Tate Film: Tsai Ming-Liang: The Deserted

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TAT E M O D E R N  S TA R R C I N E M A 5 –7 A P R 2019

Tsai Ming-liang: The Deserted forms part of Tate Film’s Pioneers series, a programming strand showcasing filmmakers and artists whose works have proposed new approaches to the moving image. This strand anchors Tate Modern’s Starr Cinema programme, presenting seminal works that challenge the boundaries between different traditions of film and art practice.

My wish is for each shot to be like a painting, and the light my pigment. So I approach every shot very slowly and with great care.

Celebrated within traditions of Taiwanese, auteur and slow cinema alike, Tsai Ming-liang is one of the most unique voices in cinema today. He is know for his long shots, elliptical narratives, painterly approaches to light and colour, and poignant portrayals of alienation. This weekend film series is a tailored survey of his work across narrative, documentary and performance-based filmmaking which points to both the range of forms and influences – from classic and arthouse cinema to Buddhism – that have given shape to this singular body of work. A quintessential cineaste, Tsai was captivated by the medium from a young age: I was born in the 1960s, and that was a golden era for the cinema. My grandparents took me to the cinema everyday. We watched genre films that offered an escape from reality. They cast me under a spell and left a lasting impression on me. In the 1980s, I came to Taiwan and encountered a hitherto unknown level of political freedom, and in that milieu I was exposed to another type of cinema: for example, the French Nouvelle Vague, New German Cinema, and classic silent films. They not only broadened my film vocabulary, but also stirred my heart and spirit, and I began to really think about what cinema is.1 Each in their own nuanced way, his narrative films reflect the impression of, and sometimes even pay direct homage to, a wide variety of cinema greats – from François Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni and Clare Denis to King Hu in Goodbye, Dragon Inn 2003, which stands as one of the greatest salutes to cinema more broadly.

— Tsai Ming-liang and Nick Pinkerton, ‘A More Beautiful Life: An Interview with Tsai Ming-liang,’ trans. Aliza Ma, Reverse Shot, 17 April 2015.

These senses of cinematic gratitude run through Tsai’s work, taking a more explicit form in his 2015 documentaries Autumn Days and Afternoon. While the former offers an aural and visual portrait of Nogami Teruyo, former screenwriter and script supervisor for renowned Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Afternoon is a rare film to feature Tsai himself, seated with actor Lee Kang-sheng, reflecting on their twenty-five year collaboration. One of the most profound and committed filmmaker-actor relationships in cinema today, Tsai and Lee have worked together on nearly every work in the artist’s oeuvre – from short and feature films to recent theatre productions to installations – imbuing this body of work with the persistent assertion of the productive potential of unconventional working methods. Tsai’s steadfast casting of Lee – and regular casting of Lu Yi-ching, Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Shiang-chyi, Chen Chao-jung and Miao Tien – is but one of the idiosyncrasies he regards as acts of rebellion against cinematic convention. His indifference to censor boards, insistence on cinematic releases of short films and his recent decision to release feature films in art museums rather than cinemas give further grounding to the freedoms he seeks in defining his work and the contexts in which these works are encountered. His signature long, single-perspective takes can also be regarded as as a key aspect of this disposition. He informs, ’slowness is the best way to express my revolt’,2 underscoring too that ‘with slowness…we return to the essence of cinema’.3


T sai Ming-liang interviewed by Gary M. Kramer, ‘Tsai Ming-liang,’ BOMB, 7 April 2015.


T sai Ming-liang, quoted in David Eng, ‘Slowness as an Act of Rebellion: On Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker,’ Entropy, 22 May 2014.



