(ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 23, October 2000



Gaik Cheng Khoo

Tsai Ming-liang: Defining What's Real




_Tsai Ming-liang_

Jean-Pierre Rehm, Olivier Joyard and Daniele Riviere

Paris: Dis Voir, 1999

ISBN: 2-906571-90-3

127 pps.


This book consists of two poetic essays and a revealing interview that

follows up on the thematics that the two essays suggest. Actually, the

book's organic feel suggests that the interview was conducted first and

used as a basis for the other two essays.


Young award-winning Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang is a fairly new name

in Asian New Wave cinema who made a name for himself in the West with only

four features in the 1990s. [1] While there have been interviews and

reviews of his works in numerous international publications and on the

internet, this is the first book about his work. If there are any

definitive writings that advance our understanding of Tsai's works, this is

it. I found the meaning of _The River_ (1997) and _Rebels of a Neon God_

(1992), which I had seen several years ago, elusive, and came away only

with a sense of the banal and familiar (i.e. typical daily rituals, the

internal decor of living and bathroom spaces, plastic consumer goods),

myself being a Chinese-Malaysian who grew up in Malaysia. This book sheds

light on the film for me by its appreciation of Tsai's visuals and

philosophical vision, though at some point it seems to make much more of

the films' poeticism and the filmmaker's presumed knowledge of Chinese

aesthetics and philosophy than the auteur himself ever imagined.


From the book, it would seem that the best way to define Tsai's works is to

think of them as poetic realism delivered in pure visual form. To begin,

Rehm reminds readers of the relevance of Walter Benjamin's statement,

'cinema in place of narration', with regard to Tsai's cinema. Quoting

Benjamin -- if 'what we want [is] a new precision and a new imprecision

joined together in a single narrative jargon' -- Rehm remarks that Tsai

certainly provides this by being 'engaged in the patient work of developing

this scientific, highly clandestine, precise and vague language, free from

any backward or provincial claims' (10). In fact, if the goal is to show

instead of tell, 'to lay waste to the previous precision of description, of

time, of inner life' in order to 'obtain a new objectivity', then its true

ambition is focused 'above all on a new imprecision powerful enough to

destroy the traditional precision' (10). Rehm uses this notion of

imprecision to discuss the inability to categorize or recognize Tsai's

works within modernist film history and philosophy. For example, in terms

of methods and style, Tsai's anti-narrative technique allows him to avoid

imitating Godard and Straub (10), and for the characters to 'become puppets

graced with inner life' (21). The author formulates the sections in the

essay as questions with expected negative answers: Where are the corpses,

the suffering, the real, the Buddha, music? Tsai's works obviously defies

generic categorization, neither being thrillers, melodramas, documentaries,

nor straight musicals (i.e. _The Hole_), and lacking exoticism and the

authority found in religious faith or political ideology. Yet, both Rehm

and Joyard persist in trying to categorize his work, picking up on his

comic humour, and bestowing the highest compliment on him by stating that

he 'may well be the last of the burlesque silent film directors [whose] new

genre could be called lively expressionism, or light fantastic' (76).


How to interpret the 'new language' that Tsai creates seems to be a

problem. Part of the difficulty in interpretation stems from the

filmmaker's style. His films have very little dialogue, no traditional

narrative arch (indeed, not even much narrative, really), seemingly

ultra-long takes of alienated, uncommunicative characters doing very little

within their urban living spaces. All of this and more force the writers in

this book to formulate some kind of connected meaning but always at least

two degrees away. For example, Rehm discusses Tsai's use of choreography

and musical numbers in _The Hole_ (8), but instead of discussing how Tsai

innovates the form/genre, Rehm can only claim that it is the musical's

'desire for innocence' (31), its desire to remedy the harm done by

intrusive talk that dictated its norms on the image, that Tsai is trying to

replicate. Moreover, in relation to sound, or rather non-sound, Rehm says,

'Tsai pays no homage to the beauty of silence' (34), unlike other Asian

directors Ozu, Kitano, and Hou Hsiao-hsien, for whom silence indicates

plenitude, guarantees the secret authenticity of interaction, and openly

defies words with their light, images, and action. In addition, Tsai seems

to undermine the logic behind the use of the sequential shot: 'Instead of

taking the time for a story to begin, develop and progressively invade the

proposed space until bound to the necessity of the construction, characters

arrive awkwardly, one after the other, like clumsy UFOs' (25). Throughout

the films we learn little about the characters' pasts, and have only the

faintest inkling as to their future.


