustration, which is, I guess, a little easier to cope with. The only time I ever saw the Beasties was in the late-mid-80s in Amsterdam. Amazing bill: Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, and the young LL Cool. That is great about that dump, and a big RIP to Obayashi. It’s just been a slaughter of excellent artists lately. Everyone, Mr, Erickson directs those of you who are interested to “a massive file drop of films by the Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, who brought us HOUSE and passed away today.” Here. That’s a pretty fantastic gift right there, if you’re in the mood. Mmmm, no, I don’t think I’ve heard that Nnamdi. Okay, sounds good, and god knows I’m hungry. Thanks, Steve. Good luck with your weekend. ** Okay. Bill’s feast for your senses has been introduced up north, and now it’s up to you to partake or forever hold your peace. I highly recommend the former option. See you on Monday.