September 2017, arsenal cinema

Anatomy of loneliness – The Films of Tsai Ming-liang

THE RIVER, 1997

If one wanted to define cinema, one might say that it is a manifestation of desire, an attempt to capture inexplicably beautiful, fleeting moments. Motifs of the "perverse" also have a firm place, at the very least since the Surrealists broke all the rules with such relish. For 25 years, the Taiwan-based director Tsai Ming-liang has explored the appeal of apocalyptic panoramas of society and developed his version of desolate eroticism. The sheer imagery with which he depicts alienation, isolation and world weariness (with Liao Pen-jung as cameraman in almost all of his films) also serves a very unique sense of humor. In Tsai's skeptical take on the torments of love and family tensions blaze a - sometimes seemingly curious and discreet - longing for the grotesque and the breaching of taboos. He keeps his narratives simple, sometimes very fragmentary, to allow them as advanced a form as possible. In September, Arsenal is paying tribute to the multi-award-winning auteur with a retrospective compiled of 12 feature films made between 1992 and 2015.

Tsai Ming-liang was born in Malaysia in 1957 but it's in Taipei that he developed as an artist. He has since expressed his doubts about the future of cinema and even hinted at his exit from filmmaking. As he approaches 60, it seems as if his career since 1992 is coming full circle: Tsai drove the naturalism of his early works into visionary, fantastic, feverish dreams and steered his auteur career away from narration towards installation. His current creations seem more suited for museums and galleries than to the decaying old cinema that he once celebrated in <b>GOODBYE, DRAGON INN</b>. He has said that none of his cinema films could have been made without the phlegmatic, often mysterious actor Lee Kang-sheng, whom he discovered in an amusement hall. Lee's role name (Hsiao-kang) is always the same and he essentially plays himself - going beyond the boundaries of fiction. His minimal acting corresponds perfectly to the director's rudimentary storylines. Tsai Ming-Liang likes to manipulate time: The measured narrative tempo with which he operates and his laconic storylines demand concentration; these works unfold in long, static takes and invite viewers to think about themselves intensively. The director is interested in the effects of light (and its withdrawal) and the gaze (and refusing to offer it). The narrative levels are complicated by films within films, with multiple references to Hollywood musicals and the French Nouvelle Vague opening up more space for self-reflection. Characters wander through urban spaces, laconically, aimless, left to fate, but not averse to the farce which lies in depressive songs and porno slapstick. There are triangular relationships, different worlds colliding, lone meanderings through ruins and post-industrial transit zones; characters live spontaneously and in polyamorous fashion, they are queer and straight, uncertain, lost in burned out buildings waiting to be demolished. Voyeurism is a basic condition of Tsai Ming-liang's cinema of entertainment and – in spite of all cultural pessimism water damage is a guarantee for an eternal libidinous flow of fantasies.

CHING SHAO NIEN NA CHA / REBELS OF THE NEON GOD
(Taiwan 1992, 1.9., Introduction: James Lattimer & 18.9.) There seems to be no end to the pouring rain and a cockroach is hunted down in a children's room. Young small-time criminals pay homage to the neon god and a bored teenager seems to have no interest in improving his career prospects through education despite his parents' resolve; he prefers to observe Taipei's disillusioned youth racing through the city on wheels and trying to make a living from stealing number plates and vandalizing telephone boxes. In his debut, which featured many of the themes that would appear in his later works, he sketches a bygone world in which the 1980s are still very much alive. "Brilliantly observed...as tender as a Lou Reed elegy." (Tony Rayns)

AIQING WANSUI / VIVE L'AMOUR (Taiwan 1994, 2.9., Introduction: Cristina Nord & 20.9.) The film kicks off with a close-up on a key in a door that seems free to be taken by anyone. It develops into a ludicrous black comedy, featuring an improbable ménage à trois. The morbid young hero - an urn placement salesman - tries to commit suicide, but is prevented from doing this through an encounter with a couple - a real estate agent and her new lover. VIVE L'AMOUR is a work of asymmetric amorous relations, a hymn to improvised life in a Taipei peppered with construction sites. The film's many absurd scenes and its extra dry humor culminate in a seven-minute-long take of a crying, smoking protagonist. She is played by the otherwise very laconic Yang Kuei-mei, who has starred in seven of Tsai Ming-liang's feature films. Even when love seems hardly possible, it is feted in VIVE L'AMOUR.

HE LIU / THE RIVER (Taiwan 1997, 3. & 25.9.) Meandering through Taipei, Hsiao-Kang comes across an old friend and a film set. The director Ann Hui convinces him to play a corpse in the water. Soon afterwards, he feels an acute pain in his neck, which could well be related to his family circumstances. He can find no other diversion from his grey existence apart from having sex with random acquaintances. As fate will have it, he ends up reluctantly having an incestuous relationship with his father. A beautifully sad portrait of isolation within a family.

DONG / THE HOLE (Taiwan/France 1998, 4. & 30.9.) This was the first time in which Tsai Ming-liang examined the musical form. He later did something similar in THE WAYWARD CLOUD and VISAGE. In his characteristically confrontational manner, he juxtaposes the upbeat nature of singing and dancing with the apocalypse. The year 2000 is approaching and with it the end of the world. An inexplicable epidemic spreads across Taipei and the city is evacuated. A man who lives alone refuses to leave his apartment but ends up in a conflict with the woman below him because of a hole in his floor. Cheerfulness and depression find a crazy balance in this film.

