Creation, bathrooms, and Buddhism.
Tsai Ming-liang is one of the masters of contemporary world cinema. His films are distinguished by long takes, minimal dialogue, and the presence of actor Lee Kang-sheng—the director’s muse—in a key role. The filmmaker, who was born in Malaysia but works mostly in Taiwan (and occasionally France), emphasizes voyeurism, alienation, and isolation. He returns again and again to a handful of resonant metaphors and motifs; the dripping and pooling of rain and water is nearly a constant presence in his work, and it frequently represents love or despair, sometimes both at once. Like these images of flowing water, the characters in Tsai’s films throb with repressed sexual desire. They are seen cruising public toilets, or in his 1997 feature The River, a gay bathhouse, and both masturbation and isolated sexual encounters feature heavily in his work.
Though erotically charged and austere, Tsai’s films can also be very funny. In his second feature Vive L’Amour (1994) a woman’s effort to kill an insect in an apartment provides an amusing bit of silent comedy, and in his most audacious film, The Wayward Cloud (2005), Lee is dressed up (or more accurately, mostly undressed) as a dancing penis for one vivid musical number.
What is most palpable about the director’s work though is his ability to communicate tremendous emotion through meditative, static shots—either fixed on a character’s face, or on a landscape or room. Following a screening of Goodbye, Dragon Inn at the Toronto Film Festival, a viewer asked Tsai about the lengthy shot of an empty theater in the film. “Did you feel nothing?” he responded, receiving a round of applause. Not everyone will experience his singular cinematic magic, but those spellbound by his work are converts for life.
In addition to the recurring images of water, melons, and bathrooms, there is the near constant presence of the actor Lee Kang-sheng. Lee’s characters are almost always named Hsiao-kang, a name that seems to be a merging of the filmmaker's and actor’s in the fictional world of the cinema. Unlike Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel, it's not clear that Hsiao-kang is the same person across multiple films, though he does overlap in the features What Time Is It There? and in The Wayward Cloud, which are linked by the short film, The Skywalk Is Gone (2002). What is most consistent about Lee’s work in these films, apart from his character’s name, is the astonishing variety of his performances. In dual roles as a homeless man and a paralyzed man in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), Lee is remarkably expressive and inexpressive, respectively. In Stray Dogs (2013) his unnamed character stoically stands outside in downpour, conveying the incredible efforts of will required of him to protect his children.
Tsai’s first film Rebels of the Neon God, from 1992, will receive a belated theatrical release in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Quad Cinema on April 10, 2015. The opportunity to see Rebels, an auspicious feature debut and one of Tsai’s most conventional films, on the big screen is well worth the wait. On the same day, the Museum of the Moving Image begins its comprehensive Tsai Ming-liang retrospective, another remarkable opportunity to survey the incredible breadth of the this unique artist.
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