Who is he?
Critically celebrated Malaysian-born Taiwanese filmmaker and writer who has made nine feature films and numerous other short and medium-length films since the late 1980s. Tsai studied theatre and worked as a theatre and television director before his foray into films. His second feature Vive l’Amour won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 1994.
Why is he of interest?
Tsai is one of the most experimental of filmmakers currently working with the feature-length format and a key figure in contemporary contemplative cinema. The singular handling of cinematic space and time, in conjunction with the constant search for the spiritual impulse in modern existence, deems him one of the most remarkable of contemporary film artistes.
Where to discover him?
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), arguably the director’s finest work to date, revolves around an old single-screen cinema hall in Taipei haunted by ghosts (or ghost-like humans) days before its shutdown. Tsai’s formally exacting and atmospherically rich film is an elegy for the passing of a certain type of cinema that he grew up with, a farewell note to a now-faded world whose images and people have become ghosts in a machine.
What are his films about?
Tsai’s films are set in defunct worlds, post-apocalyptic cityscapes and ruined societal structures, and yet they are full of hope for finding a human connection. They are about loners alienated from their life, trudging through their existence, like ghosts haunting a decrepit building. These films probe for the spiritual in the material. They are concerned with the possibility of human transcendence in a society that thwarts it. Elements of Nature — specifically water, in all forms — are recurring visual elements and act as anarchic, cathartic or redemptive forces.
Like his fellow Taiwanese Hou Hsia-Hsien, Tsai typically shoots entire scenes in master shots, with a fixed camera and light sources present within the frame. The shots are extremely long — some lasting several minutes — and are often undramatic in a traditional sense. There is little dialogue in these films and barely any external musical score. Characters are often dwarfed by their surroundings and framed through architectural elements. Despite the melancholy atmosphere, there is a streak of dark humour in these films. Tsai’s muse and friend Lee Kang-Sheng appears in a major role in each of his films.