NI NEI PIEN CHI TIEN / WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? (Taiwan/France 2000, 5. & 21.9.) At the same time a story of love and of loneliness, WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?, which pays tribute to Truffaut's "Les 400 coups", is about time's merciless nature. How crazy does one have to be to fight against time? Hsiao-Kang discovers a love of France after falling in love with a woman who has gone there. He starts setting all the clocks in the city to French time. At Paris' Père Lachaise cemetery, the coveted woman in question comes across Jean-Pierre Léaud, one of the director's great idols.

BU SAN / GOODBYE, DRAGON INN (Taiwan 2003, 6. & 23.9.) It's a rainy night in Taipei and the last screening at a decaying old cinema has begun. Tsai poeticizes the demise of the cinema with a rapid review of Taiwanese film history - on screen is the 1966 martial arts classic by the master King Hu, "Dragon Inn". In the cinema is one of the film's main protagonists - Chun Shih - who watches with tears in his eyes. There is meticulous choreography on and off the screen, at times frenetic (with King Hu), at times radically slowed down (with Tsai). Members of Tsai's ensemble cruise and search the corridors and backrooms of the movie theater. GOODBYE, DRAGON INN is a film of farewells: It was the fifth and last time that Miao Tien, who featured in Tsai's films from the very beginning, as a dubious father figure (and was in the original "Dragon Inn"), played in Tsai Ming-liang's cosmos.

TIAN BIAN YI DUO YUN / THE WAYWARD CLOUD (Taiwan/France 2004, 7. & 22.9.) In his desire to make surprising associations of senses, Tsai assembles the porn industry, watermelon fetichism and poisonous retro musical glamor: THE WAYWARD CLOUD starts out grotesquely and turns into horror for its finale. The director has said that he wanted to make a "porn hit", a film "that aimed for the meta-level , which did not want to sexually arouse nor to be a real musical. My intention was to make a very explicit and erotic non-porn film. To clarify questions such as this: How do we use and abuse our bodies?"

HEI YAN QUAN / I DONT WANT TO SLEEP ALONE (Taiwan/France/Austria 2006, 8. & 14.9.) Tsai left Malaysia where he grew up in 1977. He returned almost 30 years later for a film project that paid tribute to Mozart's "The Magic Flute". Lee Kang-sheng played a double role - as a coma patient and a badly injured homeless person who is cared for by migrant workers. A triangle of crime, longing and desire emerges. The director pointed out that this film's central theme was freedom - indefinable and scarcely to be found. He also created a significant supporting role for the smog in Kuala Lumpur.

VISAGE (France/Taiwan/Belgium/The Netherlands 2009, 9. & 29.9.) The Louvre Museum co-financed this film, which also pays tribute to François Truffaut who had a significant influence on Tsai. It is about a difficult film production about the   myth of Salome. Hsiao-Kang plays a director who has just flown in from Taipei but can't speak any foreign languages. There seems to be no creative center. Jean-Pierre Léaud, in his second performance for Tsai, dreams of a bizarre musical sequence in artificial snow and forest, the producer Fanny Ardant is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and the film star Laetitia Casta covers all the windows and mirrors in her reach with dark paper. A mysterious narrative but incredible imagery - a cinematic hall of mirrors.

JIAO YOU / STRAY DOGS (France/Taiwan 2013, 10. & 28.9.) Tsai pushed his renunciation of narrative cinema, with which he had never felt entirely comfortable with, to the limits after VISAGE. What could still be considered as the remnants of a storyline became even more reduced to the bare minimum. He slowed everything down, requiring observation, concentration and patience of his viewers. STRAY DOGS depicts sad family life, poverty and alcoholism - in powerful digital imagery and over-long, hardly-moving takes. This haunting film is about rear guard battles and finals: The exhaustion of international auteur cinema is palpable in the high-resolution views of a man straying with his two children through urban rubble landscapes and gloomy buildings up for demolition.

XI YOU / JOURNEY TO THE WEST (France/Taiwan 2014, 11. & 16.9.) In this study of deceleration, a man walks through Marseille in slow motion. The film begins with an eight-minute view of a man's face in the half darkness (Denis Lavant); then Lee Kang-sheng playing a Buddhist monk, a living, bright orange signal, strays endlessly through caves, along a beach and through the streets of Marseille (just down a public staircase for almost 15 minutes). Lee's character seeks life in the city, the haunting everyday, warning, introvertedly, out of time.

NA RI XIAWU / AFTERNOON (Taiwan 2015, 12. & 27.9.) This aesthetically unadorned and thus impressive conversation film, which can be understood once again as a tribute to his permanent main protagonist and companion Lee Kang-sheng, is an exercise in the humility of form. AFTERNOON is nothing more than a couple having a two-hour long discussion, a private therapy session, a declaration of love in a bare but sunny room. It is about the fear of death, about (platonic) affection but also about the cinema. Tsai said that after such a long time he wanted to know what was really going on in the mind of his laconic protagonist. He is the one who challenges aspects of the conversation, very emotionally and over long passages. The filmmaker's muse remains what he has always been and what he has to be - a  mystery. (sg)

Thanks to the support of Taiwan's Ministry of Culture and the Taipei Representative Office in Germany.

September '17