Monday, August 06, 2007

Tsai Ming-liang

When I came across my first film by Tsai Ming-liang What Time is it there?, it took me a while to let all the details sink in. It was a beautiful film but back then I didn't realize that I had jumped onto the story half-way. The original story of the main character Lee Kang-sheng (Hsiao-kang) started as early as 1991 with Youngsters. With each film, Lee Kang-sheng's character grew up and underwent a transformation -- along the way he switched jobs, fell in love, felt loneliness (even attempted suicide) and eventually found bliss working in the porn film industry. My last image of Lee Kang-sheng was achieving orgasmic joys along with singing/dancing around Taipei in 2005's The Wayward Cloud. In 2006, Lee Kang-sheng finally left Taipei for hot and sultry Kuala Lumpur as Malaysian born Tsai Ming-liang headed to his birth-land to cinematically capture Malaysia for the first time. I can't wait to watch that adventure but until then, I decided to catch up the story from the start. Well almost from the start...

A teenager rebels:

1992's wonderful Rebels of the Neon God shows a young Lee Kang-sheng developing a crush and getting jealous. But before he fell for a girl, he was angered by an act of vandalism directed towards his father. Despite his young age, he is patient and quietly waits to extract his revenge. In the end, he feels a tinge of guilt for his actions yet continues along his drifting ways. His relationship with his parents is starting to crumble as he is rebelling against society and himself -- he drops out of school and uses the money to spend time at arcades and wander aimlessly around the city.

Love and a place to stay:

Lee Kang-sheng has grown up slightly when we meet him next in 1994's Vive L'Amour. He atleast has a job, being a door to door salesman. Ofcourse, he is still as mischievous as ever. During a job visit, he finds a key hanging outside an apartment door. He quietly snags the key and sneaks in one night to find the apartment empty. The vacant apartment is in the process of being sold with the realtor (May Lin played by Yang Kuei-Mei) dropping by occasionally to show it to prospective clients or to use the place for her own sexual acts. It turns out that May Lin's lover (Ah-Jung played by Chen Chao-jung) also uses the apartment as a place to stay. So both Ah-Jung and Lee Kang-sheng find themselves as unexpected room-mates. While Ah-Jung is able to satisfy his desires with May Lin, Lee Kang-sheng finds pleasure by spying on the two making love and gratifying himself. But all three characters are extremely lonely in the vast and cold city. At the start of the movie, we find Lee Kang-sheng attempting suicide. His appetite for life is slightly increased thanks to the unexpected encounter with Ah-Jung.

A strange illness:

At the start of The River (1997), Lee Kang-sheng is quietly heading towards a department store. A girl heading down the escalator recognizes him and the two hang out together. This chance encounter proves to be fatal for Lee Kang-sheng. While tagging along with the girl, he finds himself at a film-shoot and is asked to play the role of an extra -- the film's director wants him to play a dead body floating in the river. Lee Kang-sheng is reluctant to play the role because the river appears to be 'filthy'. Still he agrees and is very convincing playing a dead body floating away. But shortly after that role, he develops a strange itch in his neck. Gradually, the itch develops into a mysterious illness which takes over him -- he is in constant pain and wants to die. His worried father is willing to try anything to cure his son but Lee Kang-sheng's condition gets worse.

In this film, we truly get to see a different side to Lee Kang-sheng's parents -- we get to see his father's secrets and observe his mother's day to day life. The illness that inflicts Lee Kang-sheng temporarily brings the parents together but it is clear their lives are drifting away. And a strange encounter between father and son also ensures that the two won't ever see eye to eye.

Another job and a real love:

Lee Kang-sheng's father passes away in 2001's What Time is it there?. While Lee Lang-sheng is not too concerned with his father's death, his mother is convinced the father's ghost visits them. Also the apartment flooding problem that the mother had fixed in The River mysteriously returns. Lee Kang-sheng has found a new job selling watches on a skywalk. One day a girl (Shiang-chyi) wants to buy his personal watch which has dual times. At first he is reluctant to part with the watch but eventually gives it to her. The girl tells him she is leaving for Paris the next day. After she leaves, Lee Kang-sheng is obsessed with Paris and the thought of that woman. He goes about changing all the watches around him (and even in the city) to reflect Parisian time. Meanwhile, Shiang-chyi is lonely and having a hard time adjusting to life in Paris.

The film is the first clear reflection of Tsai Ming-liang's influence. Just like François Truffaut used the same actor (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to play the role of Antoine Doinel in multiple films, Tsai is doing the same with Hsiao-kang (playing the character of Lee Kang-sheng). The one difference is the character of Lee Kang-sheng has gone on for more than 16 years and multiple films while Antoine Doinel was used in three films over a period of 11 years. In What time is it there?, Lee Kang-sheng watches The 400 Blows and falls in love with the film, while Shiang-chyi comes across an older Jean-Pierre Léaud on a bench in Paris. One cinematic circle is tied.....

The girl returns:

The short film The Skywalk is gone (2002, 26 minutes) is an epilogue to What Time is it there?. Shiang-chyi returns from Paris to discover that the skywalk where she bought the watch from is gone. In the absence of the skywalk, she attempts to cross the heavy traffic road and gets a ticket from a traffic police officer. Somewhow, she loses her id card as the officer was giving her a ticket. The loss of her id card is a symbolic reflection of her mental state -- she is at a loss because the missing skywalk represented a link to her past life in the city.

Near the end of the short, Lee Kang-sheng makes an appearance. He crosses paths with Shiang-chyi as he is going upstairs in an underground pathway. But Shiang-chyi does not recognize him and continues walking. Lee Kang-sheng stops, turns around and ponders. But he has no time to chase after her as he has a job interview to rush to.

Watermelon and sex:

What is Lee Kang-sheng's next job? We see him giving a nervous interview to be a porn actor at the end of The Skywalk is gone. He does not perform very well in the interview but the start of 2005's The Wayward Cloud finds him pleasuring women while eating a juicy watermelon all in front of a camera crew. So he must have impressed his employer somehow!

And that is where my contact with Lee Kang-sheng ends. I still have a few more months before I truly learn what he did in Kuala Lumpur.

Fade to black, end of film, theater shutdown:

2003's Good Bye, Dragon Inn shows a theater running its final shows before the inevitable shutdown. We see how the movie hall goes from days of being completely packed to only catering to a few film buffs. The once polished cinema is now falling apart and the rains causes water to flood the hall floors. Hsiao-kang only has a brief cameo playing the theater projectionist. One can imagine his character, Lee Kang-sheng working this job as a secondary stint to his porn star career. In fact, given Lee Kang-sheng's past behaviour, I would not put it past him to splice the film with shocking images from other films, a la Tyler Durden (Fight Club).

Curtains down. Rain drops.

Films viewed in this round:

Vive L'Amour (1994): Rating 8/10
The River (1997): Rating 9/10
The Skywalk Is Gone (2002): Rating 10/10
Good Bye, Dragon Inn (2003): Rating 7.5/10

part II of the profile.

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