Academic journal article CineAction

Vive l'Amour

Academic journal article CineAction

Vive l'Amour

Article excerpt

Leaving aside one very early and generally inaccessible feature film and a couple of shorts dealing with gays and AIDS, Tsai Ming-Liang's oeuvre to date reveals an overall unifying pattern that is probably unique in the whole of world cinema. It is impossible to judge whether this was consciously planned from the outset or (as seems more likely) it defined itself at some relatively early stage in his development. Most obviously, the seven films to date are linked by the presence of Lee Kang-Sheng, usually in the central, pivotal role. (The exceptions are Vive I'Amour, where he shares the position with two other characters, the woman finally emerging as the central consciousness, and Goodbye, Dragon Inn, where he is part of an ensemble.) Tsai has been quoted as saying that he will never make a film without him. But one actor doesn't, in himself, constitute a pattern. More remarkable is that the seven films, seen as an ongoing series, reveal a strictly symmetrical pattern of alternation. In the first (Rebels of the Neon God), the third (The River), and the fifth (What Time Is It There?), Lee's character has a family--the some family in each film, played by the same two actors, in the same easily identifiable living-space with the same easily recognizable decor, their exact constitution developing from film to film: in What Time Is It There? the father dies (though he returns at the end, thousands of miles from home, in a curious moment of 'magic realism'). In the alternating series (Vive I'Amour, The Hole, Goodbye, Dragon Inn); Lee appears unattached and isolated--no family is present or mentioned. Lee's character's sexuality is also somewhat shifty: he is ambiguous in Rebels (though with hints that he might be gay), definitely gay in Vive I'Amour and The River, apparently hetero or undefined in all the later films with the exception of Visage in which he has oral sex with mathieu Amarlic. Should we assume that having sex with his father in an extremely dark gay bathhouse (The River), and getting viciously slapped for it when the light is turned on, has 'cured' him? Although the films are unmistakably the work of the same artist, there is some distinction to be made between the two series. The 'family' films (and especially What Time Is It There?) are, on the whole, more lightweight, more playful, while the non-family films are darker and have wider socio-political resonance.

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Less consistently, the films are linked by recurrent imagery, most notably of water: constant rain, flooded apartments, already introduced in Rebels (where so many of Tsai's motifs have their origin), developed in The River, reaching its climax in the relentless, end-of-the-world downpour of The Hole. Prior to Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Vive I'Amour is the only Tsai film from which water is absent. One might suggest that its place is taken by silence.

I should say here, perhaps, that, although I love all Tsai's films to date (prior to The Wayward Cloud, which I haven't yet seen), Vive I'Amour, the first I saw, still seems to me the finest--the most rigorous, the most disciplined, the most fully thought and felt. The patterning, whether of the overall sequence of films or within each separately, is fascinating in itself, but it never hardens into mere formalism. The symmetry is always at the service of the sense.

The Silence

No, not, as with Ingmar Bergman, the silence of God (Tsai appears to be unburdened with any obsolete religious baggage), but still the silence of spiritual desolation--cultural and political as much as metaphysical. If the characters are remarkably and unusually silent, it is simply because they have nothing to talk about, or are actively afraid of communication. (And it seems pertinent here that Tsai never, from the outset, has used 'background' music, to guide the viewer's emotions, create moods, or, indeed, for any other purpose.)

The opening credits are (as always with Tsai) silent. …

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