In 1997 the Taiwanese film and theater director Tsai Ming-liang premiered a movie called The River. It starred Lee Kang-sheng, who has had major parts in all eleven of Tsai’s feature films, as a young man living with his parents who develops agonizing, mysterious neck pains after visiting a film set and agreeing to play a floating corpse. Tsai’s previous two theatrical releases, Rebels of the Neon God (1992) and Vive L’Amour (1994), had been tense, entrancing portraits of young people rattling through Taipei’s streets, parks, arcades, restaurants, and apartment buildings, making brief contact and simmering in isolation. In both of those films, Lee plays a voyeuristic onlooker who follows an outlaw played by Chen Chao-jung and watches him have a fleeting love affair with an equally adrift woman. When we last see Lee in Vive L’Amour, he’s hiding under the bed and masturbating while the couple has sex above him, then slipping out and giving Chen’s sleeping character a kiss on the cheek.
The River carried the tone of those films past where many viewers were willing to follow it. “I was almost boycotted by the entire Taiwanese audience,” Tsai said in a 2003 interview with the critic Chris Fujiwara and the scholar Shujen Wang. At the core of the controversy was a single five-and-a-half-minute-long shot: a scene of inadvertent incest between Lee’s character and his father (Miao Tien) in a dimly lit gay bathhouse.
That scene was a breakthrough for one of Tsai’s career-long projects: emphasizing his characters’ material needs and hungers. The River is about “a family, a wife, husband, son,” he told Wang and Fujiwara. “But in their attitudes I make them go back to the very beginning, to zero. So they are just three bodies.” And yet what made that scene in the bathhouse so startling might have been what the scholar Rey Chow has since called its “reciprocal tenderness.”1 The shot itself is beautiful, a high-contrast tableau spotlit from above and draped in shadow. For Tsai to reduce the people onscreen to “just three bodies” was not in this case to resign them to a bare or hollow life. It was to give them, in Chow’s words, “a different sensorium,” a frighteningly wide new range of ways to relate to one another. “It was precisely because they were anonymous,” Tsai said, “that the intimacy could take place.”
Intimacy in Tsai’s films is an elusive possession. The desire for it, however, is constant and concrete: it stings, itches, presses, burns. Tsai is best known among international audiences as a filmmaker of patient long takes, often without camera movement, and much of the energy in his movies comes from the friction between his unhurried, meticulously staged shots and what they document: aching scenes of closeness seized and lost. “If he didn’t hold his images fast,” the critic and filmmaker Jeff Reichert once wrote, “his characters and films might explode.”
In all Tsai’s fictional feature films and most of his shorts, Lee’s physical presence—the steady pace of his movements, the weight of his body, the subtle flickering of moods across his face—is what gives those shots their center of gravity. The two met in the early 1990s, when Tsai was casting a TV project in Taipei. “I needed to find an actor to play the ‘bad boy’ role,” he remembered in 2019.
After watching a film by David Lynch, I came out of the cinema and saw Lee by the side of a game arcade where he was sitting very quietly on a motorbike, working as a lookout to see if the police were coming or not.
He cast him on the spot.
Lee’s characters tend to be lonely, ailing figures on the periphery of a social world: a suicidal salesman for funeral urn repositories in Vive L’Amour; a man living alone in a rain-soaked city during a pandemic in The Hole (1998); a watch vendor mourning his late father and pining for a stranger in What Time Is It There? (2001); a projectionist at a fading movie palace’s last night open in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003); a pornographic film actor in The Wayward Cloud (2005); a double role as a migrant worker living in a deserted, unfinished Kuala Lumpur construction site and his comatose alter ego in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006); a film director shooting a movie in a language he doesn’t speak in Face (2009); the father of a Taipei family moving between temporary shelters in Stray Dogs (2013). Most of these characters appear in the credits as “Hsiao-kang,” a variation, Moira Weigel has pointed out, both on Lee’s “real-life first name” and on a Chinese expression that “signifies modest aspiration,” roughly analogous to “the way Americans used to talk about becoming ‘middle class.’”