His fixed camera and minimal use of cuts establishes a movement of time that often corresponds more closely to that of our daily lives than the typical rhythms of cinema. This has a profound impact on the act of viewing, whether honing attentiveness and perceptive sensibilities, allowing the eye to scrutinise the frame or inducing a more meditative form of spectatorship. Tsai’s Walker series moves intentionally slower than daily life, capturing a highly dexterous performance by Lee as Hsiao-kang, a red-robed Buddhist monk walking city streets at a meticulously slow pace. Inspired by the travelogues of seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang – written as he walked to India on foot and and upon his return carrying key Buddhist philosophical scriptures – this series takes the form of filmed performances of this walking meditation ritual. Hsiao-kang’s movements approach the threshold of stasis, appearing to take place in a different temporality than the metropolises through which he moves – a contradistinction we are normally accustomed to seeing only in special effect sequences, achieved here through durational performance. Tsai sooner speaks of this series as ‘outdoor life painting’ than performance, however, elaborating: ’I experienced the highest degree of artistic freedom when I was doing the Walker series, because it’s not about a story, not even about meanings. It’s painting.4

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Combining its distinct poetics with elements of realism, Tsai’s work depicts contemporary experiences of social marginalisation, sex and pansexual desire, isolation and urban alienation in an unprecedented way. Together with his unique shooting and casting styles, these representations – ranging from bold to sensitive – have come to define this body of work as one of the most significant and original of the last two decades.

The series launches with the UK premiere of two interconnected films – Light, a new short film, and Your Face, a feature-length film – followed by a conversation with the artist and Q&A.

L I G H T [ 光] Taiwan 2018, DCP, colour, sound, 18 min Light captures changes in the natural light streaming through Taipei’s Zhongshan Hall. In addition to being the setting for Tsai’s feature-length film Your Face, Zhongshan Hall has national significance as it is the site where Japanese forces in Taiwan formally surrendered at the end of the Second World War, ending 51 years of Japanese occupation in Taiwan. The hall also bears personal significance for Tsai, as a site where he had worked as a student, won a filmmaking award, ran a cafe and held screenings of classic films.


T sai Ming-liang interviewed by Huei-Yin Chen, ‘Interview: Tsai Ming-liang,’ Film Comment, 6 April 2015.

Tsai Ming-liang Your Face 2018, film still. Courtesy Homegreen Films

YO U R FAC E [ 你的臉] Taiwan 2018, DCP, colour, sound, 77 min, Mandarin with English subtitles Your Face is composed of thirteen portraits of citizens of Taipei. Some remain silent while others offer life stories, confessions and even a short tune. Twelve of the subjects were encountered by Tsai in the city streets, while the final subject is Lee Kang-sheng, an actor who has become a fixture of Tsai’s filmography. Tsai’s explicit use of close-up in all but one of the film’s shots was rooted in an urge to use this form of shot composition and intimacy after making a VR film, a technology which does not lend itself to close-ups or framing. Evoking a lineage of cinematic portraiture epitomised by Warhol’s screen tests and James Benning’s Twenty Cigarettes, Your Face explores what stories and experiences come through faces and duration alone, using cinematic lighting to emphasise each subject’s features. The film’s final take is a wide-shot of the space in which the portraits were filmed, serving as a kind of reverse establishing shot. The soundtrack was made by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, making this Tsai’s first scored film in twenty years.

Tsai Ming-liang No No Sleep 2015, film still. Photo: Chang Jhong-yuan. Courtesy Homegreen Films



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This programme is a chance to discover three of Tsai Ming-liang’s short films that point to different threads of his practice: interconnected narratives and films, his ongoing Walker film series and documentary portraits.

T H E S K Y WA L K I S G O N E [ 天橋不見了] Taiwan 2002, DCP, colour, sound, 22 min, Mandarin with English subtitles The Skywalk is Gone was made shortly after Tsai’s 2001 feature film What Time is it There?, extending and complicating elements of its plot. In it, we see the protagonist of the feature film attempt to locate a vendor from whom she had purchased a watch, only to find that the pedestrian overpass where he sold his wares has been removed, frustrating foot traffic. Midway through the film, the camera switches course to follow the former vendor, who is now auditioning for a role in a pornographic film, a plot line which carries through to Tsai’s 2005 feature The Wayward Cloud.

N O N O S L E E P [ 無無眠] Taiwan 2015, DCP, colour, sound, 34 min No No Sleep is the seventh instalment of Tsai’s Walker series, which follows the character of a Buddhist monk as he walks through the streets of various cities around the globe. Described by Tsai as ’an outdoor life drawing’, this iteration sees him slowly walking through Tokyo in the evening, carefully framed by Tsai’s steady camera. No No Sleep marks a break from previous instalments by veering away from the character in a remarkable tracking shot taken through the window of an urban train journey. The film then re-acquaints us with the monk in the setting of a public bathhouse where the homoerotic undertones characteristic of Tsai’s work bubble gently to the surface.

