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Slow fuse: the cinematic strategies of Tsai Ming-Liang.

Over the last two decades, Tsai Ming-Liang has proved his considerable worth as an artist with an assortment of strange, haunting films. Like Hou Hsiao-Hsien and the late Edward Yang, the other two principal figures of Taiwanese cinema with whom he is so often associated, he has relied heavily on such methods as long takes, stationary camera compositions and minimal dialogue. Yet he has also distinguished his unique authorial voice primarily through such reoccurring elements as sexuality, the human body, water and other fluids, urban life, loneliness, tributes to beloved artists like Grace Chang and Francois Truffaut and the continual onscreen presence of Lee Kang-Sheng, about whom Tsai has gone so far as to say that he will never make a film without him. (1) As he has risen to become one of contemporary cinema's most relevant directors, his stance has remained in stark opposition to the practices and mentalities of mainstream cinema. If his films themselves weren't proof enough, Tsai has repeatedly voiced in interviews and post-screening talks his allegiance to art films and personal visions in a global film market increasingly congested with standardized, Hollywood-style products assembled for the primary aim of making money. On one such occasion, he stated the following:

If film is art, then the work should be an artist's reflections, rather than something catering to the mass public. There are, of course, some commercial films that exceed expectations and become great art. But I know I am not interested in making films just to make a profit. My film work is my own creation; it is inseparable from my life experience. (2)

His adherence to such beliefs has produced works that provide immersive, challenging viewing experiences orchestrated according to his specific approach to settings and characters. Indeed, to echo a comment Roger Ebert once made about Andrei Tarkovsky's films, (3) Tsai doesn't focus on telling stories so much as crafting cinematic spaces that urge audiences towards a state of contemplation. Shots and cuts aren't designed to briskly propel his characters from one scene and plot point to the next, but rather have the opposite effect. As a result, the characters are allowed to simply live under the camera's gaze in apartments, corridors and public settings, their habits, mannerisms, quirks and desires gradually made more familiar. Acutely showcasing his unmistakable gift for capturing authentic human behavior and the sacred moments of stillness that litter everyday life, Tsai's films are very much concerned with the rewards to be gained from watching, waiting--lingering.


Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) features such priorities pushed to the extreme. Depicting an old Taipei movie house's final night of service, it is essentially a minimalist tone poem delivered over the course of eighty-two minutes. Dialogue is only spoken in a scant few scenes, the first one appearing at roughly the halfway mark. The small assortment of characters consists of spectators scattered throughout the theatre and two staff members played by Tsai regulars Lee and Chen Shiang-Chyi. Small actions and details like Chen's limping steps, the numerous shifts between seats, cigarette breaks, snacking and the rain outside serve as major focal points for the audience's attention. Dragon Inn (1967), the rousing, King Hu-directed martial arts film playing on the aged screen, provides a bold contrast to Tsai's film, which quietly culminates in the building's painstakingly subdued evacuation and closure.

Such characteristics make Goodbye, Dragon Inn seem like the ideal text to turn to for an examination of Tsai's stylistic methods. However, that particular film can be a misleading representative of his capabilities, as he has elsewhere taken on more substantial thematic, character and story elements. (4) In a way, Goodbye, Dragon Inn signifies something of an anomaly in his body of work; a meditative deviation from his other, similarly slow-paced yet more emphatically structured films. Tsai tends to invest his narratives with an understated but nonetheless well-defined sense of trajectory and momentum integrated into his contemplative approach, creating a richly interactive experience for viewers. The pressurized tensions within his main characters steadily escalate towards a clearly defined high point, resulting in an emotionally charged release. Such exercises reveal a confident ability to marry theme and plot that is brought to the fore in enormously rewarding moments of cinematic cohesion. Three key works--The Hole (1998), What Time is it There? (2001) and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006)--will be examined to illustrate more fully how Tsai crafts his films to resemble slow fuses that steadily yet inevitably burn towards detonation.


