Thursday, November 12, 2009

Directors of the Decade: Tsai Ming-liang

Robert here, continuing my series of the directors that shaped the past 10 years. It’s difficult approaching a director whose work has gotten little mainstream American exposure, especially when such lack of exposure is understandable. Still, lack of exposure does not negate importance. And some of the most important directors of the past decade are ones that are minimally distributed here in the States. I intend on giving these directors their due, especially when they’ve shaped the decade’s cinematic landscape as much as this weeks subject: Tsai Ming-liang

Number of Films: Five.
Modern Masterpieces: One. What Time is it There (though your humble author admits not seeing his latest film Face, as it may not open here in the Midwest for years. Very sad.)
Total Disasters: None.
Better than you remember: The Wayward Cloud is an interesting film that was unfairly dismissed. If you’ve seen it, it’s probably better than you remember.
Awards: Has won awards at Berlin for The Wayward Cloud, at Venice for Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and has been featured in Cannes and several other international film festivals. Naturally nothing near Oscar’s radar.
Box Office: What Time is it There had the most successful theatrical run, almost hitting $200,000.
Critical Consensus: All of his films are regularly celebrated (with the exception of the mixed reactions for The Wayward Cloud and Face)
Favorite Actor: Lee Kang-sheng has been in every film directed by Tsai, this decade or otherwise.

Let’s talk about:
Missed connections. Southeast Asia is going through a time of significant social and economic change. And just like generations of Asian filmmakers before them, the continent's current crop of cinematic voices are exploring what it’s like to live during such a turbulent time. Some directors are taking a geographical approach, exploring the changing landscape. Others are making films that tell the same story multiple times (both in the past and present). Tsai Ming-liang’s main concern is a human one. He wants to know how we’re surviving in a world where we’re constantly missing out on human connections. In a region with a population over five-hundred-million (this is your Social Studies lesson for the day kids) it's not difficult to imagine how easily one can look into the crowd and wonder: which among these faces could be special to me… and how easy would it be to overlook them?

In this mindset it’s simple to understand how the French-film-loving street vendor from What Time is it There becomes so quickly obsessed with the Paris-bound woman he encounters. Their bond is tenuous and seemingly insignificant but in their world, it may be all there is. Since his obsession manifests itself far too late to catch her, he instead adjusts all the clocks he sees to Paris time. Their connection is minor yet still better than nothing. But don't go thinking all of Tsai’s movies aren’t as narratively obvious as this. If you're looking for visual metaphor you won't be let down. Heck they’re filled with gorgeously photographed visual metaphor. Characters routinely wander down empty narrow hallways in search of life. The surrounding world is always in some state of semi-decay and never-ending water shortages threaten Tsai's characters' unquenchable thirsts. Long languorous takes tell of an existence that meanders by while people wait for something, anything significant to happen (be forewarned, if you don’t like long languorous takes, Tsai ming-liang is not the man for you. But if you do, you’re already a fan and you didn’t know it!).

Tsai ming-Liang

But please don’t take all of this to mean I’ve been sitting here singing the praises of one of the most boring filmmakers of the past ten years. Slow, yes. Boring, never. Things do happen in Tsai Ming-liang movies… sometimes unexpected things. Ghosts haunt buildings; spirits return to possess pet fish, Jean-Pierre Leaud shows up without warning, bisexual love triangles develop around people in comas. Tsai has even been known to throw in an anomalous musical number or two (though in only one film this decade: The Wayward Cloud. For more musical numbers see his 1998 film The Hole (but we mustn’t discuss the 90s!)). And then of course there’s the sex. Because when you’ve given up on finding meaningful connections, there’s always sex. Although by now you’ve probably realized out that movies about immense longing don’t typically feature hot romps in the sack. So if you’re going into Tsai Ming-liang movies for your T&A fix, you may be disappointed (unless you’ve often pondered the unique ways of utilizing watermelon).

Tsai Ming-liang’s films have been garnering critical notice since the early 90’s. And it’s unfair to suggest he’s a new voice or even just now getting his due considering he won Venice's Golden Lion back in 1994 . But his status has been increasing with each new film this decade: What Time is it There? Goodbye, Dragon Inn, The Wayward Cloud, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. His most recent, Face, which premiered at Cannes last year, was commissioned by the Louvre and despite mixed reviews will hopefully be coming soon to a theater near you soon. Still if you’ve not yet discovered Tsai Ming-Liang don’t wait, especially if you feel like you live in a world of empty buildings, strange landscapes, unexpected happenings, and just barely missed connections.


Tim said...

GREAT choice for this series! I agree with nearly every word you've said here save on one point: my favorite of his films remains Goodbye, Dragon Inn, the first one I saw in a theater (appropriately enough).

My take on Face is that it feels a whole lot like "Tsai Ming-Liang Plays His Hits", which is by no means an argument that it's bad, but it lacks freshness compared to his best works. Though it does have musical numbers.

At any rate, a brilliant write-up of one of the great living filmmakers. Thanks!

Ange said...

He is one of my favorite directors.
This is his official blog:

Jason Adams said...

I've just added some of his films to my queue, he sounds right up my alley. Thanks for the info, Robert. And I just wanna tell you that this series kicks ass. Really beautiful work.


i love this series so much but it's totally shaming me. I must see some of these. What Time IS It There and Goodbye Dragon Inn and actually WayWard Cloud are all films that I have intended to see multiple times but something kept going wrong.

Riverdale said...

What Time Is It There? is a wonderful film, but for me Tsai's masterpiece is still Vive L'Amour (1994). It's very powerful, very touching and as always the mise-en-scene is gorgeous. Also, the ending is to die for. It's still haunting me.

Robert said...

oh Vive L'Amour is brilliant (and actually I consider his best film overall to be The Hole). But for the sake of this series I must only consider films made 2000 or after (I'm like an OCD patient).

UncleVanya said...

What Time is it Their? and Goodbye Dragon Inn are great but they do not hold a candle to The River or I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. The Wayward Cloud is quite wonderful as well.

Anonymous said...

Quick correction: It was "The Wayward Cloud" that won the Silver Bear in Berlin whereas "I Don`t Want to Sleep Alone" played in Venice, not Berlin.

NicksFlickPicks said...

I have not seen a lot of Tsai but loved I Don't Want to Sleep Alone and got a huge kick out of Face when it played at the Chicago Film Festival.... there's an early scene (i.e., very long shot) involving an exploding sink that had me in stitches. I actually had to apologize to the person sitting in front of me for how much I laughed during that movie. Not a world-shaker, as Tim says above, but easily deserved a better rap than it got at Cannes (no doubt because they always have the knives out for those films that bow in the last two days, when everyone's crabby and exhausted).

Still loving this series!

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I haven't seen much Tsai, but I've seen enough to know that I want to see a lot more.

I wasn't sure what to make of the critical reception to Wayward Cloud - yes, it's a challenging film, but it's not like the people who are averse to challenging fare were the only ones trashing it. It's nutty, inspired and by no means hollow stuff.

The only other Tsai joint I've seen is I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, a lot of which was quite artfully composed and lovely if forgettable.

I have borrowed and looked forward to What Time Is It There several times now, but somehow never got arround to watching it.

And also - this is absolutely a fun series - keep 'em coming!

Knox said...

Thanks for such a wonderful article!
My favorite of his is Goodbye, Dragon Inn.