The themes Tsai Ming-liang uses paradoxically confound and yet invite

decoding. The writers in the book have a field day in explaining the theme

of water or fluid that, pardon the expression, *flows* throughout Tsai's

films: rain, leaky pipes, tears, piss, sweat, characters in full bathtubs,

characters drinking water, splashing, floating corpse in a river. Tears and

incessantly flowing water, according to Rehm, establish the final form of

solidarity (a paradoxical one) between things and beings (24). (This is

especially pertinent as bodies, material forms, the spatial environment,

and how they all interact, is a curious point that everyone, including the

director, discusses.) Daniel Riviere, the interviewer, points out that

water in Chinese symbolism represents chaos, but that Tsai uses water in a

different way. He shows external water (rain) and water inside the house

(waste water flowing back in). But Tsai doesn't make any distinction

between internal and external water except to say that water is essential

to life and, in general, 'symbolises love' (113). He explains that his

characters are always thirsty and drinking, like 'plants which are short of

water' (114). He acknowledges that they are 'never particularly well

adjusted because they lack something' (114), namely love, as represented by



This leads to a lot of questions in the reader's mind: if water represents

love, do May's tears at the end of _Vive l'Amour_ symbolize her loneliness

and fear of her inability to love? [2] Moreover, his characters are lonely

individuals who hardly speak to one another, and the love scenes permeate

sex rather than emotion. In fact, the director admits that sex is the most

intimate part of his characters' lives: 'Personally, I think it is easier

to have a sex life in modern society than to have a loving relationship'

(100). Yet, although he agrees with David Walsh that Taipei is

'money-conscious, alienating and emotionally-starved', he also states that

Taipei is a very complicated city where 'everybody is struggling within

their own minds. In actuality, it is a city with a lot of genuine feeling'.

[3] Hence, one can surmise that it is the inner life of the characters that

Tsai Ming-liang is interested in exploring.


The element of liquid also manifests as bodily fluids and secretions. And

the filmmaker's focus on the body, its functions and rituals, is something

all critics can agree on. Again, the interrelationship between physical

bodies, water, and spaces crops up in Tsai's rather facetious explanation

of why he shows characters pissing; aside from the fact that this is a part

of our daily lives, it was also important for him to find out whether, for

example, in _The Hole_, women close the door or leave it open when they are

alone in a room and want to piss (114-5)! But on a more serious note,

Joyard theorizes: 'The body with its infinite variety of relations, which

is not limited by its substance, that touches everything, is touched by

everything and resembles everything' (70). As example, he points to the

scene where Lee Kang-sheng carves a watermelon into a bowling ball and then

bowls with it before smashing it open on the wall. In this case, Joyard

confirms that Tsai is interested in the inner workings of things, not just

characters. He claims that the characters confront their bodies as a

'mystery' and are obsessed with the interior 'of things and beings --

related to a fear of the hollow, a theoretical variation on the theme of

emptiness' (70). In addition, 'the body bears hollowness within it . . . It

fills and empties . . . [and is] subject to diverse fluxes' (71). The

characters' bodies are malleable, passive -- especially that of Lee

Kang-sheng, the protagonist in many of Tsai's films. Joyard asks, 'What can

a body do in Tsai's films? Swallow, ingest food, water and other

substances, receive blows, fall down, then form a circuit like a machine'

(71). The body is 'a place where fiction, fantasies and desire are

deployed'; its interior, 'an unknown space to torture, love or pleasure;

[where] real desires and perhaps feelings are revealed' (71).


Tsai's portrayal of the private and intimate aspects of his characters'

bodies and lives, whether it is bathroom or bedroom behaviour, ties in with

his search for the ordinary real. Hence we see his characters do all that

basic animals do to survive: eat, drink, urinate and defecate, sleep,

masturbate, or make love. They are described as insects possessed with a

'latent animality': 'watching, crawling, eating, quenching thirst and

relieving themselves, pestering each other or providing shelter' (34). Yet,

the ordinary real is not usually revealed through dialogue, not only

because the director feels there is lack of verbal communication between

people, but because he believes that characters often show their true

selves in solitary situations. Thus, he explores their inner lives by

attaching importance to gesture and body language, through *vision* as

opposed to speech which he distrusts (110).


It is clear that Tsai strives to achieve a realist effect. Though his four

features are not exactly traditional-style documentaries, there is

something very documentary-like about them. Rehm attempts to define what

Tsai calls 'the real' by quoting the director: 'People with a certain

style, a glass of water or just water or a door: all these things interest

me in everyday life' (24). His real differs from the documentary effect

currently in vogue -- shaky cam, inconsistent focusing, quivers and jumps,

natural lighting emphasized by over or underexposure, poor sound, etc. . .

.. Rehm regards Tsai's 'real' to be 'spliced to that of the first reels of

the Lumiere brothers, a real of closeness or of surveying' (25). This

approach assumes the primacy of scouting for location, as location is

decisive in determining the mise en scene. The interview with Tsai where he

confirms the importance of the choice of environment or location is thus

aptly entitled, 'Scouting'.


'For me, cinema is something that can show reality', states Tsai (105).

