Alone together in Taipei

Source: NY Review of Books (June 10, 2021)
Alone Together in Taipei
Intimacy in Tsai Ming-liang’s films is an elusive possession, but the desire for it is constant and always particular.
By Max Nelson

Lee Kang-sheng in Tsai Ming-liang’s Days

Grasshopper Film. Lee Kang-sheng in Tsai Ming-liang’s Days, 2020

In 1997 the Taiwanese film and theater director Tsai Ming-liang premiered a movie called The River. It starred Lee Kang-sheng, who has had major parts in all eleven of Tsai’s feature films, as a young man living with his parents who develops agonizing, mysterious neck pains after visiting a film set and agreeing to play a floating corpse. Tsai’s previous two theatrical releases, Rebels of the Neon God (1992) and Vive L’Amour (1994), had been tense, entrancing portraits of young people rattling through Taipei’s streets, parks, arcades, restaurants, and apartment buildings, making brief contact and simmering in isolation. In both of those films, Lee plays a voyeuristic onlooker who follows an outlaw played by Chen Chao-jung and watches him have a fleeting love affair with an equally adrift woman. When we last see Lee in Vive L’Amour, he’s hiding under the bed and masturbating while the couple has sex above him, then slipping out and giving Chen’s sleeping character a kiss on the cheek.

The River carried the tone of those films past where many viewers were willing to follow it. “I was almost boycotted by the entire Taiwanese audience,” Tsai said in a 2003 interview with the critic Chris Fujiwara and the scholar Shujen Wang. At the core of the controversy was a single five-and-a-half-minute-long shot: a scene of inadvertent incest between Lee’s character and his father (Miao Tien) in a dimly lit gay bathhouse.

That scene was a breakthrough for one of Tsai’s career-long projects: emphasizing his characters’ material needs and hungers. The River is about “a family, a wife, husband, son,” he told Wang and Fujiwara. “But in their attitudes I make them go back to the very beginning, to zero. So they are just three bodies.” And yet what made that scene in the bathhouse so startling might have been what the scholar Rey Chow has since called its “reciprocal tenderness.”

The shot itself is beautiful, a high-contrast tableau spotlit from above and draped in shadow. For Tsai to reduce the people onscreen to “just three bodies” was not in this case to resign them to a bare or hollow life. It was to give them, in Chow’s words, “a different sensorium,” a frighteningly wide new range of ways to relate to one another. “It was precisely because they were anonymous,” Tsai said, “that the intimacy could take place.”

Intimacy in Tsai’s films is an elusive possession. The desire for it, however, is constant and concrete: it stings, itches, presses, burns. Tsai is best known among international audiences as a filmmaker of patient long takes, often without camera movement, and much of the energy in his movies comes from the friction between his unhurried, meticulously staged shots and what they document: aching scenes of closeness seized and lost. “If he didn’t hold his images fast,” the critic and filmmaker Jeff Reichert once wrote, “his characters and films might explode.” …. [continue reading at NYRB]

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