TSAI MING LIANG:
The Taiwanese Antonioni
by Toh Hai Leong
Displacement of Love in an Urban Environment
No, contrary to popular belief, Tsai Ming-liang is not in fact Taiwanese. The bespectacled 40-year-old bachelor was born in Kuching, Sarawak (East Malaysia) and only came to Taiwan for a college education. After graduating with a degree in drama and film in Taiwan's University, he settled there and impressed critics with several experimental plays and television movies such as Give Me a Home (1988), The Happy Weaver(1989), My Name is Mary (1990), Ah Hsiung's First Love(1990). He made a brilliant film debut in 1992 with Rebels of the Neon God and his film Vive l'amour shared Venice's Golden Lion for Best Film with Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain (1994). Rebels of the Neon God, a film about aimless and nihilistic Taipei youths, won numerous awards abroad: Among them, the Best Film award at the Festival International Cinema Giovani (1993), Best Film of New Director Award of Torino Film Festival (1993), the Best Music Award, Grand Prize and Best Director Awards of Taiwan Golden Horse Festival (1992), the Best Film of Chinese Film Festival (1992), a bronze award at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 1993 and the Best Director Award and Leading Actor Award at the Nantes Festival des Trois Continents in 1994.
For the sake of simplicity, he will be referred to as Taiwanese, since he has made Taipei, (Taiwan) his home. In fact, he is considered to be among the second generation of New Wave filmmakers in Taiwan. It would also make Hsu Li-Kong, the Vice-President of Taiwan's KMT-owned Central Motion Picture Corporation -- the astute and innovative elderly talent scout who also discovered Lee Ang (Pushing Hands, A Wedding Banquet Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility) -- happy for producing Tsai's first two acclaimed films.
It was at the 17th Hongkong International Film Festival in 1993 that Rebels was introduced to an international audience as a Special Presentation film. Those who saw the film were impressed. Later, the reticent Tsai and his shy, unknown lead actor, Lee Kang-Sheng, attended a reception for Festival Guests hosted by the Urban Council Chairman. When I asked Tsai if the master of oblique displacement of emotion and narrative, Michelangelo Antonioni, was his greatest influence, he could only acknowledge with a few terse words, like the sparse dialogues in Rebels and Vive l'amour. Tsai, the talented filmmaker, looked more at ease creating his austere Bressonian images, with strong doses of Antonioni-esque bleak and spartan urban wasteland. Yet strangely, the two films are involving; emotionally, philosophically and spiritually.
His frequent collaborator, Lee was at a loss for words to describe his Method-acting technique. Like his mentor Tsai, he moves with fluid grace as the young dropout, Hsiao Kang, who is inextricably attracted to the thug, Ah Tze (Chen Zhao-Jung) who had smashed up his father's taxi mirror. The self-taught actor whom Tsai discovered by chance on the street (Tsai picked Lee and Chen from the video arcades as both are street smart, naturalistic and had the looks) did not speak in slick, yuppified Mandarin on the Lee Strasberg Method Acting. No, he is an instinctive actor who received his direction and inspiration from working closely with Tsai.
The Chinese title of Rebels of the Neon God (Qing Shaonian Nezha) translates as The Young Nezha (Na Cha). Nezha in Chinese mythology is a headstrong and rebellious Chinese deity famed for defying his parents. Shot in the colorful district of Taipei's Ximen Ting, the disturbingly bleak film was finished in two months. Seen in totality, Rebels is a study of a youth's longing to be free from loneliness, gloom and deprivation. It also deals with the apparent homosexual fascination and repulsion of Hsiao Kang for the thug, Ah Tze. Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng), a disaffected youth is perceived by his dotty mum as the reincarnation of the cantankerous boy-god Nezha. A preparatory student, Hsiao Kang, is unable to concentrate on his studies. In the film's ominous start he is more involved with a cockroach than by his homework. He spears the miserable bug on his compass, then chucks it out of the rain-splattered window. When it flits back with the gust of wind, Hsiao Kang smashes the window, thus injuring his hand. He drops out of school, takes his tuition money and spends it wastefully. His incensed dad boots him out but leaves the door a little ajar.
Wandering aimlessly, Hsiao Kang chances upon a young hoodlum, Ah Tze, who rips off pay phones and vandalizes video arcades with his buddy, Ah Bing. Ah Tze's apartment is perpetually waterlogged and the lift always strangely stops at the haunted fourth level, as if to take in the ghostly inhabitants.
By the film's conclusion the protagonists have begun to haunt one another, especially for Hsiao Kang, who is both attracted and repulsed by Ah Tze's brutish ways but unable to befriend him. In his frustration an oblique homosexual transference takes place and turns inward, as Hsiao Kang's desire for the older chap becomes aggression and he smashes up Ah Tze's prized motorcycle by spraying AIDS across the petrol tank in revenge for the latter's smashing his father's taxi.
