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By : Lou Collier

6 min read

Tsai Ming-Liang Retrospective • Harvard Film Archive, until 10/21

Part of what interests me about director Tsai Ming-Liang is the fact that he’s been able to have such a long and productive feature film career making the kind of difficult, outlandish work that he does. His movies bridge the gap between gallery video art and narrative commercial cinema in a way I haven’t encountered in any other single film, let alone an entire body of work. These films, which he started making in the early 90s, are mostly set in Taiwan, focusing on listless outsiders in beautifully decaying environments (such as the ticket seller in the cavernous movie theater of “Goodbye, Dragon Inn”). His characters are often crushingly lonely, and this loneliness is heightened by the fact that it’s often unclear how (if at all) these people are connected in the narrative.

I think it’s safe to say that most general audiences would consider Tsai Ming-Liang’s work to be particularly difficult. His films have long stretches with no clear action or emotion, bursts of negative emotion when feelings are expressed, and a fascination with the abject (puking, mysterious illnesses, chronic pain/injury, and strange sexual encounters, especially in “The Hole” and “The River”). They also contain precisely composed static shots of characters barely moving or speaking for several minutes at a time, and in one case the film lingers on an empty room long after the protagonist has left. The final shot of “Vive L’Amour” is a close up of a woman crying on a bench for 6 minutes. These elements might not sound that demanding if you’re familiar with other works of “slow cinema.” But I’ve found that films by other directors in that “genre” reorient your expectations and put you on their wavelength in a way that doesn’t happen for me while watching Tsai’s work, possibly because elements of his movies (especially the earlier ones) are packaged in a way that more closely resembles the usual non-slow Hollywood cinema.

Andrei Tarkovsky films are slow too, but they carry you along with hypnotic music, dreamlike imagery, and grand movements that are absent from Tsai’s aggressively hyperreal work. Apichatpong Weerasethakul stages locked off wide shots for extended periods as well, but the settings tend to be mythic/supernatural in a way that makes them more charged. And Béla Tarr, along with the two directors mentioned above, has movies so immediately different from usual non-slow cinema (such as his 8 hour plus “Sátántangó”) that you have some idea what to orient your expectations to. Tsai’s movies feel slower and more frustrating to me than almost anything else I’ve seen, but I find myself still thinking about them (and looking at images from them) long after they’re done. The frustration I get from them can be exciting, and I feel attentive to their amazing visuals and sound design in a more open way than when I’m watching other films.

His one film I unreservedly love and recommend is 2003’s “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” a love letter to moviegoing set in a Taipei cinema during a torrential downpour as it shows King Hu’s wuxia classic “Dragon Inn.” With almost no dialogue it follows the movements of the ticket girl, the projectionist, a gay Japanese tourist cruising for other patrons, and various audience members, some of whom may or may not be ghosts. “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” is one of the first movies showing as part of the Harvard Film Archive’s Tsai Ming-Liang retrospective this October. They’ll be showing several of his features through the 21st, along with some of the video art that he’s created since announcing his retirement from narrative filmmaking in 2013 (a retirement he broke with 2020’s “Days”). Tsai himself will be at the HFA for Q&As following screenings on October 10th and 14th, along with actors and producers from recent projects. I’ll be interested to hear about how he’s been able to navigate such a seemingly unlikely career, crafting so many deeply weird and iconoclastic films that have been able to be seen in cinemas and festivals around the world.

—Lou Collier

Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper #151 October 2022


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