PRINT Summer 2001


This May 17, TSAI MING-LIANG's fifth feature film, Et là-bas, quelle heure est-il? (What time is it there?), premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. Now, New York audiences will have a chance to assess the Taipei-based filmmaker's startling oeuvre. Howard Hampton sets the stage for the Film Society of Lincoln Center's upcoming retrospective “Urban Ghosts and Legends: The Cinema of Tsai Ming-liang” at the Walter Reade Theater, June 29–July 12.

The numbed-down recurring characters in forty-three-year-old Malaysian-born, Taiwan-based director Tsai Ming-liang's films behave like diseased guppies in an urban fishbowl. Moving through the brackish aquarium that is a dourly semi-modernized Taipei—a rain-drenched, leak-springing, backed-up plumbing perdition where even layers of societal algae and existential murk can never quite efface the city's sterility—they aimlessly swim in circles. Here contact and isolation, comfort and squalor, are indistinguishable; even sex has turned into an ironic ballet of synchronized disconnection.

Tsai's Taipei is the Atlantis of anomie: The twentieth century's waterlogged myths of freedom and building a better life through progress are interned there. Though that's putting it much more baldly—and didactically—than his films ever do. They treat estrangement as a form of man-made weather, while the torrential downpours and submerged apartment floors seem like natural outgrowths of that malaise. There's nowhere to turn and no chance of escape. Tsai's straggling guppies have had to adapt to their polluted surroundings: They've learned to live with the stuff that's gradually killing them. In 1998's plague musical The Hole, a state of contradictory emergency (officials warn residents to leave the quarantined area at once—no wonder they're confused) reinforces the home-detention status that's always been implicit in the solo doldrums of Tsai's compartment-dwellers. A botched repair job at a public-housing tower leaves a gaping hole in a man's living-room floor, giving him a glimpse into the quarters of the frazzled, exhausted woman who lives below. With an already tenuous hold on sanity, caught in a citywide epidemic of contagious irrationality (that mysterious “Taiwan virus”), she becomes further unglued at the sight of her neighbor's eye peering away at her. She starts hallucinating herself performing lipstick-synching, cha-cha-cha production numbers in the building's corridors, and has phone-sexy chats with an imaginary caller. Yet she goes through the motions of normalcy, eating her instant noodles, indignantly phoning the repairman (“Do you think you're the only plumber left alive around here?”), and keeping up disintegrating appearances as best she can.

Reflected in the stare—gaze is far too polite a word for it—of Tsai's coolly unflinching camera eye, the voyeurism is so objectively detached it turns despair into a form of slapstick abstraction. His movies immerse the viewer in an undersea-sick world where pain and desire have all the stifled, tongue-tied lassitude of silent comedy, only the pratfalls have been displaced onto the casual indifference, cruelty, and humiliation of everyday life. The woman downstairs—The Hole's nameless, allegorical pair suggest the living dead risen from Dennis Potter's field—zaps the prying eye with bug spray. Sitting on her toilet later, underwear around her knees as she holds a plastic container atop her head to catch the dripping water from yet another leak, she's the poster woman for urban survivors who've learned to endure whatever life subjects them to.

Tsai now has five features to his credit. The first four—Rebels of the Neon God (1992), Vive l'Amour (1996), The River (1997), and The Hole (aka Last Dance in the version shown on cable TV)—will be screened this summer in New York as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's retrospective of the director's work (As we go to press, his latest film is making its debut at Cannes, under the title Et là-bas, quelle heure est-il? [What time is it there?]) The River stands as Tsai's benchmark work, though it is only now getting a New York premiere and belated US release-four years had to pass before anyone would touch this intransigent, calmly unfazed riff on disease, abjection, familial chasms, and accidental incest. Vive l'Amour is likely his best-known movie in America, a triangular hide-and-miss, music-free roundelay between Yang Kuei-mei's desperate real estate agent, Chen Chao-jung's clothing hustler, and funereal salesman Lee Kang-sheng (selling urn space to people who already live in a columbarium) as they unwittingly share duplicate keys to an empty high-rise condo. Its neatly atomized figures plunked into a schematically “bleak,” concrete-molehill landscape immediately suggested parallels to the alienation-chic menu that Michelangelo Antonioni dished up in the '60s (L'Ennui with Red Desert sauce). But such overly obvious, less-than-skin-deep comparisons merely served to obscure Tsai's singularity, making the movies harder to see for what they really are. There's none of Antonioni's anxious, patrician hand-wringing here, and Tsai's far too rooted in transient, morose physicality to fret over the sufferings or spiritual poverty of the Beautiful People.