The films archive Lee’s body from year to year. The shot that takes up the first five minutes of Days, Tsai’s latest feature, shows Lee looking through a window while a storm comes down outside—an invitation to linger on his deadpan expression and the pattern of his breathing. They have had other collaborations: Tsai produced Lee’s two features as a director, The Missing (2003) and Help Me Eros (2007), and joined Lee as a codirector for one of their most unexpected projects together, a television film commissioned by the Taiwanese health department called My Stinking Kid (2004). But their relationship as director and actor has been the foundation of Tsai’s films, their condition of possibility. “All my films,” Tsai has said, “are a development of the way I look at Lee Kang-sheng.”
Tsai’s documentary Afternoon (2016) records an extraordinary conversation between the two men in the rural house they share. “Our relationship is hard to understand and define,” Tsai says.2 In a handful of extended shots, he gives long, confessional monologues about death, work, and friendship, reminisces about old friends and family, and alludes to being gay and single (Lee, it seems, is neither). Lee answers the speeches with modest nods and brief rebuttals. What seems to promise a window into the pair’s private life, as Reichert has noted, only makes it more indefinable. In Past Present (2013), a documentary about Tsai by Saw Tiong Guan, Lee says that he stopped reading Tsai’s scripts around the turn of the millennium: “I just try to relax, walk onto the set, and be like a piece of blank paper for him to paint on.”
Most of Tsai’s feature films embed Lee’s characters in little cohorts of lovers, parents, and strangers played by a recurring cast of actors, including Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-ching (who plays Hsiao-kang’s mother in four of the films), and the veteran martial-arts star Miao Tien, who before his death in 2005 gave three performances as Hsiao-kang’s forbidding father. Each movie sets these figures against alienating crowds or cities emptied by rain, disease, or smog, then draws a web of tentative and fragile connections among them.
The three main characters in Vive L’Amour get carried along on turbulent currents of desire for one another when they all unknowingly start squatting in the same vacant apartment. Most of the strangers and employees who show up for the cinema’s last screening in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (recently restored by the Cinematek–Royal Belgian Film Archive and Homegreen Films) spend the movie wandering the building’s maze of empty spaces: a clanging hallway, a projection booth, a men’s room with a second life as a cruising location. In I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, a network of jealousy emerges among Lee’s protagonist, two women he encounters by chance, and the Bangladeshi migrant worker who finds him after he’s been beaten by mobsters, gives him shelter, and tends to his wounds.
Tsai’s attention has always drifted toward people who live precariously in the informal economy, set up homes for themselves in abandoned buildings, and feel the dispossessions of what the scholar Michael Denning has called “wageless life.”3 To be “just a body” in Tsai’s films can mean winning a kind of freedom from convention and arriving at new styles of intimacy. But it can also mean shouldering the costs of global capitalism and environmental catastrophe: getting locked out of stable housing, working contingent jobs like selling imported clothing on the black market and holding advertising signs, or enduring disasters like the pandemic in The Hole, the drought in The Wayward Cloud, and the plague of toxic smog that falls on Kuala Lumpur in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. Desire, too, is as often a basis for abuse and exploitation in Tsai’s work as it is for tenderness and care, from his 1983 play A Door That Can’t Be Opened in the Dark—in his book on Tsai, Song Hwee Lim calls it a “Genetesque play about an old male inmate who rapes his younger male cellmate”—to the awful, protracted scene of sexual violence that ends The Wayward Cloud.4
The long takes operate as a kind of control mechanism between these grueling depictions of suffering and the glimpses of peace that punctuate them, like the landscape mural discovered in an abandoned building at the end of Stray Dogs. They also give the movies their bitter comedy. When Miao peed on camera for The River, Tsai told the book editor Danièle Rivière in 1999, “he went on and on” until the shot became a grim joke: “The moment he stopped I said: ‘Cut,’ and everybody burst out laughing.”5
One of the most painful of those long takes ends Vive L’Amour. A struggling real estate agent (Yang) gets up early after having sex with a black-market street vendor (Chen Chao-jung) and leaves the Taipei apartment they’ve both been occupying. She walks through the Da-an Forest Park, then a new development with an infamous recent history of violent dispossession. (To build it, the scholar Yomi Braester notes, the municipal government had evicted and destroyed one of the “veteran’s villages” built after the Chinese Nationalist army retreated to Taiwan in 1949: “1,348 houses, of which 1,257 were declared illegal, were demolished.”) She sits in a pavilion empty except for an elderly man reading a paper—one of the comically out-of-place extras who fill Tsai’s movies—and weeps in close-up for six unbroken minutes. Eventually she dries her eyes, lights a cigarette, and looks up, swallowing air in thick gasps. Light cascades around her. Then the film ends. “People tell me my films are sad,” Tsai has said. “And I always know they are not. Things would always be okay after my characters finish crying.”