Ah Tze is enamored of Ah Kui, a skating rink girl whom he dates and almost beds. When Ah and Ah Tze try to steal the computer chipboards from a video arcade they are beaten by gangster bouncers but only Ah Tze manages to escape with minor injuries. He brings Hsiao Kang home and tucks him under a poster of a life-sized pin-up girl and gets his girlfriend to comfort him.
Towards the conclusion, Hsiao Kang joins a telephone dating service. He wanders into the street as dawn breaks over a sleepy Taipei, bleakly pondering the precarious existence of the three male protagonists. However, there may still be hope left -- Hsiao Kang leaves the dating door open -- as did his father when Kang left home.
Tsai's ironically titled Vive l'amour (Aiqing Wansui) offers nothing but bitterness, emotional and spiritual vacuity, and unsatisfied homosexual longing. When this nihilistic film was shown in Singapore, the snobs who went to pay to see the sexy coupling of Yang Kuei-Mei and Chen Zhao-Jung, they were awfully disappointed and left with loud and often vulgar complaints about the film's incomprehensibility.
More terse and silent than the Rebels, Vive l'amour is about the elusive love and urban anomie among three inhabitants of contemporary Taipei in the 1990s. It is a painful but lovely evocation of the longing and yearning of the trio. Dialogue is so sparse (more sparse than in Robert Bresson's l'Argent) that one gets a jolt when any of the characters speak. May (Yang Kuei-Mei), is a real estate agent selling mostly empty condominium apartments and empty houses; Ah Jung (Chen Zhao-Jung) is a freelance night-marketeer of designer Hongkong clothes. The emotionally fragile Ah Kang (again Lee Kang-Sheng) sells urn space in a columbarium. Employing almost real time and a slow pace, the film is nevertheless involving and hypnotic, especially to those familiar with the work of Antonioni or Chantal Akerman. Vive l'amour is landmark filmmaking.
In the film May picks up Ah Jung in a coffeehouse one night and, like Marion Brando and Maria Schneider in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris (1972), the couple have sex without any commitment in one of May's luxury condominiums. Unknown to them, Ah Kang has also set up home there, after discovering a forgotten key for the apartment door while delivering flyers advertising funeral space. Like Ah Kang, Ah Jung steals May's other key to the condominium and starts living there too. It is like a Tom-and-Jerry game of hide-and-seek, and the three develop the oddest of non-contact relationships: The gay Ah Kang watching fascinated their shackings -- falls in love with Ah Jung; the unsure but aggressive realtor May falls for Ah Jung who sees their sex trysts as nothing more than a physical encounter in his favor.
Vive l'amour is a sad commentary on the empty emotional and sexual lives of young Taiwanese who cannot love or feel any desire to be loved for all their faults and strengths. Ah Kang, the quintessential Tsai hero, is desperately looking for love -- in this case from the cold, feckless and physically heterosexual Ah Jung. May, though knowing her love for Ah Jung will come to nothing -- other than mere sensation followed by abandonment and betrayal -- will still have her last sex act of her life, still makes love to him. Sick of those meaningless trysts, she takes a cold, lonely walk through the maze of an incomplete public park, with nothing but empty benches and the fast rising materialistic, urban landscape of Taipei towering in the distance. Except for an old man as a distant companion, May sits alone on one of the cold grey benches, cries herself silly, lights a smoke, then cries again -- for the desperate loneliness of this thing called love. In the loud decibels of her wails and moans, one can hear the clanging of cement mixers, and the shuffling bustling noises of early morning joggers and commuters.
Perhaps the most erotic scene in Vive l'amour is the last sexual union of May and Ah Jung with Ah Kang under their bed synchronizing his masturbation climax with the rhythm of the pair's final orgasm. This film doubtless occupies a special place in the annals of world cinema -- displaying among other things an Antonioni-inspired sense of the impossibility of love between man and woman and the Bressonian notion of absurdity and the meaninglessness of love, life and affirmation in this godless universe.
1. Editor's note: Tsai's most recent film, The River (He liu, 1997), which forms a loose trilogy with Rebels of the Neon God and Vive l'amour, won the Silver Bear Prize at the 47th Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year.
Tsai Ming Liang Filmography
2003 Goodbye, Dragon Inn
2002 Skywalk is Gone
2001 What Time Is It There?
2001 A Conversation With God
1998 The Hole
1997 The River
1995 My New Friends
1994 Vive lAmour
1992 Rebels of the Neon God
1991 Wode Yinwenmingzi jiao (TV-Film)
1990 Mary (TV-Film)
1990 Li xiangde Ganqingxian (TV-Film)
1990 Ah xiongde chulian qingren (TV-Film)
1989 All the Corners of the World
1989 Kuaile chefang (TV-Film)
1989 Bu liao qing (TV-Film)
1989 Haijiao tianya (TV-Film)
1988 Jia jiafu (TV-Film)