at the Museum of the Moving Image
Tsai Ming-Liang is one of the few uncontestable giants of what was once quaintly called “art house” cinema still working at peak power. In this pantheon we might include Claire Denis, who emerged roughly contemporaneously, but where Denis’s cinema is tactile, cutaneous, and given to the exploration of bodies, Tsai’s is very much concerned with the absence of touch, the space between bodies—perhaps most poignantly expressed in his What Time is it There? (2002), a film of longing across national boundaries and time zones, as well as clockwork-precision sight gags.
The subject of a fourteen-program retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image, Tsai seems to suspect that he’s outlived the art house, perhaps even cinema itself. Prior to the release of his most recent film, 2013’s ravishingly bleak Stray Dogs, Tsai suggested that he may be leaving behind traditional cinematic exhibition entirely, finding museums and galleries more hospitable to starkly non-commercial work of the sort in which he deals. (His 2009 Face was partially financed by the Louvre, and entirely shot on the museum’s grounds.) Well before The Death of Cinema became a 21st century buzzword, Tsai was uniquely attuned to the changes facing the medium at the beginning of the new millennium, an interest expressed in his Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), which takes place in a waterlogged Taipei cinema at the eve of its permanent closure, during a screening of King Hu’s kung-fu classic Dragon Inn (1967).
Hu’s Dragon Inn is the sort of wuxia fare that Tsai consumed as a boy when his grandparents took him daily to the movies in Kuching, Malaysia. Aged twenty, Tsai left to study at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, the rain-lashed city of sadness which would be so central to his cinema. MoMI’s shop bar will be selling Tsai’s own brand of coffee, grown in Malaysia but roasted in Taiwan, like himself, while their retro includes Kuala Lumpur-shot “homecoming” film I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), Malaysian director Saw Tiong Guan’s documentary portrait of Tsai, Past Present (2013), and Walking on Water (2013), one of a series of shorts which follow a monk played by Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-Sheng as he makes his way at a glacial pace through various environments—here the setting is the Kuching housing block in which Tsai grew up.
Lee was working as a security guard at a video arcade when Tsai, who had been writing and directing for television, discovered him and cast him in his 1991 TV movie The Kids. He would go on to appear in every one of Tsai’s subsequent films (the earliest work in the MoMI series, Tsai’s 1992 feature debut Rebels of the Neon God, will concurrently receive a belated NYC theatrical premiere run at the Quad and Lincoln Center beginning April 10), and Tsai credits Lee’s taciturn performance style with causing him to develop a more pensive, philosophical approach to filmmaking. Tsai’s development as a director has, generally speaking, led him to an ever-greater austerity, minimizing or eliminating camera movement and non-diegetic music while working with long unbroken takes, though his “journey” is hardly as straightforward as all of that, and he has a florid, maximalist impulse which finds expression in such works as the abovementioned Face and The Wayward Cloud (2005), a musical set in the milieu of porn filmmaking. Through the evolution of his style, Tsai’s preoccupations have remained remarkably consistent: Urban anomie, fumbling desire, and faulty plumbing. His films abound with pervasive drips building towards dambursts, literally and metaphorically, as in the crying jag finale of his Vive L’Amour (1994). In a quarter century, Tsai has produced an epochal body of work that leaves little room for imitation or rejoinder, an oeuvre that seems to say: “After me, the flood.”