This goes for time and space: 'The important thing is what is happening

*in* that space, *with* those characters, at that specific *moment*' (105).

He wants time in his films to be real time. To capture that real, fleeting

time, he will usually only use one camera, even though this gives a partial

perspective (107). In actuality, what interests him about real time is that

it is uncontrollable (107). Yet, Tsai is the first to admit that there is

some contrivance (he calls it 'abstract') in filmmaking; for example, in

his blocking a street off from people walking by before a shoot in order to

achieve the idea of Taipei as a lonely city (112-113).


When it comes to his modus operandi, there are three or four phases.

Initially, he works almost like an anthropologist or researcher by first

observing the characters. However, the shortcoming of this phase is that he

could never get under their skins as he was 'always restricted to

appearances' (83). Thus his move to the next phase, which 'was really about

showing the collective behaviour patterns of city dwellers' and finding the

right type of people to reflect this collective behaviour (84).

Nevertheless, he still felt something missing at this stage, and so: 'Now I

am starting to observe my actors, who are people I have known well for

quite a time. That way, I can really get under their skin. And in so doing

-- you might call it phase four -- I'm starting to observe myself' (84).


In fact, Tsai explains that his films are a form of self-dialogue and

reflect his own search and frame of mind at a particular time. For example,

the unhappiness he showed in _Rebels_ was how he felt at the time and in

_Vive l'Amour_, he wanted to show his own search for love, one which he

says he still has not found (97). He states that each time he makes a film,

he moves a bit closer to the centre of that private self which he still

hasn't managed to master' (97). Moreover, Tsai admits that he cares little

for the narrative pleasures and patience of the audience (98).


Finally, the writers of this book are reluctant to concede that emptiness

is what defines the mood of these films. Joyard claims that it is

hollowness rather than emptiness, and seems determined to connect the dots,

no matter how far apart they may be in Tsai's universe of scattered

illusions and allusions. He writes: 'All it takes is a little belief, and

to notice that Tsai's work is hardly limited to the enclosed, autistic

passions that some have claimed to admire' (75). Joyard then goes on to

detail the 'connectionless system' in the filmmaker's work, but fills it

with authorial intention:


'Tsai has been working on this since the beginning, with the desire to

harmonize in accordance with his musical inspiration and his art of

refrains, repetition and loops. His problem is not only to fix time and

space, to work out the details of each shot . . . [but] to include each

shot in a broader movement' (75).


Joyard considers the body of work (leading up to _The Hole_) as a whole:

'[His films] each contain a number of blocks which are not self-sufficient

(the shots) for which the links are the most important' (75). Indeed,

Riviere also notes the repetition that crops up in Tsai's films but the

director elucidates that the repetition of water, doors, stairs, meal

scenes, or bathrooms occur because, each time, he finds something

interesting and different in them, as they involve not only material

circumstances but also behaviour that he wants to display (108).


The writers seem to focus on an analysis of _The Hole_, seeing it as the

one Tsai film that can sum up his overall poetics. According to Joyard, all

Tsai's favourite themes are combined here (76), whereas Rehm regards the

musical in the film as something which serves to activate the hole, 'to

disassemble the film's established partitions' (39). In failing to classify

whether _The Hole_ is science-fiction, a musical drama, a documentary on

urban mentalities, etc. etc., Rehm concludes that the response lies not in

the whole, but in the disruption of these different levels, precisely in

the *hole* (40). In that sense, I can conclude that Tsai's work inevitably

transgresses the classification of genres, perhaps even trampling on them

underfoot in his headlong search for realism -- to capture the corporeality

of being in the present, within the moment and the space.


This book does refer to other films and literary and film theories but only

as an attempt to articulate and locate Tsai Ming-liang's cinematic vision

among that of other filmmakers. For example, the poetic discussion of the

body, corporeality, and of space, I felt could have been even more

theoretical but I'm not sure how relevant it would then be to Tsai's

aesthetic vision. Overall, the most interesting contribution of the book

for me is its discussion of the director's ideas about trying to achieve

the effects of the real.


Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada





1. Tsai's four features are _Rebels of a Neon God_ (1992), _Vive l'Amour_

(1994), _The River_ (1997), and _The Hole_ (1998). He has also made

telefilms, scenarios, plays and a choreographic adaptation of Brecht's _The

Good Woman of Sezhuan_.


2. Tsai hints in an interview with David Walsh that May is trying to decide

if she wants to ask for love from the lover she has left in the morning.

David Walsh, 'Tsai Ming-liang's _Vive l'Amour_: Taipei's Lonely Souls',

_World Socialist Web Site_, 24 October 1994



3. Walsh, 'Tsai Ming-liang's _Vive l'Amour_'.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000


Gaik Cheng Khoo, 'Tsai Ming-liang: Defining What's Real',

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 23, October 2000





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