The Hole (1998)

From its opening sequence onwards, The Hole immediately sets itself apart from Hollywood fare by adopting an idiosyncratic approach to a well-worn genre: the apocalyptic disaster film. With its main premise surrounding a mysterious epidemic that causes a city-wide evacuation of Taipei, The Hole is essentially an end-of-the-world movie, though one molded according to Tsai's sensibilities. The opening title sequence indicates as much, as the disaster is established in a simple, economical manner through a radio broadcast. Thus, the central event that would have served as a commercial venture's roison d'etre built upon scenes of large, panicked crowds and destructive spectacle is here boiled down to an off-screen occurrence. With the broadcast, which also establishes the film's city setting before a single image has appeared, Tsai provides the first clue that he is not interested in making a conventional disaster film so much as conducting a study of how people live and interact (or, more precisely, are unable to do so) in urban environments. Restricted to a nearly empty apartment building and an indoor market, the spaces occupied by the characters consist of dingy, puddle-filled hallways, leaky apartments and dark stairwells--essentially a claustrophobic, man-made labyrinth made all the more stifling by the torrential downpour of rain that carries on throughout the film. As per his customary habits, Tsai eschews an original score and primarily uses long takes to record his two main characters Hsiao-Kang/Lee Kang-Sheng and the unnamed woman who lives directly below him (Yang Kuei-Mei). Many of the scenes are spent on small, seemingly insignificant tasks and chores: meal preparations; unsuccessful attempts to halt leakages; Hsiao-Kang's routine of opening, running and closing his market stall, even though he has barely any customers to serve. Despite the arrival of a major emergency, mundane habits are still stubbornly upheld, material goods still sought, accumulated and consumed. The sensual quality of Hsiao-Kang and Yang's world is defined perhaps most vividly by the many sounds that fill the soundtrack: the crinkling of plastic packaging, dripping leaks, a hissing gas burner, the occasional radio or television program and, of course, the never-ending rain. Actual words are not so important, and indeed, verbal communication is noticeably sparse both in this and other films of Tsai's.

Hsiao-Kang and Yang themselves don't speak face-to-face until thirty-five minutes into the film, their words only consisting of a very brief, formal exchange regarding the hole between their apartments. Through their peculiar relationship, Tsai cleverly highlights the habits of self-imposed seclusion all too present in contemporary society. It is highly amusing to note that, out of all of the available spaces in their apartment building, Hsiao-Kang and Yang live in such close proximity to one another, yet still maintain private personal lives. One can sense a sort of restless glee in the way Tsai disrupts their routines through the intrusive incidents put into motion by the hole's appearance. The first one is a small triumph of comedic timing: Yang enjoys a moment of calm as she stands in the middle of her apartment with her face upturned, only to receive a face full of powdery foundation that trickles down onto her from above. An action-reaction dynamic eventually emerges: Hsiao-Kang, after a night of drinking, vomits into the hole; Yang cleans up the mess. He peeks into her apartment; she sprays him with bug repellant, causing him to cover the hole with a pot lid. He uses his faucet; she is deprived of water until he is finished.

Such occurrences and more direct yet ultimately ineffective attempts at communication (a note left on a door, unanswered buzzers) are punctuated by four musical sequences that might take place in either character's imagination, or be wholly isolated, non-diegetic events. Each one set to a different Grace Chang song, they provide colorful departures from the rest of the film's aesthetic while not quite making the full jump into the realm of glossy Hollywood productions. Instead, they have a low-budget feel about them, perhaps best exemplified in the introductory rendition of "Calypso" with its wavering spotlight, simple decoration provided by blinking lights and Yang's costume and the single take in which the camera slowly moves towards her dancing figure, then pulls back. It becomes apparent that the songs give voice to emotions that otherwise go undeclared, specifically illustrating Yang's feelings of both annoyance and affection towards Hsiao-Kang and, in the last number, underlining her affliction with the illness.

In the film's final movement, the characters' situations become markedly more serious, the tone more despairing and the surrounding forces of city and weather more intense and invasive. Another long take that indicates Tsai's ability to elaborate upon a given situation in a single shot shows Yang curled up on her bed, her poor health made clear by her loud, slurping breaths. Many seconds later, she turns on her light, suddenly revealing the water trickling down the walls around her. The outpouring of sobs that follows makes her utter helplessness complete. As she reverts to cockroach-like behavior (a preestablished symptom of the disease) and hides in the mound of paper towel products she has stockpiled in her home, Hsiao-Kang's concern for her grows increasingly apparent. Having cleared away the rubble and dirt around the hole, he attacks it with a hammer, his aggressive pounding accompanied by desperate calls to her and, eventually, his own weeping. Not only does his sadness complement hers from moments before, but it is also easily the most outgoing expression of emotion from him thus far, emphasizing the bleak depths the story has now reached.

But then, when all hope seems to be lost, a truly miraculous event occurs. In a perfectly framed shot, Hsiao-Kang's arm descends into her apartment from above, first offering the panting Yang a glass of water, then pulling her up through the hole. The following shot, and final one of the film, is presented in the same style as the musical numbers, playing one last Chang song as Hsiao-Kang and Yang, now respectively wearing a white suit and red dress, slowly dance in his apartment. Following the previously grim events, Tsai lets hope prevail in a moment of pure happiness in which all barriers have been tran-scended and the two lost souls are finally united, their feelings no longer withheld from one another.