Tsai was born in 1957 in Kuching, Malaysia, into a family of Chinese immigrants. He had six siblings. “My father was a farmer,” he told Rivière, “and in the evenings he had a little street-corner stall where he sold meals, like noodles and so on, to very ordinary people.” Tsai spent much of his early childhood living with his maternal grandparents, who also kept a noodle stall. They took him to the movies twice a day. Tsai “grew up during the years when a Sinophone film industry most notably centred in Hong Kong was servicing a widespread Chinese diaspora community,” the critic Nick Pinkerton writes in his expansive new book on Goodbye, Dragon Inn. He saw films from the Hong Kong–based Shaw Brothers Studio, “dialect films in Cantonese and Taiwanese,” Bollywood movies, Hollywood films like The Sound of Music and King Kong, films from Malaysia and the Philippines, and “some Tarzan and Godzilla serial films.”
His nostalgia for that vanished world—“even the lightest sigh would move the heart,” he has said—has long been interwoven with music. Pinkerton lingers over Tsai’s evocations of pop songs like Grace Chang’s 1950s hits for the Hong Kong studio Cathay and the records of the “Seven Great Singing Stars” who made some of the most popular music in China before the Communist Revolution: Yao Lee’s melancholy “Can’t Let Go” in Goodbye, Dragon Inn; Gong Qiuxia’s “Shi Meng Shi Zhen” in the nostalgic short film It’s a Dream (2007); a character inspired by the singer Yoshiko Yamaguchi (who for years sang and acted under the name Li Xianglan) in the 2011 theater work Only You. In The Hole, a cramped stairwell turns into the stage for a commanding, lip-synched performance of Chang’s “Tiger Lady” by Yang Kuei-mei and three background dancers; in The Wayward Cloud, a circle of women dressed in sequins and waving giant flowers caress a statue of Chinese Nationalist president Chiang Kai-shek to Lee’s “Everlasting Love.”
Tsai moved to Taipei in 1977. “My father had a lot of problems with my education,” he told Rivière. “So he thought it would be a really good idea to send me to Taiwan because the education system there was very strict.” But it was precisely in the years after he arrived, he said, that “Taiwanese society opened up.” This was the period between the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975 and the lifting of martial law by his son Chiang Ching-kuo in 1987. In the early 1980s a young generation of directors born just before or shortly after the revolution—when Chiang’s Kuomintang Party had fled to the island and imposed what the filmmaker Edward Yang later called “an extremely rigid, conservative dictatorship”—made what became foundational movies of the New Taiwan Cinema: Yang’s collage of haunted flashbacks, That Day, on the Beach (1983); Hou Hsiao-hsien’s melancholy portrait of provincial youth culture, The Boys from Fengkuei (1983); Chen Kun-hou’s Growing Up (1983); the anthology films In Our Time (1982) and The Sandwich Man (1983).
Tsai was a decade younger than the filmmakers of that generation—Yang and Hou were both born in 1947—and a new arrival to the society that had shaped them. In Taipei he enrolled at Chinese Culture University (CCU) and discovered, on video, the European art-house directors he often cites as inspirations: Truffaut, Fassbinder, Antonioni. (According to Pinkerton, he made money by delivering lunches and “volunteered as a ticket seller at the earliest editions of the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in order to see films for free.”) At CCU, he took a formative film class with a slightly older writer-director, Wang Shaudi.6 But he mostly studied in the drama department, and his first important works after graduating were experimental stage productions with Xiaowu Theater, a collective of four of that department’s alumni.7
After Xiaowu Theater folded in 1985, Tsai started writing movies for TV. The success of a soap opera he cowrote in the late 1980s called Endless Love, he has said, got him more creative control. The first TV movies he directed were clipped in their pacing and unfussy in their visual textures but attended closely to the precarious labor of marginalized and exploited people: the family that makes a living reselling movie tickets in All Corners of the World (1989), the textile factory worker who marries the manager next door in Li-hsiang’s Love Line (1990), the construction worker who lives with his wife and children under his work site in Give Me a Home (1991).
