Love, Life and Lies.
The films of Tsai Ming-Liang in the context of the new Taiwanese Cinema
Taiwans rapid transformation resulted in a collective character that tends towards reflection and nostalgia for the old life, and a certain dissatisfaction with contemporary life and modernisation" -- Chiao Hsiung Ping, The Distinct Taiwanese and Hongkong Cinemas

Much of the New Taiwanese Cinema has been a search for identity. In Asian film, this brand of soul-searching often leads to the countryside to find a more "authentic" or "pure" remnant of one's culture in the face of encroaching westernisation - the explosion in consumer culture in the urban areas. Caught in China's orbit - Taiwan is a satellite state to a monolithic motherland - both homeland and aggressor. This tension with China is related to the pervasive insecurity and estrangement in Taiwanese movies. The lack of closure to its conflict with communist China is a source of trauma evident in Taiwan's national consciousness - a paranoid militaristic Government enforcing martial law until 1987. Faced with censorship and repression, caught between east and west, modernity and tradition, the Taiwanese adopted a pragmatic materialism and existentialism. The latent anxiety of reconciling rapid socioeconomic change with a new Chinese identity was manifested primarily through individual conflict with traditional ethical/moral values. In Tsai Ming-Liang's films vandalism, homosexuality, drunkeness and deliquency are heralds of a new age where cultural praxis are no longer clear, where role models are rebels and self-gratification is the new religion. Rebels of the Neon God could have been retitled "kitchen, restaurant, bathroom, bedroom" as the characters spend their entire time in orbit between these spaces. According to Tsai and other new wave filmmakers there is nothing else to do in 'modern Taiwan' except eat, shit, sleep and fuck - a deep-rooted ambivalence and pessimism found even in more populist fare like Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman and Edward Yang's Mah-Jong.

Left: Tsai Ming Liang shooting a scene in The River
Despite a long career in theatre, television and screenwriting, 42 year-old Tsai rose to international fame as one of the principals in the "second wave" of Taiwan's New Cinema, grouped with filmmakers such as Ang Lee, Yee Chih-Yen and Stan Yin. This generation arrives in the wake of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, who achieved international recognition with their neo-realist explorations of Taiwanese identity. Just as Hou was often compared to Ozu and Yang to Antonioni, Tsai has been labelled "the Fassbinder of Taiwan", a particularly annoying trend in western film criticism which misrepresents the difference between Asian and European filmmakers, and Chinese from Japanese filmmakers. Tsai's work should be located within a cultural matrix of isolation and repression specific to Taiwan's violent past, cultural hybridity and uncertain future. He has made four interrelated films to date, using an ensemble cast and revisiting certain characters, locations and themes. Breaking onto the Taipei theatre scene in 1981, Tsai gained a reputation for deadpan humour and experimental stories dealing with the alienated longing and self-induced isolation of urbanites in contemporary Taipei, an economic boomtown where wealth became a substitute for the lack of freedom, the nationalist regime suppressing political and artistic thought.

The New Cinema is strongly oriented around direct reference to political and social taboos. Behind this phenomenon is the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the political, social, and diplomatic reforms that followed, as well as growing demands for more radical reforms from civilians." -- Yeh Yueh-Yu

Right: The father and son from The River
In reaction to this state of repression and censorship, new wave films commonly use the traditional family structure to reflect national insecurities about unity, stability, prosperity - the ancient chinese virtues. In all his films, Tsai portrays the family and indeed most relationships as dysfunctional and corrupt. His protagonists are so estranged and apathetic they don't reply when spoken to. There are more words in the credits to his films than there are in the script. In The Hole his characters don't even have names, yet alone dialogue. The relationships they form with each other are tenuous and confused. Tsai's conceptualisation of Taiwan is so tainted that in The River the father unknowingly masturbates his son in a gay sauna, only to slap him when the lights come on. Could there be more potent allegory for Taiwan's relationship with China? Everywhere you look in Tsai's films are the signs of cultural fragmentation, of Japanese, Chinese and American incursions into Taiwanese life. The title of his debut feature Rebels of the Neon God refers to a new generation drowning in the imported values of the modern metropolis and American style individualism, and hence in conflict with the old values, the old Gods. His latest film The Hole also connotes an absence at the heart of Taiwanese life - a fundamental lack of communication and humanity that renders nationalist ideals of wealth, progress and unity absurd. "This is my thought: Modern man does not know how to communicate, indeed, they don't know how to learn how to communicate ... the biggest hope of my characters is that there will be someone who will extend a hand to them or offer them a glass of water." -- Tsai Ming-Liang in the Production Notes to The Hole.

