TSAI MING-LIANG is one of the great charters of human loneliness. This month’s retrospective at the Kino Arsenal in Berlin allows you to consider Tsai’s cinema in its entirety (excluding his shorts and television features). You can watch the city of Taipei through the final decade of the twentieth century and to the present, as it begins to resemble the scripted expectations of a twenty-first-century metropolis, or the development of his small ensemble of players, notably Lee Kang-sheng, the handsome and mysterious leading man whom Tsai discovered working in a video-game arcade and has cast in every one of his features.
Presiding above all this are Tsai’s consistent motifs. There’s loneliness, sure, but loneliness here is always interwoven with real estate—not a typical theme for an auteur, but Tsai makes it his own by elevating his enclosed spaces, often abandoned or their ownership fraught, to the level of costars. Vive l’amour (1994) tracks the peregrinations of three people who, unbeknownst to one another, are illegally squatting in the same massive two-story luxury apartment in Taipei that the agent can’t manage to sell. The Hole (1998) takes place around a hole drilled into the floor of an apartment that never gets repaired and thus connects the two tenants. Stray Dogs (2013), his most recent feature, focuses on a homeless family in Taipei; the patriarch takes a low-paying day job holding up a sign at an intersection to advertise a new luxury condo development.
Often Tsai’s loneliness is linked to a longing for another place entirely, one that can only be distantly imagined. In What Time Is It There? (2001), a watch salesman falls in love with a young woman who insists on buying his own watch for her move to Paris. He knows he’ll never see her again, and immersed in his fantasy, he changes all his watches to Paris time and spends his days viewing a random French DVD, Truffaut’s 400 Blows. This incessant probing of the notion of place, of home, could only come from someone who, like Tsai, is an outsider by choice (Tsai moved to Taiwan from his native Malaysia when he was in his early twenties to study, and never returned).
Tsai announced himself as a great sensualist in his debut feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), depicting teenage outcasts adrift in a rain-drenched subtropical nightscape. Cockroaches, flooded floors, disapproving parents, petty juvenile criminals making their way through the arcades and night-markets while making their first fumbles toward romance—it’s a quintessential portrait of working-class Taipei, every moment suffused with the constant and uncategorizable lust of urban street life. Carnal life-force surfaces more bluntly in films such as The Wayward Cloud (2005), in which Lee plays a porn actor, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), where a sex tourist unsuccessfully attempts to pick up men during the final screening at a bankrupt cinema. Tsai’s films could be called queer, though they lack the impetus toward an explicit politics; Tsai sensitively intuits that desire is always political, and so it requires little more than to be portrayed. He does not force his characters to articulate their often bizarre, strained relations to one another. Typical Tsai characters couldn’t articulate such thoughts anyway, not because they are dumb, but because they are trapped in a state of profound interiority. Lost in an existential malaise, Tsai’s people can have no real interests; these surroundings they haunt, and that are such a key component of his films, are very nearly produced by the characters from that malaise––externalizations of that distraught interiority.
So often, our experiences with the artists we love are shaped by our first encounter with their work. Mine was Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Here, in the final night of this old Taipei cinema, the film projected on the screen is a Taiwanese kung fu classic, Dragon Inn (1967). Among the tiny audience are two of Dragon Inn’s original actors, Jun Shih and Miao Tien. A woman noisily eats peanuts. A horny Japanese tourist moves from seat to seat, cruising the male patrons, as well as the projectionist, played by the ever-elusive Lee. The projectionist is also sought after by the box-office manager, a crippled woman who has made him a steamed bun as a parting gift; as the film plays, she is seen intermittently limping through the halls and stairways with her wrapped bun, searching, unable to find him. Not much happens. Not much needs to happen. And yet every moment seems necessary. It is this aspect that makes Tsai’s films something more than cinema, more akin to poetry. In the narrowness of these enclosed spaces, the world becomes so much bigger.