He kept taking television projects for more than a decade after he graduated to features. The extensive Tsai retrospective that began in Chicago last year and postponed its later stops due to the Covid-19 pandemic included the rarely shown TV documentary My New Friends (1995), a sympathetic portrait of two HIV-positive gay men. “Nobody wanted to be filmed,” Tsai remembered, and the handful of men who agreed insisted on rigorous anonymity. In the two long interviews that fill the film, he set up the camera to show not the subjects’ faces but his own, listening and asking questions as the men talk about their relationships, their traumas, and the stigmas they have to confront.
Maybe the most enduring inheritance this early TV work left Tsai was his practice of casting a mixture of established stars and nonprofessional actors. Norman Atun, who appears in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, It’s a Dream, and Face, worked at a food stall in Kuala Lumpur; Anong Houngheuangsy, the young Laotian man whose sexual encounter with Lee forms the centerpiece of Days, met Tsai while working at a Bangkok food court.
The films both expand to make room for these actors’ subtle, discerning performances and bristle with the sometimes discomfiting dynamics of power and persuasion that shape them. In a 2010 interview, Tsai remembered urging Atun to appear nude in Face in spite of his religious commitments. At last, Atun agreed. Tsai gave the story a triumphant tone: “And that scene went terrific! He was very natural, very much at ease.” But the movies themselves reflect the tensions that threaten to destabilize these collaborations. Just as Lee developed a neck disorder after he and Tsai made Rebels of the Neon God, so Hsiao-kang’s neck pain in The River begins after a director—played by the Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui—pressures him into playing a dead body onscreen.
Lee’s first starring role for Tsai was in a telefilm called Boys (1991). “My acting rhythm is far slower than regular people,” he said in 2009. At first, they both recalled, Tsai kept trying to rush him. Then it was as if Lee’s rhythm took over. He became the foundation not only for the pacing but also for the settings, the scenarios, and the tone of the features Tsai soon started making, first with funding from Taiwan’s Central Motion Picture Corporation and then through his and Lee’s own company with support from French coproducers. Lee’s actual struggles with what Tsai called “the very strict college entrance examinations in Taiwan” shaped those of his fictional character in Rebels of the Neon God; his apartment in several of the earlier features belonged, Pinkerton notes, to “Lee’s own family.” Often a watchful observer, he sits in the films like a metronome, bends the rest of the action to his tempo and moods, and occasionally breaks down in tears and rage.
The characters who inhabit Tsai’s films alongside Lee, often women, have no less memorable scenes of catharsis: Yang weeping at the end of Vive L’Amour and taking center stage for the musical numbers in The Hole; Chen Shiang-chyi tentatively attempting a fling with a more confident woman during a lonely trip to Paris in What Time Is It There?; Lu Yi-ching’s two displays of what Shujen Wang calls “sexual longing and frustration and loneliness,” as a widow in What Time Is It There? and an unhappily married woman in The River. What made the depiction of sexual abuse on a pornographic film set at the end of The Wayward Cloud so unusual in Tsai’s filmography was less its extremity than its jarring lack of interest in the desires and material circumstances of the character in the foreground of the movie’s most controversial scenes, an unnamed sex worker played by the adult-video performer Sumomo Yozakura.
