The Poetics of Tsai Ming-liang 

Written by Cecília Mello

The films of Tsai Ming-liang have been helping to shape our world cinema landscape since the early 1990s. On one hand, they belong to what has been called a ‘return to the real’ in the audiovisual media, which, not by chance, coincided with the introduction and gradual adoption of the digital format in all areas of film production. Tsai’s work, made on both celluloid and digital, displays a preoccupation with realism that manifests itself in his preference for the long take and the deep focus, as well as for the use of real locations – in a privileged engagement with space and architecture, natural light and an emphasis on the everyday. This makes him an inheritor of Bazin’s aesthetic school, and it also means that his cinema has strong transnational ties with other exponents of world cinema of the same period, equally preoccupied with cinema’s realist credentials.

On the other hand, Tsai’s cinema has always been highly idiosyncratic, and any one of his faithful spectators will be able to attest to the web of related themes, characters and spaces that animate his films. This helps to create a feeling of intimacy between the audience and Tsai’s on-screen world. Central to this is Lee Kang-sheng, or Xiao Kang, the filmmaker’s alter-ego and fetish actor, appearing repeatedly in every one of his films, ageing before a camera that intimately observes and depicts his face and his body. In fact, Tsai once said that his career in the cinema had been moved by the desire to film Lee Kang-sheng as he walks, moves, sleeps, breathes. Out of this corporeal emphasis, that constantly calls attention to cinema’s defining tension between materiality and representation, comes another important dimension of Tsai’s work, his subtle comedic vein, with distant echoes of the corporeal humour of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati.

All of this makes Tsai’s oeuvre, comprising ten feature films and numerous other short and medium-length films, documentaries and a bold experiment in VR (The Deserted2017, made in collaboration with Taiwanese company HTC’s Virtual Reality Content Centre), one of the main contributions to the cinematographic art in the history of the medium.  It is also possible to see in Tsai’s art a comment on the gradual changes in this medium that, as mentioned before, have been motivated by the digital revolution, that has put into question general assumptions about what  cinema is or could be, both in terms of its modes of production and exhibition. Tsai’s gradual interest in the space of the museum, which could have been exacerbated by his filming inside the space of – and by invitation of – the Paris Louvre in 2009, has seen him producing films that find their ideal house not so much in the film theatre but in the gallery, creating installations that provide an intensified haptic experience to the visitor.

The realisation of the inexorable changes in the way films are made and enjoyed, which would later materialise in Tsai’s growing preference for the gallery and the museum, as well as in his recurrent threats of retiring from the cinema (thankfully still unfulfilled), is behind in one of his masterpieces, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, made in 2003 in an old film theatre in Taipei. There, the last picture show is King Hu’s wuxia classic Dragon Gate Inn from 1967, and in the almost empty cinema, which has also become a gay cruising spot, there sits the film’s two main actors, the great Shih Chun and Miao Tien. Here, Tsai parallels the changes in the cinema and the weaning cinephilia in the turn of the century with the changes in the city, whose own intense spatial transformation also poses a problem to those who live in it, bringing about a loss of memory.

Tsai’s adherence to both a Bazinian and corporeal realism, and his wonderful idiosyncrasies lead towards the creation of a very peculiar and particular world.  Therefore, they also include a poignant and necessary reflection about the cinematic medium itself, ever-changing in a world that becomes each day more audiovisually moved and defined. Tsai has also been changing, sometimes doubling as a business man who sells gourmet coffees alongside Lee Kang-sheng and Lu Yi-ching (Tsai Lee Lu coffees), and more recently taken to singing old Chinese classics (I had the chance to see one of this performances in Taipei in 2017). But it seems like he never quite manages to abandon cinema altogether, whatever cinema may be. Along the past three decades, he has become one of the great artists of our time, a true ‘cinematic master’, inspiring a whole new generation of filmmakers in the 21st century. These filmmakers include, first and foremost, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, an avowed follower of Tsai’s genius, and he himself one of the defining artists of this century.  These are the names and the films that show how the cinema has no single centre, and therefore no periphery. Cinema is, as Lúcia Nagib and others have shown, a polycentric phenomenon, with peaks of creation in different parts of the world at different historical periods. Hailing from Taiwan via Malaysia, Tsai’s poetics are their own centre, forever ingrained in the map of world cinema, and helping us to make sense of it.

Cecília Mello teaches film theory and film editing at the Department of Film, Radio and Television of the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Her research interests include Chinese cinemas, British cinema and television and world cinema theory. She has been Visiting Fellow at Taipei National University of the Arts on two occasions, in 2010 and 2017 (MOFA Taiwan Fellowship). Image Credit: Flickr: marcokalmann

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