What Time is it There? (2001)

In What Time is it There? Tsai constructs a noticeably more sophisticated picture of spiritual emptiness and confusion in the modern world. This time around, the contrivance of a devastating virus is not required to create a sense of estrangement between the key players, who are inflicted with a certain incompleteness in their lives. Fitting in that regard is the film's integral motif of absence, which occupies the two main storylines. The film opens with the death of an old man (Tien Miao), leaving behind his son Hsiao-Kang (Lee), and his wife (Lu Yi-Ching). She becomes obsessed with bringing her husband's spirit back into their apartment, throwing herself into Buddhist ceremonies and the preparation of lavish feasts for him. Hsiao-Kang, scared of the dark and eventually annoyed by the rituals, takes to secluding himself in his room and urinating into plastic bags and water bottles so as to avoid going outside. By day, he sells watches on a busy overpass where he meets Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi) shortly before she takes off on a trip to Paris and, after some haggling, sells her his own dual-time watch. Seemingly inspired by his encounter with her, he assigns himself a personal mission to change as many clocks as he can to Paris time, which humorously results in his mother assuminq that her husband is partial to that specific timeframe. On the other side of the world, Shiang-Chyi explores the city of Paris in a state of aimlessness and insecurity.

Time's focus shifts between Hsiao-Kang, his mother and Shiang-Chyi as they effectively isolate themselves in their separate lives, busying themselves with ultimately empty pursuits. In the hands of a different filmmaker, the story elements in play here (a father's death, the fleeting possibility of a romance, acts of love carried out as quirky public stunts) might have been presented in a more remarkable, perhaps even over-the-top manner. Instead, Tsai keeps things low-key and restrained, only breaking the calm for a select few moments, the most violent of which being the tense clash between mother and son over her decision to cut the apartment's power so as to better please the father's spirit. In fact one can gain a sense of how tightly Tsai controls the film's tone by paying special attention to its editing. At numerous points, he skips ahead in the narrative by cutting away from a particular event or situation to a later point in time. The most significant example is in the first two shots, in which a long take resting on the old man gives way to Hsiao-Kang sitting in the backseat of a moving car, his father's ashes resting in his lap. This device has a two-fold effect: it shows Tsai's efficient management of screen time while also stressing the fleeting quality of the images and the moments they present. No matter how long a take might be, it is always endangered by the inevitable arrival of the next cut and the possibly drastic changes it could bring about.


As if in response to this, Tsai takes many opportunities throughout Time to enrich certain shots with subtle yet playful features that hinge upon time as if to further stress his unsuspecting characters' ceaseless passage into the future. Some shots' lengths are made more pronounced by metrical sound effects that mark the passage of screen time: Hsiao-Kang's steady clanging of a new unbreakable watch against a metal post, cooked ducks being chopped up at a food stall, the oft-repeated sounds of footsteps both in Shiang-Chyi's hotel room and out on the streets, the ticking time pieces and chiming alarm clocks that so often surround Hsiao-Kang. Often, the long shot durations give viewers sufficient time for their eyes to explore and search the multi-layered images, many of which contain cunningly placed subjects worthy of attention. Sometimes, the focal point will be fairly obvious, such as the television on which Hsiao-Kang watches The 400 Blows or the clock that counts upwards as he avoids detection in a maintenance room of some kind, the shot length emphasized even more by the visual measurement of the passing seconds. In a subtler instance, the mother warns Hsiao-Kang not to harm a bug that could be his reincarnated father. Ignoring her, he puts it in their fish tank where, in the corner of the frame, the fish gobbles it up and proceeds to swim around lazily as she sits down to her dinner, unaware of the insect's fate. Objects specifically linked to characters' innermost yearnings are also placed in certain compositions, often so unobtrusively that viewers could miss them. Nonetheless, they are there: when Shiang-Chyi is shown lying in her bed in Paris, Hsiao-Kang's watch can be seen on her bedside table, thousands of miles away from its previous owner. Similarly, the box holding the cake that she gives to him as a gift of gratitude can be seen sitting on his car's dashboard multiple times following her departure. The subtle way in which these tokens are presented compliments the subdued nature of Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-Chyi's connection, which is built more upon the possibility of love than love itself. Notably, in the few scenes they share together, they barely show any signs of personal interest in one another, instead talking business about his watch. Only when she gives him the cake and he looks at her as she walks away does there seem to be a glimmer of promise for affection between them. From this point onwards, Tsai gives the potency of the brief encounter its due, nurturing the delicate connection that organically develops between his two subjects with the utmost patience over the course of this and later films.