A shrug of acceptance is coded into his movies, a clinical embrace of the absurdities of existence and, beyond that, of the void itself. He may present horrific situations, but there's no horror in his view of them—he probes his subjects with all the fascination of a coroner who loves his work, poking into every nook and cranium. Hence Tsai works in the fissures of pathos and mortification, ferreting out the innately ridiculous details that accrue in and alongside trauma, shame, anguish, and desire. Especially desire. Love Tsai Ming-liang style means Lee hiding under a squeaking bed and jerking off to the tune of Chen and Yang fucking mechanically overhead. Vive l'amour indeed.

Boilerplate sobriquets like “strange and shocking” or “terrifying and beautiful" aren't very helpful when applied to Tsai's materialist reveries (his aesthetic is nearer to Jacques Cousteau than Jean Cocteau). Well-meant stylistic comparisons tend to mask the Deadpan Zone eccentricity of Tsai's observations and the intimately defamiliarized life forms he sets wriggling onto the screen—so distant from how we prefer to think of ourselves yet much too close for comfort. The usual critical signposts (Warning: Profundity Ahead) and reference-point shorthand (so-and-so is x crossed with y) are a tricky business when it comes to Tsai Mingliang, maybe because he doesn't seem particularly interested in playing the film-as-art game. The what-the-hell-is-this-ness of his work doesn't smack of affectation—it isn't meant to turn heads or impress cinephiles, although for precisely that reason, its offhand rigor and private fixations give critics all the more chiliastic goosebumps. His early shot-on-video TV dramas All Corners of the World (1989) and Youngsters (1991) have a bracing form-follows-functionalism that carried over to his movies, adapting television's generic language to his own devices as he would later do with cinema. Deploying soapy melodrama, 400 Blows-ish learning curves, and socialist-realist worker concern merely as points of agnostic departure, these scaled-for-TV studies of growing up absurd incorporate such disparate dramatic conventions while displaying an evenhanded skepticism toward all three modes. In All Corners of the World, a family of movie-ticket scalpers hustle seats to sell-out showings of Hou Hsiao-hsien's City of Sadness; in comparison to Tsai's blank-generation images, the Godfather of modern Taiwanese cinema's moral universe is as sentimentally tragic and reassuringly artistic as Coppola's Corleone family operas.

From Tsai's debut feature Rebels of the Neon God on, Lee Kangsheng has starred in every one of his films, playing the character/alter ego Hsiao-kang, who first materialized as the blackmailing bully in Youngsters. The slight, unprepossessing actor is no magnet for identification. In Rebels he's a haplessly un-Platonic Sal Mineo in search of a James Dean (Chen Chao-jung's delinquent biker Ah-tze). Lee's only exultant moment comes after vandalizing the scooter that belongs to the unaware object of his affection; becoming so excited watching Ah-tze's angry reaction from his window, Lee jumps up and down on his bed and cracks his head on the ceiling. So much for gratification (though stuck under the creaky bedsprings in Vive L'Amour, he probably enjoys himself more than the pair above manage to). In The River, he winds up being anonymously jerked-off by and then fellating his dad in a darkened sauna room—another case of nonrecognition, until the old man switches on the light and slaps Junior across his girlish mouth.