Right: Generation gap in the River
There is a cynicism and disaffectation that runs through contemporary Taiwanese films - an ambivalence which lends a dynamic complexity to the narratives. Because Taiwan is a small island, modern transportation and media have shrunk the distance between country and city, blurring this binarism which traditionally codified national insecurities. Now there is only the urban landscape on which to map the concerns of old. The city represents the new Taiwan - where the younger generations are rebellious, selfish and hungry for gratification; the older generations tired, resigned and powerless. The new wave's dissatisfaction with wealth and the denial of conventional representations or resolutions continues the nostalgia of the rural wave - their romanticisation of childhood and the past, where existence consisted of hard work and happy families. In the production notes to The Hole, Tsai says "I have a nostalgia for that era of my youth, with its peace and beauty. Therefore when dealing with modern man's fantasy, it's only natural that I go back to the past, and resort to the songs of Grace Chang ("Ge Lan" to the Chinese), Hollywood-style song and dance numbers, the costumes, and all that. This is to contrast with the real world outside and to show my subconscious aspiration for the 50s and 60s."

"Taiwanese films are the products of reflection and nostalgia by intellectuals in their 30s and 40s, hence they emphasise introspection and restraint, a lyrical style based on long takes and a slow rhythm. In contrast Hongkong films are a synthesis of chaos and energy, and techniques such as fragmenting extreme close-ups of the body, rapid montage and spatial and temporal disorder ... Completely different from the works of the middle class creative temperament of the Taiwanese film artists, Hongkong hero and kungfu films are a low-class cinema"

Taiwan found its niche in social realism and black comedy, unable to be as frivolous or naively escapist as Hongkong cinema. Tsai's bleak unforgiving films portray individuals as lost, insect-like in their movements and feelings, caught in a paradox where bodily functions have been coopted by the environment - the state. Their lives are banal and voyeuristic - dominated by basic bodily fuctions - the need to eat, the need to shit, the need for sex, the need for movement - just cruising around on scooters or wandering the city on foot - waiting for something to happen, waiting for godot. The motorcycle becomes fetishised for its potential for movement - the feeling it imparts to the riders that they are going somewhere, even if its aimlessly. They seek escape from the oppressive metropolis - a desolate architectural nightmare where the nights seem endless and consumerism has become as monotonous as everything else. For Taipei's youth only on a scooter does there seem to be any hope, a possibility for growth, for escape.

"My sets are realistic, a bit run-down and murky. And it's always raining, which makes my characters somewhat aloof from their environment ... They are romantic but the environment is out of key with this romanticism. They believe they can hide themselves in a safe world behind the door and put the garbage outside which they don't see. But the world isn't so safe inside. Danger creeps in all the same, like the unending rain, the strange diseases etc. Doors, elevators, staircases are repeatedly seen, reflecting the hopes of the characters of escaping from their enlocked circumstances." -- Tsai Ming-Liang in the Production Notes to The Hole.

Right: Alienated anti-heroes from Rebels of the Neon God
Tsai's films are about longing marked by nihilism and stifling despair, of self-imposed isolation and an inability to communicate. His latest film, The Hole is set seven days before the 21st Century. Tsai calls it "a love story for the millenium." Yet the synopsis reads more like a prognosis for distopia: "Somewhere in Taiwan, the rain doesn't let up. A mysterious disease reaches epidemic proportions. The government demands a massive transfer out of the quarantine zone. Officials warn those residents who refuse to move that the garbage will go uncollected and the water supply will be gone soon. Despite all of this, some residents still refuse to move away." Obstinacy and opposition posess all of Tsai's characters - a refusal to accomodate others or shift from their routines. Thus we see them pain stakingly enact their daily lives despite the various potholes placed in their way. Each film falls into a pattern of cooking, eating, sleeping, defecating, each scene patiently revealed to us in long take. In The Hole we watch a rusty roller door creakingly open and shut. We watch a cat being fed, but it walks out of the frame before the scene is finished. The camera obstinately waits for it to return before continuing with the story.

Influenced by the Western modernist movement, the narrative structure in these films is more fragmented than linear, the editing is more obtrusive than continuous, and sentimental expression has been suspended to block out emotional identification. Off-screen sound has been used frequently to convey a sense of alienation (especially in the films of Hou, Yang and Tsai); the frequent use of close-ups is replaced by long takes and long shots that make for a more distanced perspective." -- Yeh Yueh-Yu

Left: Keeping the world at bay in the Hole
Whilst Tsai entertains audiences with whimsical plot excursions and scatalogical humour, joy is fleeting for the characters. Brief moments of sex or exhiliration are always bookended by scenes of sorrow or repulsion - vomiting, beatings, breakdowns, arguments, floodings, downpours and loneliness. Even the most everyday activities are plagued with difficulties. In Rebels of the Neon God the father drops the food he is trying to give his son and when they decide to go to the cinema a motorcyclist smashes their car-mirror and their plans are forgotten. The elevator always stops on the haunted fourth floor, the toilets are always occupied and the apartment floods of its own will. A successful robbery ends in violence when the youths accidentally try to sell the stolen goods back to their victims. In The Hole the woman has to balance a bucket on her head to catch rainwater whenever she wants to go to the toilet. The movie starts with a run-down public housing building, in which "a man is awakened from a nap by the doorbell. A plumber has been sent by the downstairs neighbour complaining of a leak. The plumber doesn't solve the problem, but does leave a sizeable hole in the middle of the man's living room."

