The Incomplete Tsai Ming-liang

Film still for The Incomplete  Tsai Ming-liang

Ever since Rebels of the Neon God rocked the 1993 Berlinale, Tsai Ming-Liang has been cinema's best poet of loneliness. With two new films, The Wayward Cloud and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, released, Roger Clarke asks, is it high time for Tsai?

With two films about to be released theatrically in the UK and a 50th-birthday retrospective scheduled at BFI Southbank, Tsai Ming-Liang seems suddenly back with the wordless, delinquent version of a vengeance. As well as the vaudeville and pornographic pleasures of The Wayward Cloud (2004) - like The Hole (1998), but with watermelons - British audiences will now get to see I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006), Tsai's first feature made in his native Malaysia. It's the latest in a series of cinematically refined, intensely personal films from one of the key figures of Taiwan's second-generation New Wave, whose members include the rather better-known Ang Lee.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone stars regular lead Lee Kang-Sheng acting in two roles: one as a comatose man and the other as a migrant worker badly beaten up on the streets and cared for by a local named Rawang, played by Norman Bin Atun, whom Tsai in characteristic fashion found selling fried cakes around town. Onstage in Toronto last year, Tsai mentioned that the experience of making this film brought him "healing" - and the moments where Lee is being looked after by Bin Autun are certainly deeply touching. In both roles Lee is given a full bed-wash by another with varying degrees of sympathy towards his plight, and in each case the iconography of death - the sluicing and sponging and preparation for burial - is clear. It has taken Tsai, by his own admission, some time to come to terms with the idea of death, a subject he first approached in What Time Is It There? (2001), the most emotionally haunted of his films.

Tsai began writing the script for I Don't Want to Sleep Alone during a period spent back in Malaysia in 1999, when he became intrigued by the skeletal building that presides over the film. The abandoned, half-finished structure was, he says, a poignant relic of the economic crash of the 1990s; the deep pool of water in its centre (a familiar Tsai motif) is one of his dark mirrors of the soul - like Elizabethan astrologer Dr Dee's obsidian scrying glass in the British Museum. Tsai walked past the building every day but never went in. Permission to film there was late coming because of an accident some months earlier, but Tsai was so determined that he began shooting other scenes before the go-ahead arrived. Certainly the building looks dangerous, the steel cabling from the unfinished concrete standing up like thousands of bristles. It's a curious place in which to find healing - but its isolation and incompletion appealed.

Filming with his regular crew from Taipei, Tsai admits he was initially anxious about the relocation to Kuala Lumpur. But he soon found the city's mixed population worked in his favour, allowing him to use a favourite device of onscreen songs from different ethnic groups. "In Taiwan people tend to shun the cameras but in Malaysia they are more relaxed and act more naturally," he told me. And this was never more in evidence than when he was filming in a restaurant. Tsai had arranged for extras to arrive, but in the end he used actual customers. At one point the city's famous smog descends and as the smoke machines cranked up he asked the diners if they wanted to leave. They didn't, and continued chatting as his crew handed out face masks.

Tsai has been identified, not quite correctly, as a chronicler of Taipei's bored and alienated youth and fluctuating cityscapes since his first full feature Rebels of the Neon God (1992) brought him almost instantaneous international success. Though he's largely considered a Taiwanese director, he was born in Kuching, East Malaysia, in 1957. The son of a farmer who also operated a stall in the city centre, Tsai spent much of his childhood lurking in local movie theatres watching films from China, Taiwan, the Philippines, India and Hong Kong. It wasn't until he went to university in Taipei that he saw the kind of auteurist cinema that would influence his own art - especially the works of Antonioni, Fassbinder, Bresson and, above all others, Truffaut.

After graduating in 1982 he stayed in Taiwan, working in theatre (four plays, including the deadpan one-man show A Wardrobe in the Room) and television (ten plays, eight of which he directed). During this apprenticeship he developed his fastidious and formal visual style and in 1991 he cast the completely unknown Lee Kang-Sheng in a 30-minute TV drama called Boys. It seems that Lee was working as a guard at a video arcade, propped against a motorcycle, when like Pasolini on the prowl in Rome, Tsai spotted him, talked to him and gave him his telephone number. He was enchanted by Lee's indifference and working-class solemnity; Lee later refused to take directions during filming and insisted on reacting in his own slow, impassive way. It's no exaggeration to say that Tsai found his characteristic style, stripped of contrived emotion, through his lead actor.

Fluid beauty

Lee's curiously mutable face has been in all Tsai's feature films since 1992, including Rebels of the Neon God, Vive L'Amour (1994), The River (1997), The Hole, What Time Is It There? and Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003). His character has evolved from the rebellious youth of Rebels of the Neon God, where he's the incarnation of the Chinese god Nezha, a headstrong deity who defies his parents, into something sadder and more battered in recent films, including a porn actor in The Wayward Cloud.

Perhaps they might never have met; perhaps Tsai would have walked down another street or Lee wouldn't have been leaning against his motorcycle (motorcycles have a freighted presence in Tsai's films). Certainly it's hard to think of another director with such an intense artistic relationship with his leading man. Lee's own life informs Tsai's films quite as much as Tsai himself. The actor's neck injury on the set of Rebels of the Neon God became the central motif for his character in The River - to date Tsai's best-known film, with its celebrated scene where a closeted gay father accidentally has sex with his son in the mists of a sauna.