Tsai presents such material in a neutral, modular manner that doesn't owe allegiance to any particular brand or school of filmmaking: Vive l'Amour's game of blind-and-almost-mute tag lends a dank, psychosexual sheen to otherwise crisp Doris Day/Rock Hudson/Tony Randall hijinks; the angry young gestures of Rebels get boiled down to Lee punching a window out to chase away an offending water bug, as Tsai leaves behind banal video arcades and roller discos to focus on an apartment where the standing water seems mysteriously linked to the inhabitants' inner lives, or lack thereof; The River's supernal, long-shot attentiveness moves to the languid rhythms of a lost Hou Hsiao-hsien hygiene film (The Meat-Puppetmaster); The Hole is Tsai's most obsessively claustrophobic movie and his most perversely engaging one, a sinkin'-in-the-rain musical marrying millennial jitters (AIDS, bio anxieties, eco paranoia) with twentieth-century alienation's Greatest Hits. In Tsai's work, categories collapse the way poor Yang Kuei-mei's apartment slowly caves in around her (she performs a “striptease” by peeling the wallpaper off sodden plaster). This feels less like art than an ambiguous but exacting species of cultural anthropology. Or rather ichthyology, with its submarine devotion to physical minutiae, odd specimens, and evolutionary mutations. In The Hole, Yang's sketchy character is at the end of her rope, a virtual squatter in an apartment-block monstrosity where falling debris mixes with the rain like manna—or garbage—from heaven. Mouthing the gloriously kitschy '50s Cantopop songs of Hong Kong diva Grace Chang (whose bilingual novelty numbers hide a Lotte Lenya tartness under vending-machine candy wrappings), her retro-musical dreams transcend both nostalgia and psychosis: They stand for all the passions that have grown impossible to experience or express. Tsai integrates these incongruously sequined but exactingly calibrated interludes perfectly into the inorganic matter of the elevators and stairwells. The look of things—and the need to see them unobstructed by pat responses, traditional Pavlovian drool—is absolutely crucial in these films, because in some oblique and uncanny way, those things are shown to be looking back into us. Nothingness is always seeping into Tsai's pictures from beyond the frame, much as the home tide pools rise and recede across the linoleum of Rebels of the Neon God without a cause.

Incongruity as a philosophy ties in with Tsai's withholding of emotional cues: The only thing you can be sure of in his films is that nothing can be taken at face value. Vive l'Amour ends on a note of outward desperation, an eternal single-take shot of Yang sobbing her eyes out, pausing for a few seconds to gather herself, and then opening up the tear ducts again. There is something in Tsai's temperament that distrusts empathy as much as condescension, and may even see them as equally phony denials of human unknowability. That crying jag doesn't enlist our sympathies but composes itself as a question mark. Is this display grief's equivalent of a fake orgasm? Is it even possible any longer to tell the genuine from the faked? (It's also an almost too shrewd, double-edged note to end a movie on—total irresolution that simulates an emotional “climax.”) Near the end of The Hole, those tears are reprised in a separate (what else?) duet of Yang's and Lee's convulsed sorrow, with shots that incrementally inch toward—fellow feeling? With Tsai, every audience response runs the gauntlet of projection—the temptation of too easily allegorizing intractable situations, simplifying opacities, reading too much humanist (or anti-humanist) dogma between the sparse lines.

So what, finally, to make of these parables of enchanted disenchantment? “The society we live in is a great school,” goes a lesson the students repeat in Youngsters: surely Tsai's most blatantly ironic moment, yet quite possibly his most sincere as well. Unless that honor belongs to the epigraph before The Hole's closing credits, as the big-band shimmer of “I Don't Care Who You Are” ushers the audience out of the ruins and into the lobby: “ . . . we are grateful that we still have Grace Chang's songs to comfort us. —Tsai Ming-liang.” Even as she contracts the flulike symptoms and crawling, bug-type behaviors associated with the “Taiwan virus,” Yang Kuei-mei has “Achoo Cha-cha” playing in her head. She imagines her tormenter/admirer reaching down to her through a shaft of sunlight to hand her a glass of water, which she gulps down thankfully; he takes her arm and pulls her up through the hole in the most touching and blissfully absurd shot in all Tsai's movies. Which itself revisits The River's finale: After contracting an inexplicable malady (movie director Ann Hui convinces Lee to play a floating corpse, and the river's toxins make him ill), he goes through a series of futile, painful treatments. After everything has dead-ended, he gets up and steps outside into the sun, feeling better if not well, suddenly less of a stand-in for a corpse if not-necessarily-more alive. The complex mix of the provisional, the negated, and the contingent in Tsai Ming-liang's intensely peculiar movies may be at odds with words like “comfort,” but there is an entranced ambience to his films that can be inexplicably becalming, much as The Hole's incessant water-torture gurgle of wet sounds grows lulling after a while. Tsai's skepticism doesn't preclude a certain aura of wonder and awe surrounding his wildly unromanticized misfits and desperation cases: Their anti-society is a great learning experience too, a lesson in how thin the glass is separating the keepers from the contents of their fishbowl.

Howard Hampton writes frequently on film for Artforum.