The River begins with its protagonist pretending to be a dead body. Xiao Kang has been recruited by a film director (played by Hong Kong New Wave director Ann Hui) to replace her previous actor (an inescapably fake mannequin) in the role of Drowned Corpse. As Xiao Kang wades into the river and floats face down before the cameras, he inadvertently becomes symmetrical to the role he’s playing: the river pollutes him, infecting him with an inexplicable sickness that he and his father (Miao Tien) spend the rest of the movie trying to exorcise. Yet for now the mood is jubilant: the director turns to one of her assistants and yelps—according to the DVD translation—that Xiao Kang is way better than the dummy. The subtitle is accurate, but a more literal translation would read, “He’s much better than the fake one.” This is an oddly cheeky preface for The River, Taiwanese New Wave Director Tsai Ming Liang’s third film and one of the greatest flat movies of the nineties. Can you think of any other neorealist movies that begin with a film crew declaring that they prefer non-actors over the gaudy special effects of a chalky doll? And that they prefer the non-actor precisely because he is more real? Yet Tsai Ming Liang is an irregular realist—reality is his means, but he wants his results to be spiritual.
The symptoms of reality pop up in Tsai Ming Liang’s films like the wacky next door neighbor in American sitcoms. By now one of the rote functions of Tsai Ming Liang criticism is to enumerate where and when which actor did what at which location in which movie. Therefore one is required to note that, like every Tsai film with the possible exception of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, The River stars Lee Kang Sheng as a young Taiwanese guy called Xiao Kang (a name which incidentally means “Young Kang,” having the same relationship to the actor’s real name as “Bobby” might to “Robert”); his parents are again played by Miao Tien and Lu Hsiao Ling, his gamine love interest by Chen Shiang Chyi, and the unattainable male romantic figure by Chen Chao Jung. The locations—Tsai never uses studios—themselves constitute a cast of personalities: The River starts with a pair of up-down escalators that reappears in his twenty-five minute featurette The Skywalk is Gone with the same two actors; The River’s family apartment appears to be the same as that in What Time is it There?—Lee Kang Sheng’s actual apartment—complete with red rice cooker and ghostlike white fish. This is more than IMDB scholasticism; Tsai repeats these found objects until they’ve burrowed themselves into authenticity, reusing the same actors and settings in each film until we’ve habituated ourselves into accepting them as having been always real. The plots themselves form a deliberate mirror against the lives of its actors: Tsai adapted the plot of The River from an unexplained illness Lee Kang Sheng endured prior to shooting; What Time is it There?, a film that begins with the death of Xiao Kang’s Dad, was similarly produced shortly after the death of Lee’s own father. The funeral ceremony for Xiao Kang’s Dad is Buddhist, just as in The River, Xiao Kang and his Dad use Buddhist exorcism as their ultimate medical treatment.
The subject matter here is spirituality, but reality and spirituality for Tsai are more than empirical specimens ready for collection—they constitute his aesthetic style. Reality in Tsai Ming Liang differs from reality in, say, Wong Kar Wai. For Wong, the favorite director of the typical casual filmgoer under thirty, representation of reality is merely an aesthetic issue. For every Wong film other than As Tears Go By, you get the feeling that Wong generates his movie primarily by asking himself, “How can I depict this space in the most creative and beautiful way?” But this is merely a question of art, a representational doctrine without predetermined subject matter, social subtext, or moral impulse. We feel that any shot (with almost any subject) would suffice as long as it was creative or beautiful enough. (This is why Wong’s films always feel delightfully youthful—they are the stories of someone before he has decided to live in the world.) Because all that needs to be unique is Wong’s way of looking, whatever Wong looks at is generic, universal, replaceable: the green smudge of night in Days of Being Wild could be any night; the desert in Ashes of Time is not a specific desert but every desert. For Tsai, the image is spiritual by virtue of its reality. While his films are often beautiful, their beauty is just a side-effect to Tsai’s patient quest to uncover the grace of authentic apartment rooms and real leaky movie houses. One way to explain the difference between Wong and Tsai is to use John Ruskin’s comparison of classical and romantic poetry as a gloss. Romantic poets, according to Ruskin, falsely beautify physical objects by attributing human emotions to them. Ruskin compares two descriptions—one by Keats and one by Homer—of the way sea waves look, an appropriately aquatic topic for an essay on The River. While Keats describes a wave that “bursts gradual, with a wayward indolence,” Ruskin writes:
Like Keats, Wong is a glossy and efficient romantic, spritely and dark. Like Homer, Tsai’s imagination is corporeal, yet his art is more problematic than just physical description. Tsai’s methodology is to coax an object’s spirituality into fuming up out of its reality like a morning fog. (This is why his films feel precise and atmospheric—attributes we had previously though to be contradictory.) Yet grace is an extra-physical thing. Is any attempt to capture it through physical depiction an impossible art?
