A constant in Tsai Ming-liangís films ó which are being showcased in a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts starting next Thursday ó is their bleak, sad, geometric beauty. They present a world of modern apartments, traffic, nocturnal anonymity, electronic beeps and buzzes, of plastic food courts, apocalyptic video arcades, and sterilized love hotels. A Tsai character will cover long stretches of screen time and space without encountering another soul. Tsaiís Taiwan is a world of silences, of furtiveness, of spaces too large or too small for the solitudes they bound ó solitudes brought into communication with each other more through the directorís elaborate intercutting and rectilinear intra-frame partitions than through his larval and open-ended narratives.
The core of Tsaiís work so far consists of a loose trilogy of brilliant films in which actor Lee Kang-sheng plays a young misfit named Hsiao-kang. In Rebels of the Neon God (1992; March 1 at 6 p.m.), the first entry in this trilogy and Tsaiís feature-film debut, Hsiao-kang becomes obsessed with another young man, Ah Tse (Chen Chao-jung), who makes a living by stealing coins from pay phones and computer chips from arcade video games. Water is the filmís dominant element: the first shot shows Ah Tse and a pal robbing a pay phone at night in a pouring rain, and later Ah Tse returns to his apartment to find it flooded. (Those who derive their knowledge of Taiwan mainly from Tsaiís films may get the impression that the island is largely under water.) The omnipresence of water sensitizes us to a deep melancholy that the film rarely makes explicit but whose underlying presence explains such moments as the shared tears of Ah Tse and his girlfriend near the end of the film.
By juxtaposing dispersed people and places, Tsai raises spatial or narrative questions without immediately answering them ó a strategy that he will develop in his next three films and that accounts for the compulsive logic of unstated connections in his work. The world of Rebels of the Neon God is one of constant, inexplicable disjunction: elevator doors open on the wrong floor; a slipper, a cigarette stub, and a dented can float listlessly in Ah Tseís apartment; Hsiao-kangís father and mother share the same visual field but not the same universe; Hsiao-kang pulls up on his motorbike to turn and look back as Ah Tse chases his estranged girlfriend. The emotional high point comes with the extreme vandalism Hsiao-kang unleashes on Ah Tseís motorbike as he slashes its tires and seat and spraypaints the word "AIDS" on it. Itís no act of hate but a bizarre attempt at closeness ó a cry for love worthy of Sal Mineoís Plato in Nicholas Rayís Rebel Without a Cause, which Tsaiís film cites.
The vigor, starkness, and unremitting intensity of Rebels of the Neon God give it a special place in Tsaiís úuvre, but the grace and delicacy of Vive líamour (1994; March 7 at 5:45 p.m.) represent an advance over the earlier film. Vive líamour explores the loneliness of a glamorous real-estate agent (Yang Kuei-mei) with no luck unloading her portfolio of luxury condominiums; of Ah Jung, the small-time clothing smuggler (Chen Chao-jung) she picks up for a one-night stand; and of Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), now seemingly homeless and employed delivering brochures for cremation containers. The film is so spare and so absorbed with visual and behavioral rituals that 24 minutes go by before the first line of scripted dialogue is heard.
Tsai here develops a silent-comedy quality already suggested in Rebels: in one scene, a pair of shoes is pushed out from underneath a bed, followed by a jacket, followed by their crouching ownerís arms, head, and torso. As in Rebels, formal rigor is paramount. Camera movements are almost always functional rather than expressive, keeping a moving figure in a constant relation to the frame. The film reaches an unexpected emotional climax with a lengthy, wordless sequence in a torn-up and grassless park ó a triumph of acting (by Yang Kuei-mei) and direction that, if it unavoidably recalls Antonioni, may be the greatest Antonioni-esque scene not directed by the master himself.
The darkest of Tsaiís first four features, and to my mind the best (I havenít seen the fifth and latest, 2001ís What Time Is It There?, which kicks off the series next Thursday, February 28, at 7:30 p.m.), is The River (1997; March 8 at 5:45 p.m. and March 21 at 8 p.m.). The film starts with a chance encounter between Hsiao-kang and a young woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) who invites him to the film shoot on which sheís working. The director (a funny cameo by real-life director Ann Hui) recruits Hsiao-kang to impersonate a dead body floating in a polluted river. Later, he showers and then has sex with his acquaintance. Soon he comes down with a mysterious ailment that causes him to crack up on his motorbike and has him contorting his neck and shoulder in pain.
Meanwhile, the film explores the abstract anti-relationship of Hsiao-kangís dysfunctional family. His parents (played by the same actors who were his parents in Rebels of the Neon God ó Miao Tien and Lu Hsiao-ling) never talk to each other and donít even appear in the same shot at the same time until late in the film. In the first on-screen meeting of father and son, they seem to be strangers. The mother is having a wordless affair with a man who deals in porn videos; the father is immersed in a shadowy secret life in gay saunas.
A sleek, mysterious film, The River is filled with gestural and visual signs that almost donít cohere as narrative (and do so as if by accident) and that appear to belong to a Burroughsian "algebra of need," a logic of pure emotion and sensuality: the mother solicitously feeding her boyfriend with pieces of food on a pot stick; Hsiao-kangís head floating darkly against the deep electric blue of the walls of his room; orange towels around menís middles gleaming in the darkness of the sauna. The utterly random nature of Hsiao-kangís affliction is absurd, though not funny, and it comes to seem more metaphysical than biological. Tsaiís formal rigor pays off in numerous ways as the empty spaces in the frame and in the narrative gradually fill up. The long sequence of Hsiao-kangís visit to a sauna is miraculous.
After the total success of The River, Tsaiís next film, The Hole (1998; March 14 at 8:15 p.m.), is a bit of a letdown. It takes place in the last days of 1999, when a mysterious "end-of-the-millennium virus" that causes people to act like cockroaches has led the government to quarantine (and cease servicing) large sections of Taipei. Two characters ó played by Lee Kang-sheng and Yang Kuei-mei ó live in an apartment complex one on top of the other, and a plumberís visit leaves a hole between the units that becomes the focus of distress and obsession for the two residents. Tsai intersperses the narrative with musical production numbers that appear to be homages to Douglas Sirk and Frank Tashlin. Visually ravishing and entertaining, The Hole displays the directorís compositional sense at its most exact, but the film seems precious and cute when it should be mysterious and transcendent.
The MFA series includes several short and medium-length films Tsai shot on video. The interest of My New Friends (1995; March 31 at 10:30 a.m.) ó a documentary comprising extended interviews with two HIV-positive men ó lies less in the directorís discreet photography (which conceals the subjectsí faces) than in their stories about dealing with illness, with relationships, and with a repressive society. A Conversation with God (2001; March 29 at 6 p.m.), a casual look at religious ceremonies, is described in the MFA program notes as "gorgeous, distressing, and evocative," but the most distressing thing about it ó apart from the shots of dead and dying fish ó is how flat and impersonal it is. More notable are two works Tsai made for Taiwan TV before his feature-film debut. Both will screen on the same program on March 3 at 11 a.m. All the Corners of the World (1989), a study of a family of movie-ticket scalpers, provides early drafts of images and situations that will recur in Tsaiís films, including a roller-rink scene, motorbike vandalism, an elevator ride in a love hotel, and a mannequin floating in water. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way it shows Tsai taking a route through pure melodrama that he will later avoid. Boys (1991) introduces Lee Kang-sheng as a teenager who preys on a younger boy, blackmailing him for lunch money. This small film is affecting and has one scene ó the teenager forcibly clipping the boyís nails ó that is perhaps the most shocking moment in Tsaiís work.