But in Time, it becomes apparent that Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-Chyi aren't searching for a connection with each other so much as just a connection with anybody. While she initially inspires him to go about his clock-changing mission, her importance to him seems to steadily diminish, as indicated by the forgotten cake on his dashboard that he eventually chucks out of his car window, its meaning to him having expired. Shiang-Chyi appears desperate to find any sort of companionship in the strange city she finds herself. Apparently no other reason beyond an innocent wish to sight-see has brought her to Paris, but her encounters there impart little more, if anything, besides disillusionment, fear, uncertainty and, ultimately, heartbreak. A friendly face finally emerges in the form of a woman from Hong Kong (Cecilia Yip) who comforts her following a bout of sickness from drinking too much coffee with a glass of hot water and conversation in Mandarin. Shiang-Chyi is invited back to her room, setting the stage for Time's expertly arranged emotional climax--which can be more accurately described as an anti-climax, given the utterly unsatisfying sensations of emptiness experienced by all three main characters. The mother, having fully submitted to her grief, prepares for an imaginary "date" with her deceased husband, who is poignantly represented by yet another significantly placed object: a framed picture through which his eyes seem to study both his wife and the audience. She eventually masturbates on a bed while Hsiao-Kang spends a night on the town and ends up having sex with a prostitute in his car. Shiang-Chyi comes the closest to reaching genuine contentment: in bed with Yip's character, their bodies slowly move closer until they gently kiss. But soon afterwards, Yip slowly recoils, then turns away from Shiang-Chyi, signaling with painful clarity that the moment has passed. Shiang-Chyi retreats to a barren park, where her tear-streaked face serves as a naked portrait of her sadness. Rarely has loneliness and disappointment been rendered so clearly in a film, though Tsai has ended films on these notes before, as seen in Vive L'Amour (1994) and The River (1997). However, Time's final moments supply some hope: Hsiao-Kang returns home to find his mother fast asleep and covers her with his jacket in a small act of reconciliation. And in Paris, small reminders of his continuing influence in Shiang-Chyi's life are put forth through his watch, which she retrieves before leaving Yip's room; the mysterious appearance of his father, who recovers her luggage after its abduction by mischievous children and, in the exquisite final shot, a Ferris wheel revolving counter-clockwise, mirroring Hsiao-Kang's efforts to turn back time.

Tsai would continue to sustain the possibility of love between Lee and Chen's characters in his short film The Skywalk is Gone (2002), in which they come tantalizingly close to meeting once more, before finally depicting their long-awaited convergence in The Wayward Cloud (2005). That film, with its water shortage premise and lavish fantasy scenes, places many ingredients reminiscent of The Hole into the Hsiao-Kang/Shiang-Chyi storyline, as if he wanted to treat the pair to an eccentric apocalyptic musical of their own.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006)

Shot in Kuala Lumpur, capital of his birthplace Malaysia, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is Tsai's first film set entirely outside of Taiwan. This time, his gaze is mainly set on poor and marginalized immigrants who live in the city, expanding upon the cultural displacement Shiang-Chyi experienced in Paris in Time to now portray people who have learned to make their own ways as outsiders. However, some still have much to learn, as demonstrated by Lee's drifter, also named Hsiao-Kang, who is beaten up by a pack of scam artists. He is rescued by Rawang (Norman Atun), a Bangladeshi construction worker who devotes himself to Lee's recovery. After regaining his strength, Hsiao-Kang pursues a young waitress (Chen) who is burdened with caring for her employer's paralyzed son, played by Lee in a second role. Tsai portrays this latest network of desire with the utmost tact and a bare minimum of dialogue, to such an extent that the film's central love triangle of Hsiao-Kang, Rawang and Chen develops without a single word spoken between any of them. Verbal communication somehow feels inadequate here, and so the characters instead employ a language of gestures to express their innermost emotions. At the heart of the film is the tender bond formed between Hsiao-Kang and Rawang as the helpless patient is nursed back to health by his kind benefactor. Several of their scenes together unfold in the darkened confines of the room where Rawang sleeps, which offers a comforting haven in the form of a mosquito net-covered bed that sits beside a poster tellingly depicting a red rose and the words "I Love You." It is here where Rawang and Hsiao-Kang find some safe refuge from the hazards of the hard urban wilderness around them.