How does one capture spirituality without resorting to suggestion and mystery? How does one portray the ineffable through the effable? One way is through motif: Tsai likes the cycling wheel (a Ferris Wheel closes What Time is it There? and a projectionist’s reel closes Goodbye, Dragon Inn) and water (every Tsai film is soaked with either ceiling leaks, bathtubs, or soppy skies, including Rebels of the Neon God, whose use of a floating sandal predates Wong’s same image in Chungking Express by two years). But excessive symbolism cheats reality by replacing it: the realist storyteller who uses symbols gives up stylized depiction but then takes up a stylized content. Tsai’s more profound solution is to become a poet of space. Tsai poeticizes space not by probing it—his oeuvre is noticeably lacking in pans, zooms, and dollies—but by making space itself his medium, manipulating the grammar of space the way a poet might play with diction and sentence structure. Tsai positions the action in the background of a shot (say, thirty feet behind where the heroine is sitting in the foreground, as in What Time is it There?) or shoots from so far away that a tiny protagonist is embedded in a giant Andreas Gursky panorama of skyscrapers and toy cars; when Xiao Kang falls off his motorbike in The River, the action occurs off-screen. This toying with space is reminiscent of Classical Chinese poetry, most notably the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei who was fond of setting different types of space against each other, like the blue of sea merging into the identical blue of sky, split apart only when a coastal city appears on the horizon, or a darting bird slinging itself in front of the enormous setting sun.
Social space is also space—it’s what humans do to physical space. Tsai has an architect’s sense of humor: many of his jokes are about what happens when people’s private spaces have been punctured. In The River, the father’s bedroom roof starts leaking and after some diligent bucket-carrying and floor mopping, he finally strings together a ridiculous plastic hose that siphons the leak into his balcony—so he can water his plants! (The film’s harrowing concluding scene in the gay bathhouse is also about an accident of shared space.) People are also space—just space with being. This explains why we know everything about Tsai’s characters except what they are thinking. His characters seem like strangers even to themselves not necessarily because they are alienated but because we have access to their bodies, rather than their selves. We are omniscient rather than intimate.
Because film is a two dimensional medium, space for Tsai is a fruitful problem, the same way motion was a problem for static artists like Moholy Nagy, seminal Marvel Comics artist Jack Kirby, and the cubist painters. Tsai is a tender exorcist trying to summon space—trying to yank the ghost of spiritual space from out of mere location. This realization has led me to believe that the most comprehensive critic of Tsai’s aesthetic is German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger formulated his philosophy of Being—what it means to exist—by rejecting the preceding philosophical tradition’s emphasis on metaphysical abstraction and rationality. This tradition, from Aristotle through Kant, thought of inquiries about Being as a mathematics of the soul; it assumed that Being was an abstract ideal, existing outside of empirical time and space, and best understood by a self who was pure, disembodied, and exclusively analytical. Heidegger instead suggested that we are stuck in the world—not angels, not logician gods, just human creatures going about our theoryless default everydayness, such as sweeping the floor or ironing a shirt. It is with these mundane habits, this relationship between man and his surroundings—with his tools—that we can make a man transparent and see the light of his Being inside him.
Similarly, unlike most directors, Tsai understands film not as a toolbox of visual and narratological manipulations, but as a metaphor for ordinary sight. Almost every Tsai camera angle is something that could credibly be seen by a human within the scene. It is as if we ourselves are embedded within the environment of the film. Tsai conceptualizes the shot as a field of observation, more like a café window than a photograph. The characters in Tsai Ming Liang’s movies, when viewed in the theater, are the same size as we would see them in real life. So while Tsai has been criticized for a precious neorealism, his movies are a meditation on one of the least pretentious activities of all—people watching. Thus because each shot becomes equivalent to an onlooker perceiving an experience, the shot becomes the scene, each shot sealing itself into a self-contained box of phenomena. (In this respect, Tsai might be compared not to Antonioni but to King Hu, whose 1969 wuxia film Touch of Zen spends its whole first hour almost devoid of fighting, instead content to delve into wheat-plumed walkways, abandoned houses, and mountaintops with more tenderness than any Mitzoguchi movie; Hu’s composition is also very idiosyncratic—like Tsai, he often puts all the action in the background.) Typically, an editor uses what is called “analytical editing,” a paradigm of editing in which the first shot (called the master shot) presents the entire scene (say a dialogue between two people at a café) and is followed by short component shots that highlight whatever is of interest (cutting back to A when A speaks and to B when B speaks, for example). For Tsai, almost every shot is the master shot: these individual cuts might seem fake, not nearly inductive enough to present the underlying way that a character exists in her world. Tsai instead uses what could be called logistical editing: the cuts are determined not by the needs of the narrative but the needs of the character’s relationship to his world. In The River, for example, Xiao Kang’s neck hurts so he sees a doctor, a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, an administrator of acupressure, and a Buddhist monk—each visit is one shot. Tsai also shows us Xiao Kang’s father picking up junkyard trash to build his anti-leak devices and Xiao Kang’s mother waiting for the elevator to reach her floor and then doggy-bagging food for home. If the point of plot is merely to coerce the audience into tears and guffaws and docent the path from Point A to Point B, these details are hardly relevant, but from the point of view of the characters, these details are vital and necessary because they are so assumed. This is why after watching enough of Tsai’s work so that he becomes the norm, so many other films begin to look only like summaries—reductions rather than inquiries into Being. And like Heidegger, who thought of the hammer not as a set of hammer-defining properties but as a tool for hammering, Tsai is fascinated with the thingness of things. Few actors outside of Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, and Buster Keaton are as eager to interfere with the world as Lee Kang Sheng, who’s always fidgeting wristwatches, compasses, windowpanes, clocks, toothbrushes, watermelons, and curtains.