Tsai says he couldn't imagine making a film without Lee, but then again, as a solitary man who won't even go into a restaurant if it's crowded, he does tend to work with the same familiar people. He usually uses cinematographer Liao Pen-Jung and draws from a small group of actors that includes Chen Chao-Jung and Yang Kuei-Mei. "I don't talk to [Lee] every day, but most days, since we work in the same office," says Tsai. "However, I do talk on the phone every day to his nephew, who is seven years old."

He's also involved in Lee's fledgling directorial career - Lee's second film Help Me Eros was in competition in Venice this year, with Tsai as co-producer and art designer. I suggest his position on Lee's films is a role reversal, but he just laughs. "It's not just those roles - I'm also helping to distribute and publicise Help Me Eros in Taiwan for its January release. As for the art direction, that was just to save money. We have the same mentality and the same beliefs and I don't agree with people who say he's simply copying my style. If he isn't influenced by my films, who would be his influence?"

It has been noted that Tsai seems to enjoy his bad-boy image, and despite his personal delicacy and reticence, his themes can be lurid. The Wayward Cloud includes a great deal of pulpy sex with watermelons. But Tsai is also especially good at depicting private moments - showing the things people do alone when they're not observed. Sex is an important force in his films, but it's rarely connected to love; the default position of a Tsai character is masturbation. The poet John Donne once wrote of the "spermatique issue of ripe menstruous boiles" and the "ranke sweaty froth" of insalubrious sex, the sweat on the brows and lips of lovers co-mingled and encoffined by small spaces. It wouldn't be a Tsai film without "ranke sweaty froth" and congruent bodily spillage.

Yet Tsai is very precise amid this chaotic human debris, uniquely balancing the overripe with the ascetic. His visual style, while depicting considerable crudity, is highly sophisticated. Few directors can compose a shot with quite such fluid beauty, his camera fixed and unmoving, like a paralysed man looking into a room as people come and go. His editing is non-linear and works against convention and his scripts, 50 pages long and written like poems, contain little or no dialogue, something that baffled his hero Jean-Pierre Léaud when it came to his cameo in What Time Is It There?

Disease is a hovering and malignant presence, especially in The Hole, where a virus makes people behave like cockroaches. It's possibly too crude a reduction to associate these fears with the shadow of Aids, though Tsai did make a documentary about Aids in 1995. In Tsai's landscapes, rooms are dirty. Pipes leak. Buildings are crumbling. People strive alone. Life is bleak and then, as in The Hole, you get a musical number. When you meet him you find that Tsai giggles a lot, like a naughty schoolboy, and perhaps his grim backdrops are less symbolic than is commonly supposed. He claims, for instance, that he's been flooded by leaks in nearly every apartment he's ever been in.

Audiences schooled in Hollywood film-making have looked in vain for themes of redemption, but escapes are there, especially the escape of cinema, most perfectly expressed in Goodbye Dragon Inn, his film about the closing down of a Taipei arthouse theatre. Totemic film-makers and actors figure here and there: a cameo for Ann Hui in The River; for veterans Shih Chun and Miao Tien watching themselves onscreen in Goodbye Dragon Inn; and of course Jean-Pierre Léaud scowling in a cemetery in What Time Is It There?

Ageing faces

After he's finished his chores for Help Me Eros Tsai is back in France making a film with Jean-Pierre Léaud; it's a project financed in some way by the Louvre (in Turin in 2005 I teased him about the erotic possibilities of the statues, and he admitted he'd been thinking about it). He is concerned about Léaud's health. "I'm anxious to work with him as soon as possible because he's getting quite frail and perhaps not so clear minded. But at the same time you can't rush the film because I need to work on the script." He is, he explains, keen to trace the history of Léaud's face from his youth in Truffaut's The 400 Blows and compare it to the ageing of Lee Kang-Sheng. "I'm more and more only interested in faces," he tells me - which also says something about his interest in watermelons since he casually mentions that he first noticed them on street stalls because "cut open they looked like faces." Surely a close-up can't be looming? Tsai laughs again, alarmed and intrigued at the very thought.

For many years British audiences were oblivious to modern Taiwanese cinema, partly because the films of Edward Yang (apart from Yi Yi) and Hou Hsiao-Hsien weren't distributed here. An Edward Yang retrospective at the NFT some years ago helped open the gates, and Tsai considers Yang's untimely death earlier this year to mark the end of an era. "The passing of Ed Yang represents the passing of an age in Taiwan," he says. "Audiences have changed and Taiwanese cinema has changed." US-style blockbusters now predominate.

Increasingly Tsai is finding funding abroad, but he's too much his own man to follow Ang Lee to Hollywood. The two directors ostensibly have little in common apart from their mutual obsession with cooking and food, though they have been known to have dinner together every now and then. When I met Ang Lee at the time of Brokeback Mountain we discussed Tsai briefly and he told me he'd borrowed many of the gay elements of his films from his contemporary. "I always say," he mused, "that the relationship between the Hulk and his father is very Tsai Ming-Liang."

It made me see that film in a whole new light. Tsai Ming-Liang had gone to Hollywood after all, in the heart of a radioactive green beast.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012