A cooler variation of this dynamic is presented through Lee's second character, who is even more at the mercy of others due to his condition. His mother, played by Pearlly Chua, remains steadfastly dedicated to her son just as Rawang is to Hsiao-Kang, though Chen is much more reluctant in her own role as caregiver. Acts such as feeding and washing, performed in an affectionate manner by Rawang, become mere chores carried out with thoroughness and haste by Chen. Here, with perhaps more clarity than ever before in Tsai's work, love exists as a precious commodity that is sought, hoarded, savored and selectively dispersed amongst his characters. Rare moments of extreme behavior like Rawang's furious response to Hsiao-Kang's infidelity emphasize its powerful influence within Sleep's interwoven storylines. The stripped-down aesthetic that shapes the film combined with its deft balance of characters and desires show the restrained purity of Goodbye, Dragon Inn refitted for more ambitious aims, the successful results of which forming possibly Tsai's most impressive achievement to date.

In the final half-hour, Tsai brings about yet another of his catastrophes, this time plumes of toxic smoke from forest fires in Sumatra. The haze forces the city's inhabitants to don improvised face masks made from cloths and plastic bags and transforms the urban setting into an even more alien and hostile environment than the one previously shown. This development intensifies the urgency of the characters' ongoing attempts

to find or make a safe shelter from the outside elements, which is perhaps best represented by the repeated image of the discarded mattress being moved across the city from one place to another. For a time, the cavernous derelict building where Rawang works almost becomes the perfect spot, though even there attempts at intimacy are totally sabotaged, as illustrated by the scene in which Hsiao-Kang and Chen's amorous embraces are halted by the suffocating fumes. But Tsai eventually grants his central trio the solace they seek in another perfect, summative final image. In, again, what could be an imagined dream space, Chen, Hsiao-Kang and Rawang peacefully rest together on the mattress as it floats into the frame on the building's man-made lake, a glowing, anemone-like trinket earlier presented as a gift of courtship from Hsiao-Kang to Chen (evoking the meaningful objects exchanged in Time) shimmering behind them. Skeptical viewers could see this conclusion as inadequate given such loose ends as the lack of direct interaction between Chen and Rawang up to that point; the discontinuity surrounding the mattress' location, since it was last moved to Chen's room rather than back to the building and the more ambiguous fates of the mother, who is denied a relationship with Hsiao-Kang following a one-off sexual encounter in an alleyway, and her bed-ridden son. But as a thematic resolution to the film's slowly simmering torrents of longing, it works splendidly.

While Tsai regards Francois Truffaut as a major inspiration, his sensibilities are more closely aligned with another French auteur, Jacques Tati, whose mastery over the temporal, spatial and sonic properties of cinema and a gift for melding comedy with commentary and messages about the pitfalls of modernity make his films incredibly worthy of comparison to his Eastern counterpart. The two even resemble each other in the way they dodge conventional approaches to narrative in favor of crafting layer upon layer of sound, music, architecture, gags and human behavior that can take multiple viewings in order to be fully appreciated. But beyond these sensory details, there is the underlying consideration of simple, universal conditions such as despair, loneliness and longing that are carefully yet unmistakably given their due in Tsai's films. For while his approach may initially appear distant and methodical to the point of alienating certain viewers, he nonetheless demonstrates real concern for his characters, showing the effects, both harmful and otherwise, of the ever-shifting world of traffic, signs and surfaces they live in. The end goal they strive towards is, simply, the realization of love, their individual struggles made all the more affecting by the unaccommodating conditions in which they unfold. Whether they consist of the shocking sexual act that brings together Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-Chyi in The Wayward Cloud or the sublime parting shots of The Hole and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, those precious, long-awaited moments that Tsai grants his lost souls lay bare the beating heart that drives his work forwards, wholly justifying every second of screen time spent getting there.


(1.) Peter van der Lugt and Ard Vijn, "IFFR 2010: An Interview with Tsai Ming-Liang," Twitch, December 9, 2009, accessed April 1, 2011,

(2.) Tsai Ming-Liang, "On the Uses and Misuses of Cinema/' Senses of Cinema Issue 58, 2011, accessed March 30, 2011,

(3.) Roger Ebert, "Solaris (1972)," rogereberLcom, January 19th, 2003, accessed March 30, 2011,

(4.) This is not meant to ignore or discredit Goodbye, Dragon Inn's own noteworthy accomplishments, most obvious among them a mournful consideration of a rapidly diminishing era of filmmaking and moviegoing.

Marc Saint-Cyr studied cinema and history at the University of Toronto. A staff writer for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow, he has also contributed to the first and second print volumes of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan from intellect Ltd. and the websites Midnight Eye and Row Three
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Author:Saint-Cyr, Marc
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9TAIW
Date:Oct 22, 2011
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