In Goodbye, Dragon Inn, it was for once Chen Shiang-chyi’s character rather than Lee’s who set the movie’s pace and tone. Tsai has said that he rented the movie theater at the center of the film for a year when he heard it was about to close, then packed the entire production into the last two weeks of the lease. The film seemed to absorb the shoot’s belated energy. On the theater’s rainy last night, a Japanese tourist (Mitamura Kiyonobu) cruises the building while a ticket-taker wearing a leg brace (Chen) tries to deliver a bun to the projectionist (Lee). The movie being shown is King Hu’s martial-arts classic Dragon Inn (1967), and two of its actors have come to see their former selves onscreen: Shih Chun and, in his final film role, Miao Tien. They find each other in the lobby after the screening. “No one remembers us anymore,” Shih says.
The shots are long, longer than was then typical even for Tsai. They only quicken into “a rapid-fire editing pattern” once, Pinkerton points out: when Chen’s character, passing through a service corridor behind the screen, gazes up at the reverse side of the projection and watches the movie with “a meshwork pattern thrown across her face.” A flurry of back-and-forth cuts, timed like the flying arrows in Hu’s film, puts her in a brief, intimate communion with Shangguan Ling-feng, the actress onscreen. In Pinkerton’s account, the scene becomes a dialogue between the “fantasy of supreme physical control” in Dragon Inn—Hu’s movies are full of balletic warriors leaping and soaring through space—and Tsai’s preoccupation with “fallible bodies made of skin, blood, and bone.” Pinkerton speculates that what Chen’s character gets from the film is “a glimpse of utopia.”
“In general I am very traditional,” Tsai told Wang and Fujiwara. But his nostalgia, as Pinkerton notes, is always also a matter “of reimagining cinema, of finding it in new venues.” His work from the past two decades ranges from plays and theatrical features to site-specific installations, videos projected in galleries or shown online, and a virtual reality project, The Deserted (2017). The surreal tableaux that filled Face, a commission from the Louvre, signaled Tsai’s move from the cinema to the gallery: Lee’s director figure chats with Jean-Pierre Léaud surrounded by snow in the Tuileries, gets a call about his mother’s death during a nocturnal hookup in the woods with an unnamed man (Mathieu Amalric), and watches the model and actress Laetitia Casta dance as Salome in a meat cellar. Tsai’s next feature, Stray Dogs, was his first filmed digitally. It ends with two long shots—together they last twenty minutes—that show Lee’s character and an unnamed woman (Chen, in a role occupied elsewhere in the movie by Yang and Lu) gazing at a mural of the sea painted on the wall of a decaying building: a scene of suspended spectatorship that seemed to foreshadow the film’s own second life in museums.
What strikes many critics about Tsai’s recent films is the sheer consistency of his preoccupations: rainy streets, flooded apartments, precarious jobs, anonymous sex. He has in some respects built a private world, choreographed with obsessively repeated gestures, shaped by stubborn preferences (in his own accounts of his habits on set he comes off as a perfectionist, sometimes a bully), and stocked with recreations of the movies he saw as a boy. And yet his movies are also filled with moments that expose interdependence in situations that might otherwise suggest self-reliance: two people stumble on each other crashing in the same supposedly empty unit, or find a hole between their apartments in the middle of a quarantine, or discover that what they thought was an anonymous hookup was really a terrifying new intimacy. To build a private world in Tsai’s films is to realize that it can never be sealed tightly enough—it is to risk a leak, or a flood.
Just as their characters hover between isolation and intimacy, so the movies themselves at once coalesce around an individual artistic sensibility and undercut it. They have come to seem like installments in a self-conscious performance about the conditions of auteur filmmaking itself. Song Hwee Lim notes that each of Tsai’s features since The River ends with his own handwritten signature; in recent interviews and lectures, Tsai calls his latest movies works of “handmade craftsmanship.” But even as the films put themselves under the sign of a singular artist, they invoke another model for artistic production: the theater company. The actors who appear again and again across his films join other recurring collaborators like the cinematographer Liao Pen-jung, who shot nine of Tsai’s first ten features, and the editor Chen Sheng-chang, who worked on The River and all his films between What Time Is It There? and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. For years after Tsai acquired the rights to distribute his movies in Taiwan, Pinkerton notes, he and some of the actors sold tickets to their own films on the street in the style of “a commedia dell’arte troupe.” It was “like the work of a missionary,” Lee says in Afternoon.
