Tsai Ming-liang and his magical slow cinema

This week the newest film by Tsai Ming-liang, Rizi, will premiere in The Netherlands. It seemed a good timing to write a bit about why I’ve fallen in love with Tsai’s oeuvre this year. Next to Rizi it consists of ten feature films and several shorts, of which eight belong to the experimental Walker series.

Lonely wandering and disconnected characters

The theme coming back in all of Tsai’s work is loneliness. Characters are living next to each other without connecting in Taipei (Rebels of the Neon God, Vive L’Amour and The River), wander like ghosts through a cinema that is about to close (Goodbye, Dragon Inn) or try to find love in a world where the artificiality of porn smothers real love (The Wayward Cloud). All the characters are looking for a connection, but don’t seem able to find it.

Tsai captures the discomfort of the characters and shows their daily lives. In The River the main character has to deal with a mysterious neck pain. The acting by Lee Kang-sheng, who has dealt with a similar neck pain since making his first film with Tsai, is very physical so that you almost can feel it yourself. In Vive L’Amour the main character is selling apartments. She has affairs and takes men to the beautiful and luxurious, yet empty appartments. Her inability to start a serious relationship with the man she takes with her leads to a long crying fit. Tsai lets the camera rest on her. He does this for such a long period of time that it starts to feel uncomfortable. However, eventually when she starts to calm down, it becomes a cathartic moment.

Slow cinema at its most meditative

Tsai loves his long takes, also when the characters have already walked out of the frame. It foregrounds the emptiness and makes the viewer take a break. The surroundings start to become more of an important presence. From the decaying houses that are being taken over by water to the modernist buildings. Each building has its own atmosphere, yet they all become desolate spaces when no one takes care of them. The films make you think about the spaces you inhibit yourself.

In the Walker series Tsai takes slowness to another level. Lee is a monk who walks in slow motion. For me the experience of watching some of the episodes has a very meditative effect. When you see the monk walk through the city where everyone is in a hurry and where there is a constant noise, it becomes obvious how much chaos is around us in our daily lives. When you’ve lost your focus, these films are a great experience. Simply watching a monk who does what he does: moving slowly and with the utmost attention.

Collaboration with Lee Kang-sheng

Not only in the films themselves Tsai is occupied with time and space, something stands out when looking at his whole body of work. Tsai has always worked with actor Lee Kang-sheng (with the exception of Madame Butterfly). When you watch the films in order you see him age slowly. Tsai has captured the changes of Lee’s face and his aging. Might you want to know a little bit more about their partnership, I’d recommend the video below.

Of course there are many actors you see aging through the films they play in. However, in combination with the returning characters, actors and motives the effect in Tsai’s films is special. The more films I saw, the more I realized how they complement each other. Many of his films are masterpieces on their own. But seeing them as a part of a greater body of work with reincarnations of the characters and with all kinds of repetition more layers become visible. Without the collaboration with Lee it would’ve never become this clear and beautiful.

Mixing of genres and queerness

While Tsai consequently makes films that are slow and contain recognizable elements, his oeuvre definitely isn’t monotonous. In both The Hole and The Wayward Cloud there are colorful musical intermezzos. In The Hole Tsai flirts with the dystopian genre and in The Wayward Cloud with porn. Visage was made in collaboration with the Louvre and the surrealistic locations make his film on the one hand very much a Tsai dealing with disconnection, yet on the other make it stand apart from the rest of his work. Next to Paris, Tsai also made a film in Malaysia (I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone). The changes don’t make the films feel like they aren’t truly Tsai’s. They do however succeed in making sure that I will never mistake one of his films for another.

Tsai doesn’t stick to one genre and thinks outside the box, but that is also true for his characters. More than once he gives a stage to queer characters. While Tsai doesn’t want to be seen as a queer filmmaker, because it limits him, it certainly is an interesting element of his films. It might be obvious that being queer isn’t the cause for loneliness – simply all characters have to deal with that – the queerness of the characters does add to their feeling of disconnection to the rest of the world. At a certain point Lee’s character in Vive L’Amour puts on a dress and he is attracted to the other male character, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with his feelings. The queerness of the characters isn’t the subject or mentioned really, they just are living their lives.

That’s what makes Tsai’s movies worth watching. The slowness of real life is combined with surprising situations and for example musical intermezzos. Because of his work I feel like I’ve gotten to know the characters Lee plays and because he is in every film it almost feels is if I’ve been able to see him grow up. All the movies together form a series of magical memories. Every time you rewatch them they give you something new, there are fresh parallels and coincidences to notice. That is the most beautiful cinema can give, feeling like you’ve had a new experience, even when rewatching.

You can find all my articles about films here.