Right: The 'man upstairs' contemplating the romantic possibilities of the hole in his floor in The Hole
The sense of repression, entropy and contamination, reflects the lack of certainty which underlies Taiwan's fragile independence - not officially recognised as a sovereign state by the international community, threatened by the occasional missile crisis. In Tsai's films, Taipei attains the decrepit ambience of a city under siege, composed of fatigued concrete, grimy walls, peeling wallpaper and hazy skies filled with fumes - by day the city is crumbling and congested, at night seedy and desperate. Fluoresecent lights, endless rain and decaying architecture are its visual motifs. Whereas the city of Hongkong is celebrated in its movies, Tsai's Taiwan is condemned to disease and desertion.

"The image of the 21st century that drifted out of my eyes was one of unending rain ... I think the world environment, particularly that of Asia, was destroyed in the 20th century. Whether I am in Taiwan or in the country of my birth, Malaysia, I feel that the situation is at its most serious in these two developing countries. Why am I so pessimistic? If you live in Taiwan, you will naturally feel pessimism. We paid a heavy price for the take-off of Taiwan's economy over the past ten years. People have to live with crime and violence, political conflict and corruption, the serious pollution of the environment, alienation and growing friction in personal relationships. All these are almost permanent fixtures of people's lives. The most serious problem, I believe, is the sense of anxiety and insecurity in people and their loss of confidence and trust in the government. Therefore I think the future will be fraught with suspicion and tragedy." -- Tsai Ming-Liang in the Production Notes to The Hole.

Left: One of the hilarious Grace Chang cabaret sequences from The Hole
Despite this pessimism, Tsai's films are characterised by an irrepressible sense of mischief. These comic elements burst through the dark envelope of each film, maintaining the hope for intimacy and happiness in sudden, almost random acts of inspiration. For example, The Hole is regularly interrupted with surreal cabaret sequences, escapist fantasies of romance between the 'man upstairs' and the 'woman downstairs' set to Tsai's favourite Grace Chang songs. These interludes are glittering examples of cinematic dexterity and Taiwanese hybridity - incorporating hilariously kitchy elements with chorus girls, cocktail dresses and fire extinguishers, shifting between mandarin and english, introducing subtext, contrast and virtuoso elements into Tsai's otherwise restrained, low-key narrative. The actual hole between their apartments acts as an umbilical cord between the estranged residents, facillitating their bizarre interaction and final fantasy meeting. And whilst Tsai is careful to frame even these fantasies in the urbane - shooting them in elevators, on staircases and balconies - they present some comic and colourful relief from the drudgery of his beautifully shot, but bleak mise en scene. Like his Cantonese compatriot, Wong Kar Wai, Tsai also uses coincidence and criss-crossing paths to suggest a fate for each person, and hence an underlying logic and pattern to their lives, a guiding hand and subtle optimism they are merely unaware of. Ultimately it is the humanism present in the camera's gaze and the playfulness in plot construction that makes a Tsai Ming Liang film so eminently insightful and entertaining - not just commentary but comedy.

"Contemporary Taiwan, where graveyards are full but apartment houses empty, is bulldozing its social architectural and spiritual past - forcing friends and lovers into a constant state of directionless motion. There is, nevertheless, a passionate determination throughout Tsai's work that these characters arrive -somehow, sometime - in each other's arms. But even if gratification is forever postponed, the waiting is imbued with a kind of tantric glee: though the sense of urban, architectural nausea serves mainly to place potholes in its pilgrims paths, the ways they manage to skirt and dodge and eventually collide or nearly miss one another is effected with an almost choreographic grace." -- Chuck Stephens, Film Comment


Chiao Hsiung-Ping, The Distinct Taiwanese and Hong Kong Cinemas Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, ed. Berry C., BFI, London, 1991
Jameson F., Remapping Taipei, New Chinese Cinemas ed. Browne, Pickwicz, Sobchack, Yau Cambridge University Press, NY, 1994 p117
Stephens C., Intersection: Tsai Ming-liang's yearning bike boys and heartsick heroines Film Comment, Sep-Oct 1996 v32 n5 p20
Tsai Ming-Liang, The Hole: Production Notes and Interview Arc Light Films, Taiwan, 1998
Yeh Yueh-Yu, Nornes A.M., Narrating National Sadness: Cinematic Mapping and Hypertextual Dispersion from CinemaSPACE, University of Southern California, 1994 (accessed July 1999)

Tsai Ming Liang's Filmography
Jia jiafu(TV-Film)
Kuaile chefang (TV-Film)
Bu liao qing (TV-Film)
Haijiao tianya (TV-Film)
Wode Yinwenmingzi jiao (TV-Film)
Mary (TV-Film)
Li xiangde Ganqingxian(TV-Film)
Ah xiongde chulian qingren (TV-Film)
Qing shaonian nayu (Rebels of the Neon God)
Aiqing wansui (Vive l'amour)
My New Friends (Documentary)
He liu (The River)
Dong (The Hole)

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