“Recently I’ve been getting this strong feeling that I may be dying soon,” Tsai tells Lee at the start of Afternoon. Before they made Stray Dogs, he says, he fell ill and never fully recovered. Around the same time, Lee started suffering from a health crisis, too. Tsai has said that he started shooting the patient, immersive shots of Lee that ended up forming one of the two strands of Days—Lee sleeping, bathing, receiving acupuncture treatment, walking with a neck brace through busy city streets—out of a need to document his sick friend. In the film’s first half, that footage alternates with scenes of Anong’s daily life alone in Bangkok: showering, washing and chopping vegetables, preparing a fire. It was a two-person crew, the closest Tsai has ever come in a feature to realizing his dream of full creative control.
Neck pain, inconclusive medical treatments, a drawn-out scene of restorative, anonymous intimacy: in Days we are in some respects back in the territory of The River. But the family has fallen away. What’s left are scenes that marinate in the luminous, everyday routines of two solitary people. Their paths meet when, in the staged sequence in the middle of the movie, Lee pays the younger man for an erotic massage in a Bangkok hotel room. Like the sauna scene in The River, the pair of long shots that shows their tender encounter suggests that Tsai’s extended takes can be not only containers for explosive feeling or devices for deadpan humor but palliative treatments in their own right. (The scholar Erika Balsom describes the scene as “an act of rejuvenating care.”) When Lee pays Anong, he also gives him a gift: a music box that plays the theme from Chaplin’s late-career reflection on fame and mortality, Limelight (1952). Tsai last used that tune, in a Chinese version sung by Li Xianglan, for the final shot of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, which shows the movie’s three main characters curled up together on a mattress as it floats on a dark sea.
One of Days’s loveliest shots arrives early: a glimpse of Anong praying at a home shrine. Pinkerton notes that Buddhism has been a constant presence in Tsai’s films, from the “litany of Buddhist healing rituals” Hsiao-kang receives in The River to the theories about her late husband’s reincarnation that Lu’s character tests in What Time Is It There? But it comes to the center of his recent work. In the shorts and mid-length features that make up the Walker series (2012–2015), Lee wears the red robes of a Buddhist monk and walks in extreme slow motion through crowded cities—Taipei, Kuching, Marseille—while pedestrians swirl around him. In The Monk from Tang Dynasty (2014), a theater piece, he played the seventh-century monk Xuanzang, whose walk from China to India and back Tsai often singles out as a source of inspiration: “I greatly admire his solitude, stubbornness, and stupidity.”
Near the end of Afternoon, the conversation comes back to death. Tsai makes Lee promise to keep chanting scriptures after he dies. “You must understand that nothing is permanent,” he tells him.
Our relationship is also not permanent. It’s a beautiful impermanent relationship. And it’s for so long. It’s wonderful! I wish it can be longer, so I hope to meet you in my next life.
For about ten seconds, neither of them speaks. Then Lee finally answers: “I’ll be the director and you’ll be the actor in our next lives.”
Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility (Columbia University Press, 2007). ↩
The translation of the film’s dialogue quoted here and below is by Ong Chao Hong. ↩
“Wageless Life,” New Left Review, No. 66 (November–December 2010). Dora Budor discusses Denning’s essay in connection with Tsai’s films at greater length in “An Incontinent and Percolating Substance Runs Through: Tsai Ming-liang,” Mousse, No. 73 (Fall 2020). ↩
Lim’s monograph Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness (University of Hawai’i Press, 2014) is the most comprehensive scholarly treatment in English of Tsai’s work through Face. ↩
See Jean-Pierre Rehm, Olivier Joyard, and Danièle Rivière, Tsaï Ming-Liang (Paris: Dis Voir, 1999), the first book-length collection about Tsai in English, which covers his films through The Hole. ↩
See Michael Berry’s detailed interview with Tsai in Berry’s collection Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers (Columbia University Press, 2005). ↩
On Tsai’s debts to Taiwan’s experimental theater movement, see Weihong Bao, “Biomechanics of Love: Reinventing the Avant-Garde in Tsai Ming-liang’s Wayward ‘Pornographic Musical,’” Journal of Chinese Cinemas, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2007). ↩