Of all the notable figures to emerge in 1990s world cinema, few have developed a corpus of work as consistently transfixing and distinctive as that of Malaysian-Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang (1957–). Born in Kuching, Sarawak, Tsai was largely raised by his cinephile grandparents, who would take him to the movies twice a day from the age of three. After studying dramatic arts in Taiwan and working in television for a decade, Tsai became one of the most important figures of the Taiwanese New Wave, set apart from his contemporaries by his identity as a gay man and for his cinematic style deliberately developed in protest against the acceleration of everyday life. Tsai is also known for his career-long collaboration with actor Lee Kang-Sheng, a partnership inspired by that between François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud and directly acknowledged by the latter’s cameo appearance in Tsai’s pivotal What Time Is it There? (2001). Lee’s face and manner is inseparable from Tsai’s cinema, with the actor appearing in all 11 of Tsai’s features, and the director’s singular style deepening in tandem with Lee’s ageing body and mind: from the youthful abandon of Rebels of the Neon God (1992) to the dysfunctions and loneliness of older age in their recent feature together, Days (2020). This season collects works from across the entirety of Tsai’s feature-film career – including Days, Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), his celebrated tribute to filmgoing and the history of Taiwanese cinema, and the narrative “trilogy” of What Time Is it There?, The Skywalk Is Gone (2002) and The Wayward Cloud (2005) – honouring a true cinematic artist whose films have rarely been available to Australian audiences beyond the festival circuit.
7:00pm WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?
Tsai Ming-Liang (2001) 116 mins – Unclassified 15+
Charting the search for connection across three parallel narratives – a watch seller in Taipei (Lee Kang-Sheng), his widowed mother (Lu Yi-Ching), and a woman travelling to Paris (Chen Shiang-Chyi) – Tsai’s breakthrough feature is his most surprisingly comical work. It also signals a new style – featuring minimal plot and a greater sense of stillness – that would define Tsai’s middle-period work. With Jean-Pierre Léaud.
9:15pm GOODBYE, DRAGON INN
Tsai Ming-Liang (2003) 82 mins – Unclassified 15+
This mournful but playful homage to cinema is perhaps Tsai’s greatest film. A ghost story of sorts, the film meticulously surveys the shadowy but cavernous spaces inside an old movie theatre over its closing night. From the rainy marquee to different seats in the cinema itself, Tsai lovingly conjures the atmosphere of mystery, intimacy and shared experience that embodies the moviegoing experience. With Lee Kang-Sheng, Chen Chao-Jung and Chun Shih (also star of King Hu’s Dragon Inn, which provides an unlikely but poignant closing night film) as himself.
Preceded by The Skywalk Is Gone Tsai Ming-Liang (2002) 25 mins. This “sequel” to What Time Is it There?sees Chen Shiang-Chyi’s character return home to a Taipei she barely recognises. Inspired by the real-life destruction of the skywalk featured in the previous film.
7:00pm REBELS OF THE NEON GOD
Tsai Ming-Liang (1992) 106 mins – Unclassified 15+
Tsai’s confident first theatrical feature wallows in the listlessness of pre-millennial Taipei – brilliantly shot by career-long collaborator Liao Pen-Jung – but maintains a sly sense of humour as it follows a young dropout (played by Tsai’s lifelong muse Lee Kang-Sheng in only their second pairing) whose mother believes him to be the reincarnation of the unruly god Nezha. “No director since Fassbinder has [had] such insight into the lives of lost young men in crumbling inner cities… Brilliantly observed, with dialogue kept to a minimum, and as tender as a Lou Reed elegy.” (Tony Rayns).
Courtesy of the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute.
9:00pm THE WAYWARD CLOUD
Tsai Ming-Liang (2005) 112 mins – Unclassified 18+
This Silver Bear-winning sequel to What Time Is it There? and The Skywalk Is Gone is Tsai’s boldest film, freely shifting tonal registers to encompass minimalist, ennui-inflected drama, absurdist comedy, high-level sex scenes and exuberant musical numbers adapted from vintage Taiwanese pop. Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng), now a jobbing porn actor, and Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi) meet again in a Taipei beset by a water shortage but abundant in watermelons; the latter as central to sex as to hydration. The finale remains the most confronting sequence – and amongst the most profound – in Tsai’s cinema.
7:00pm THE RIVER
Tsai Ming-Liang (1997) 115 mins – Unclassified 15+
Featuring Tsai regulars Lee Kang-Sheng, Miao Tien and Lu Yi-Ching as a deconstructed nuclear family living in one of the leakiest apartments in cinema history, this bleak portrayal of urban alienation and loneliness won the Silver Bear at the 1997 Berlinale. Standing in contrast to the frenetic style of much 1990s cinema, the long takes, mostly static camera and minimal dialogue would become signature elements of the director’s style. In his review, The New York Times critic A. O. Scott described Tsai as “a rare director who seems, even at this late date, to be reinventing the medium and rediscovering the world”.
Courtesy of the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute.
Tsai Ming-Liang (2020) 127 mins – Unclassified 15+
Shot over five years and across three countries, Tsai’s latest, largely unscripted feature provides a characteristic, if surprisingly warm portrait of contemporary ennui and the problems of ageing and connecting in modern society. Following his long-time muse – Lee Kang-Cheng – as he seeks treatment in Hong Kong for the back ailment that first emerged (for actor and character) in 1997’s The River, Tsai becomes equally fascinated by a Laotian migrant working in Bangkok. When these solitary figures finally come together in a moment of true tenderness it speaks to the inherent soulfulness and even nostalgia of the filmmaker’s oeuvre.