Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Tsai Ming-liang: Taiwan to KL

Shifting location from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur:

Tsai Ming-liang returns to his birth country Malaysia to make his first feature outside of Taiwan. For good measure he transports his cinematic character Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) to hot & humid Kuala Lumpur.

At the film's start, the rain has stopped and leaves an empty building packed with water.

After getting beat up by a bunch of street thugs, Hsiao-kang is rescued by a group of Bangladeshi workers who let him stay with them. One of them (below) takes a special interest in Hsiao-kang.

But Hsiao-kang does not recognize the love showered upon him and instead chases women around the city.

It may be a different city but loneliness follows him around, along with a few quirky affairs.

Will there be more adventures for Hsiao-kang? I certainly hope so as I have not tired of his characters in Tsai Ming-liang's features.

Here's a recap of the older films:
[Correction added: I keep making the mistake of using Lee Kang-sheng's name everywhere as opposed to using his character's name of Hsiao-kang. Since the character's name is hardly (or never?) spoken in the movies, I blur the line between the two.]

A teenager rebels:

1992's wonderful Rebels of the Neon God shows a young Hsiao-kang developing a crush and getting jealous. But before he fell for the 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's character has grown up slightly when we meet him next in 1994's Vive L'Amour. He now 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 an empty apartment. 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 Hsiao-kang find themselves as unexpected room-mates. While Ah-Jung is able to satisfy his desires with May Lin, Hsiao-kang 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 Hsiao-kang 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), Hsiao-kang 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 Hsiao-kang. 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. Hsiao-kang 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 Hsiao-kang's condition gets worse.

In this film, we truly get to see a different side to Hsiao-kang's parents -- we get to see his father's secrets and observe his mother's day to day life. The illness that inflicts Hsiao-kang 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.

Rain & cue music:

In 1998's The Hole Taiwan is getting pounded by heavy rainfall on the eve of the year 2000. Most apartments are suffering from leaky ceilings. A plumber comes to a man's (Lee Kang-sheng who is credited in the movie as just "the man upstairs") apartment to check for leaks. But the plumber makes a big hole in the man's living room. Lee Kang-sheng still plays a lonely character like in the other Tsai Ming-liang movies. One night, he returns home terribly drunk. After he stumbles in his apartment, he throws up over the hole.

The results of his drunken exploits find their way to the apartment below. Needless to say, the woman living downstairs is not amused. "The woman downstairs" is played by Kuei-Mei Yang, another familiar face found in Tsai Ming-liang films.

Both the man upstairs and woman downstairs are lonely. Eventually, the two start finding a common bond with each other. The hole which is a cause of dispute ends up being a salvation for both.

Musical numbers -- This is the first Tsai Ming-liang film where musical numbers make an appearance. Such musical dances later show up in The Wayward Cloud as well but they got a start here.

The numbers provide some humour and respite away from the bleakness of the character's situations. The dance songs are shown from the woman's perspective as her feelings are mirrored in the song lyrics.

Another job and a real love:

Hsiao-kang's father passes away in 2001's What Time is it there?. While Hsiao-kang is not too concerned with his father's death, his mother is convinced the father's ghost visits them. Also the flooding problem in the apartment that the mother had fixed in The River mysteriously returns. Hsiao-kang 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, Hsiao-kang 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.

This 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 Lee Kang-sheng (playing the character of Hsiao-kang). 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? Hsiao-kang 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, Hsiao-kang 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. Hsiao-kang 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 Hsiao-kang'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!

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 when it was completely packed to the modern time when only a few film buffs bother showing up. The once polished cinema is now falling apart and the rains causes water to flood the hall floors. Lee Kang-sheng only has a brief cameo playing the theater projectionist. One can imagine his character, Hsiao-kang, working this job as a secondary stint to his porn star career. In fact, given Hsiao-kang'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.


Pacze Moj said...

Another wonderful post, Sachin. I've only seen two films by Ming-liang Tsai (Rebels of the Neon God & Vive l'amour) but have enjoyed them both.

I've tried to find the musical theme from Rebels of the Neon God for a while, but no success. I also love the motorcycle scenes, as well as the final shot of the city, which may be one of my favourite shots in all cinema.

PS: Did you watch all of these films recently, in order?

PPS: What did you think of the long close-up at the end of Vive l'amour?

PPPS: So much good football coming up...


WiseKwai said...

The abandoned building project from I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is now being completed, reports the KL-based movie blog The Storyboard.

I was a little sad to read the news. But I wonder about sequel possibilities or a completely different story, in the same location.

Sachin said...

Thanks wisekwai for that bit of news regarding the building. Now that you mention it, I do wish that a sequel is made in the completed building. There are so many possibilities about who would live there. Could the Bangladeshi people afford to live in the new building? This building would certainly offer a different flavour from the ones used for the previous Taipei shot films.