Tsai Ming-liang (finally) comes to ChicagoKathleen Sachson September 15, 2022 at 8:03 pm

Some might think of slow cinema—admittedly a nebulous designation at best—as dry. The films of Malaysian-born, Taiwan-based Tsai Ming-liang are often termed with that polysemous classification and thus may be considered as such. 

Though his films embody the technical definition of that word (another descriptor applied to his films, “minimalist,” also means to lack embellishment), there’s a benevolent irony to the fact that they’re usually quite wet. That is to say, in most of them either steady rainfall or another slaver tends the otherwise arid proceedings, at once a welcome interloper in its waterlogged enrichment and a manifestation of unrelenting heaviness inside and out.

In Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), which takes place in an old movie palace in Taipei, rain pours down outside as various characters inside the theater watch (or don’t) the last 90 minutes of King Hu’s titular 1967 wuxia film Dragon Inn. Though the characters are free to enter and leave at will, the rain serves as a partition of sorts, keeping both them and the viewers inside the damp and grimy theater, set to close after this final screening. 

More than two years ago, there was a 12-film Tsai Ming-liang series (ten features and two shorts), undertaken by local independent programmer J. Michael Eugenio, at the University of Chicago’s Doc Films. In the months leading up to the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the U.S., all but one film of the series was screened. The last, Face (2009), was likely the last film many Chicago cinephiles saw in a theater for a good long while; walking out of it like the characters in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, one was deluged by the sudden onset of reality and that which would define it for the next few years.

The plan was to bring Tsai to various film organizations in Chicago, the first stop on a tour that would find the filmmaker in New York City and Washington, D.C. Alas, that trip was canceled, and for two-plus years we languished in a real-life scenario not unlike something from one of Tsai’s films. (Indeed, his 1998 film The Hole, which was rereleased in virtual theaters amid lockdown, centers on characters impacted by a sickness called the “Taiwan virus,” which causes people to go mad and seek refuge in tight, dark spaces.)

On September 12, however, the festivities resumed, with a screening of Goodbye, Dragon Inn at the Gene Siskel Film Center. This coming Monday his 2013 film Stray Dogs will screen at 8 PM, then his most recent feature, Days (2022), a week later at the same time. 

Films from Tsai’s Walker series—Journey to the West (2014) and No No Sleep (2015), two among the several projects that feature Lee as a Buddhist monk walking slowly in various spaces—will screen at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema, Friday, September 30, 6:30 PM, with Tsai and Lee Kang-sheng (a Taiwanese actor who has appeared in all of the director’s features and may be considered his muse) appearing in person for a post-screening discussion moderated by Dr. Jean Ma, professor of film and media studies at Stanford University.

The Chicago premieres of his short film Light and feature Your Face (both 2018) will screen at Doc Films on Saturday, October 1, 6 PM, again with Tsai and Lee in person. University of Chicago professor Paola Iovene will moderate that postshow discussion. Finally, the director will give an artist lecture back at the Film Center on the following Monday, October 3, at 6 PM, rounding out almost a full month of Tsai-related screenings and events. The tour will continue to New York City and Washington, D.C., as planned, as well as Boston.

For the Reader in 2005, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote about Goodbye, Dragon Inn that it’s “a Taiwanese Last Picture Show, a failed heterosexual love story, a gay cruising saga, a melancholy tone poem, a mordant comedy, [and] a creepy ghost tale.” Its myriad characters span the theater staff (a bashful female ticket taker with a limp, whose meanderings around the theater to find the elusive projectionist, played by Lee, give us the most visibility into the decrepit structure) and the film’s audience, from two elderly men intently watching the film to other, younger viewers (save an actual toddler, whose attention is rapt) less so.

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The romantic notion of the dark movie theater is redirected from what’s going on onscreen to the goings-on of several male audience members who watch each other rather than the movie. (The latter almost becomes its own character, as its dialogue composes the majority of that in the film.) Tsai hadn’t initially intended to make Goodbye, Dragon Inn but came across the theater while scouting locations for What Time Is It There? (2001); he learned from its owner that attendance was down and it was mostly being used as a cruising spot for gay men. Something that one might expect to happen in a Tsai Ming-liang film occured in real life first, a discretely humorous coincidence that enhances its tender wit. 

In Stray Dogs, a man (Lee) and his two young children are houseless in Taipei, where the father works holding signs advertising luxury housing developments. While he does so his children roam the streets, gravitating toward a grocery store where the motherlike figure—who appears sporadically at first and then more frequently—works. She soon (again? One is unsure if this is their real mother) becomes a fixture in their lives, the four residing in a dilapidated house with stark white walls flecked with black crud. Like the urban settings in most of Tsai’s films, it’s stunning in its aesthetic beauty despite its apparent dilapidation.

