Written by Terez Vincz
The key figure of the second wave of Taiwanese New Cinema, Tsai Ming-liang’s The Walker (2012) consists of twenty-one shots recorded by a fixed camera. This article will continue to show you some of these pictures and their connection to the oeuvre’s features. (“Picture” here refers to the different episodes that were shot at the same location. There are some “pictures” that are presented in two or three shots.)
The first picture shows our hero as walking from a dark staircase towards an exit that is represented in the depth of the frame as a patch of light. Those who are familiar with the director’s work know this image well. Corridors of hotels and housing blocks, underpasses, sewer systems, underground tunnels full of pipelines, corridors running across columbaria, and obscure passageways of saunas frequented by gay customers – these are the spaces frequently featured in Tsai’s films. These locations usually presented in a way that the depth of the image is stressed by putting the composition in perspective – the viewer looks into a visual tunnel at the end of which some light may flickering but, in a metaphorical sense, the heroes of Tsai usually unsuccessfully escape the darkness of these tunnels.
The next section of Walker plays with geometric, flat compositions and mirroring surfaces. The second picture is a purposefully two-dimensional composition: our hero walks in front of a wall. The major part of the wall is densely covered by posters, the other half is a dark, mirroring surface. Creating contrast between density and emptiness is one of the recurrent artistic strategies of Tsai. Meanwhile most of his films take place in the bustling city of Taipei, his characters mostly being seen as lonely, isolated figures in empty flats, deserted underpasses, corridors, streets and parks. For example, in the film The Hole (Dong, 1998) that was made apropos of the millennium, our heroes live in a district that was evacuated because of a mysterious virus – in spite of evacuation orders the man and woman stay in the deserted, dilapidated building. The emptiness of this word is in high contrast with the colourful, lively and joyful musical numbers representing the fantasies of the female character. In The Wayward Cloud (Tian bian yi duo yun, 2005) those are again the colourful musical numbers that create contrast with the emptiness represented by bleak and emotionless episodes of pornography.
The effect of the third picture is based on the contrast between the extreme geometry created by mirroring surfaces of the modern megacity, and the human figure. Mirrors and mirroring are crucial elements of Tsai’s aesthetic. Many of his long takes that were shot by a fixed camera create a very sophisticated, highly saturated visual surface that challenges the viewer – indeed a long time is needed to understand and to decode the complicated visual riddle. Visage is a prime example in this regard. It is a film about the shooting of a film in Paris that is based on the Salome story, directed by a character played by the favourite actor and alter ego, Lee Kang-Sheng. A recurring scene takes place in a mirror labyrinth that is set up in a forest. In the dialogue the characters also refer to probably the most memorable mirror labyrinth scene of film history: Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947). The self-reflexivity of this film is interestingly interwoven with the reflection about the entire oeuvre of Tsai. Visage was Tsai Ming-liang’s ninth feature film (meaning it was his 8 and 1/2th while in the making), it is about a film director, played by the alter ego of Tsai, who has problems in completing his film. Visage obviously is the 8 and 1/2 of Tsai Ming-liang.
From the fifth picture another constant element of Tsai’s oeuvre taking the lead: the anatomy of existence in a metropolis. In the following pictures the artificial lights and glimmers of the ultramodern metropolis become central. Although this film takes place in Hong Kong it seems logical to assume that while showing Hong Kong, Tsai also speaks about Taipei and big cities in general. In many of his films he and his characters, sometimes literally, cry about the disappearance of the old, traditional Taipei. At the end of Vive l’amour the closing long take is six minutes long and depicts the crying heroine while sitting on a bench in a newly created, half-finished city park that was, in real life, built by erasing without trace a traditional district of old Taipei and its community. With Goodbye Dragon Inn Tsai devoted an entire film to a nostalgic farewell to an old, traditional cinema house that is being closed down for good.
In the tenth picture a tiny but important detail is present. This film does not emphasize the otherwise almost always present motif of water: Tsai’s films are usually full of all kinds of water: rain, water leaking from pipe lines, uncontrollable sewer systems, polluted rivers, water springing unexpectedly from asphalt covered streets. But the motif of water can be found in this shot. In the upper right corner of the frame, on the higher floor of the building surrounded by scaffolding, the attentive viewer can spot an aquarium lit by bluish-green light. While our attention is probably searching for the walker on the distant street, Tsai seems to care for carefully incorporating the important motif of water into this film.
The fifteenth picture evokes a crucial motif of the oeuvre of Tsai Ming-liang. The picture depicts a huge, brightly lit billboard with an angel faced young man with a perfect bod, posing in underwear. The picture on the billboard in the background is sharp, the walker passing in front of the billboard is out of focus. The feminine, overly sexualized image of the male model evokes, especially in a Tsai film that often deals with the topic, the theme of homosexuality. Already in his first film, The Rebels of the Neon God, this theme is present. It is not clear whether the hero, played by Lee Kang-sheng, only wants to make friends with the neighbourhood boys who are depicted as sexually potent, or if he is erotically drawn to them. Vive l’amour closes on a clearly homoerotic note when the hero played again by Lee Kang-sheng kisses on the mouth his heterosexual friend. What Time is it There? depicts a hesitant lesbian episode, and the films Goodbye Dragon Inn and I don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Hei yan quan, 2006) are built around gay themes and motifs. And probably the most controversial piece is The River (He liu, 1997) in which isolation and the impossibility of communication leads to sexual intercourse between father and son in the complete darkness of a gay sauna. This motif of homosexuality in Tsai’s films is usually depicted in relation to loneliness, lack of human bonds, extreme isolation, and the erosion of family relations. The motif is often combined with the sense of homelessness in a literal and also in a metaphoric sense.
At the end of Walker our hero arrives to a closed iron gate that has the sign: “no entry”. The closing shot changes into a close-up and the walker lifts the sandwich, he was carrying all along, to his mouth and takes a bite. Meanwhile a nostalgic song starts to play on the soundtrack. Although the walker has reached a dead end, the gesture of eating stresses continuation and survival. Since then we have also learned that this closure was a symbolic one in relation to Tsai’s art. After the film Stray Dogs, produced the year after Walker, Tsai announced his retirement from feature film making. He seemingly closed one gate but moved into new directions. Since then he has been continuing the Walker-series and moving into new spaces and places by installing his short films in museums and galleries, transforming his work into stage performances (The Monk from the Tang Dynasty), and experimenting with the documentary format (Your Face, 2018).
The monographers of Tsai described his work as an art of refrains, repetitions, and loops – looking back on the symbolic arrival of the walker to a closed gate in 2012 seems to be an end of a circle inside the loop of Tsai’s oeuvre. The closed gate embodies the closure of a period in his art, and the sandwich eating monk is the sign of gathering the strength to continue the journey of a slow walk into new cities and continents, into new spaces and places.
Dr. Terez Vincze is an assistant professor at ELTE Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary. firstname.lastname@example.org