Of all of Tsai’s films, The River is most full of world. Like Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh and a number of recent Chinese language films—Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s City of Sadness, and Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures—it is fatly minimalist, a neorealist film stuffed to the brim with life. These films offer the plots of bigger films but refuse to manipulate us into judgment. The result is a funny syncretistic aesthetic—a tragic but undevastating filmmaking, a metaphysics of street corners and silent skinny guys. This is why Tsai seems simultaneously like the heir of two contradictory traditions: on one hand, he insists on reality, on unacting and on subtext-rich location, making his films seem at times almost like documentaries—is this not the definition of neorealism, of humanism? Yet few directors appear so mannered, so emphatically interested in loneliness rather than, say, the anchor of the three-act plot—does this mean Tsai is a modernist?
Tsai could wear either of these categories like a hat, but—with his meditative long takes, with all judgment molted off—perhaps a more accurate adjective would be “Buddhist.” More than anything else, his films resemble meditation exercises in which we are forced to look at something until we have roused our eyes to wake up. Sight is meditative, detached, and soulful. And it is the soul, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Monty wrote, rather than the brain that sees. Tsai is famous for wanting to make looking unbearable: Vive L’Amour and Goodbye, Dragon Inn end with famously excruciating long takes, the latter (an almost five minute shot of an empty theater) is excruciating for its lack of emotional content, the former (Yang Kuei-Mei crying for a little bit short of forever) excruciating for its surplus; The River ends with a similar shocking scene. Ironically, although I can’t think of any directors as interested in purely private moments, Tsai’s films improve in a crowded theater—they become funnier and more tragic, confusing the theater into private space, forcing us to endure someone’s most secret emotions surrounded by crowds of people.
Out of Tsai’s six full-length released films,
The River is his third and acts as a fulcrum with which he weighs his
neorealist and modernist styles. His first three films—Rebels of
the Neon God, Vive L’Amour, and The River—have stories: they
are more obviously devoted to watching people and the events they latch
themselves into. The River is Tsai Ming Liang’s least Tsai Ming
Liang movie, because it is the least filled with lack. It is as if after
this, he could only top himself by reduction. In Tsai’s next three
films—The Hole, What Time is it There?, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn—he
appears much more fascinated in watching watching itself. These are phenomenological
movies. Goodbye, Dragon Inn, a movie about watching movies, begins with
a shot of the back of Tsai’s head (and that of a prominent Taiwanese
film critic)—he’s watching the movie just like us! (What Time
is it There? and The Skywalk is Gone also show Lee Kang-Sheng and Chen
Shiang-Chyi gazing endlessly at mesmerizing electric video.) After The
River, the stories evaporate, Tsai’s narratives become ambient.
After The River, the cinematography is more obviously beautiful, as though
lit from within. This kind of immanent yet transcendant filmmaking culminates
in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, which functions as a sort of tender opposite of
Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc: Chen Shiang-Chyi’s hobbled
movie ticket-seller is liberated by space rather than imprisoned with
in it; unlike Joan of Arc, she wants to be provoked by the man in her
life and is graceful precisely because she is regular, rather than saintly.
The shot of her gazing at the comparatively mobile King Hu heroine could
be the most graceful image of contemporary film. Goodbye, Dragon Inn is
an inverted twin to The River—suggestive rather than worldly, curious
rather than deliberate, mystical rather than contingent—and maybe
Tsai’s best film.