The film’s title is evoked literally in a pack of stray dogs wandering around a derelict area that features a mural painted onto a building’s wall; the aforementioned motherlike figure brings expired meat to them. But the title applies to the characters as well: the father, whose job makes him a human billboard going largely unnoticed by the masses (a plot point reminiscent of Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s vignette in the 1983 film The Sandwich Man); his kids exploring freely with no parental oversight; and the motherlike figure, who may or may not be the children’s actual mother and who is played by three actresses (suggestive of Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, which featured two actresses as the same character), and even symbolized by an anthropomorphized cabbage. Whoever she is, she trudges about in the pouring rain to help the kids after their father goes on a bender. 

Tsai’s most recent feature, Days, begins with Lee’s Kang sitting in a barren room watching the rain outside his window and then languishing in a bath. Not much later, Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), a Laotian immigrant working in Thailand, laboriously rinses produce and fish in a bucket. These are but mere moments of how the two spend their time. Kang seeks treatment for his neck pain (this part of the film links it tenuously with Tsai’s 1997 film The River, in which Lee’s character has the same mysterious ailment) while Non goes about his day-to-day life somewhat aimlessly.

The two come together in a hotel room, where Kang solicits Non for an erotic massage. Illness and unconventional sex are present in several of Tsai’s films (like The River) but never so tenderly as here. The fleeting moment of release between the men is underscored by Kang gifting Non a music box playing the theme to Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. Where Tsai has made many films in which Lee is a Buster Keaton type, with a similarly imperturbable stone face, this film instead evokes Chaplin in its attenuated sentimentality. Gay sex aside, the broad strokes of Days aren’t too far off from how Chaplin sought to consecrate the human condition vis-à-vis the Tramp. 

Light, a short companion piece to Your Face, takes place in Zhongshan Hall, a locale in Taipei with personal significance to Tsai (he volunteered there as a student) and historical significance to the country, as it’s where Japanese forces surrendered at the end of World War II, concluding a half-century occupation of Taiwan. This is an exceedingly minimalistic work, made up of shots of various spots in the hall upon which natural light falls beautifully. It’s a rather simple endeavor but one that Tsai does exceptionally well; it achieves something similar to what I imagine a compilation of the exterior shots in Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries might be like. 

Tsai Ming-liang at the Gene Siskel Film CenterThrough October 3164 N. Statesiskelfilmcenter.org/tsai

The longer film, also shot in the hall, has the distinction of being the first film Tsai has made with a musical score. After meeting Ryuichi Sakamoto, he asked the Japanese composer if he could have a look at the film, after which the latter sent Tsai some files. Your Face came to fruition after a 2017 VR film, The Deserted, had made him want to film close-ups after working in such a protracted tableau. The film consists of 13 vignettes of Taipei citizens whom Tsai encountered on the streets. 

Participation varies, from some of the subjects sitting in relative silence, the movement and expressions on their faces accounting for the action of their section, to those with stories to share. Relationships are a hot topic among the people who speak; one woman does tongue and facial exercises, a man performs a short musical number on a harmonica. The film concludes with Lee, who recalls stories about his father and being in school. It’s almost jarring to see the actor in such a relaxed context, as he disappears so naturally into Tsai’s films that it’s sometimes difficult to separate him from the characters.

Denis Lavant—who is to French filmmaker Leos Carax what Lee is to Tsai—appears in Journey to the West (2014), the fifth in Tsai and Lee’s Walker series. The films center on Lee as a Buddhist monk who slowly walks across various spaces around the world, in this instance Marseilles. The films were inspired by Tsai’s obsession with seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who inspired a novel published during the Ming dynasty, Journey to the West, from which this film takes its name. 

Along with slow cinema, the long, static takes are often remarked upon about Tsai’s films, as natural to their formation as Lee’s presence. Here awareness of such shots is heightened as Lee’s red robe-clad monk walks at a literal snail’s pace in various directions across a frame, the camera unmoving. Passersby sometimes acknowledge him, while some ignore him. Lavant, however, begins trailing him, walking at the same pace and mimicking his movements.

No No Sleep (2015), the seventh Walker project, takes place in Tokyo at night. Lee’s monk again moves amid the space slowly, though partway through the focus becomes a night train as it speeds, in stark contrast to the monk, across the cityscape, photographed to illuminate the bright neon colors inherent to the environment. Soon we find the monk at a spa, where he’s joined by Masanobu Ando, star of Kinji Fukusaku’s Battle Royale. The two don’t speak and eventually part ways, the rest of the film focusing equally on both of the men after they come to reside in what appears to be a micro-hotel of some sort. Where, in Journey to the West, the camera was at a studied distance from Lee and Lavant, it here takes a bold leap toward Lee in one provocative sequence with a gorgeous close-up of his face sheathed in red light.

Ultimately, the apparent dryness of Tsai’s films is but a facade, a layer under which a body of water—perhaps, like in one of his films, a river—is waiting to be found. “For me, water means a lot of things,” Tsai has said. “It’s my belief that human beings are just like plants. They can’t live without water or they’ll dry up. Human beings, without love or other nourishment, also dry up. The more water you see in my movies, the more the characters need to fill a gap in their lives, to get hydrated again.” The screenings and events in this series will furnish one similarly. 

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