AU T U M N DAY S [ 秋日] Taiwan 2015, DCP, colour, sound, 24 min, Japanese and Mandarin with English subtitles

Catch a special 35mm film screening of Tsai Ming-liang’s masterful elegy to cinema, followed by a conversation with the artist and Q&A.

Autumn Days is a documentary portrait of Nogami Teruyo, a close friend of Tsai’s who worked for nearly fifty years as screenwriter and script supervisor for famed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. In the first part of the film, she speaks with Tsai about her work with Kurosawa in a conversation that is heard but not seen, unfolding against a black screen. The second part is a filmic portrait in which Teruyo and actor Lee Kang-sheng are seen but not heard as the camera moves through incrementally wider shots of the pair sitting on a bench amidst fallen leaves. Tsai states, ‘I wanted to preserve her portrait, as a gift to Japan and children of the future.’

Taiwan 2003, 35mm, colour, sound, 82 min, Mandarin with English subtitles Tsai’s critically acclaimed film takes place in a decaying cinema at the time of its final projection. The late wuxia master King Hu’s 1966 classic swordplay film Dragon Inn – a film Tsai says has captured his imagination since he was eleven years old – is screened to a diminishing audience. Among the handful of remaining viewers are two of the actors who feature in the film, ghostly relics from Asian cinema’s golden age whose presence evokes the literal translation of the film’s Mandarin title 不散, meaning ‘no leaving’. Meanwhile, the movements of the theatre’s two staff and a gay cruising subplot take us into all corners of the building, exploring the site and present use of the old theatre. Described as ‘a beautiful love poem to the movies’ (Slant), Goodbye, Dragon Inn exquisitely captures the elegiac mood surrounding the fate of cinema at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Tsai Ming-liang The Skywalk is Gone 2002, film still. Photo: Lin Meng-shan. Courtesy Homegreen Films Tsai Ming-liang Autumn Days 2015, film still. Courtesy Homegreen Films

G O O D BY E , D R AG O N I N N [不散]

Tsai Ming-liang Goodbye, Dragon Inn 2003, film still. Photo: Lin Meng-shan. Courtesy Homegreen Films



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Tsai Ming-liang discusses numerous aspects of his singular practice in this special masterclass. His talk will share the methods and philosophies grounding his unique approach to filmmaking, and will also touch upon his work in theatre, installation and VR.

The series closes with one of Tsai Ming-liang’s most touching and deeply personal films.

Tsai Ming-liang on the set of Your Face, 2018. Photo: Chang Jhong-yuan

A F T E R N O O N [那日下午] Taiwan 2015, DCP, colour, sound, 137 min, Mandarin with English subtitles Afternoon gorgeously captures a ruminative conversation between Tsai and Lee Kang-sheng, the actor who has appeared in all of his films, and with whom he now shares a mountainside home. It is shot in a raw, near-ruin of a room of their shared house whose open-air windows extend the view out to the lush greenery of the surrounding landscape and afternoon sky. Recorded soon after Tsai first announced plans to retire from filmmaking, the film is a moment to consider his and Lee’s intertwined careers, collaboration and friendship. Tsai does most of the talking, expressing his great praise for Lee’s work, and musing on his own poor health, his queer identity, spirituality and thoughts on the afterlife.

Tsai Ming-liang Afternoon 2015, production still. Photo: Chen Chien-Chung. Courtesy Homegreen Films

Tsai Ming-liang (b.1957, Malaysia) is an artist and filmmaker whose practice spans film, installation, theatre and virtual reality. At the age of twenty he moved to Taipei, where he studied in the Drama and Cinema Department of the Chinese Culture University of Taiwan. He went on to work as a theatrical producer, screenwriter and television director in Hong Kong. He directed several telefilms before completing his first feature, 1992’s Rebels of the Neon God. His next film Vive L’amour was awarded the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, where he would later win the Grand Jury Prize for his 2013 film Stray Dogs. In 2002, he received the distinction of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government. In 2007, Tsai’s It is a Dream installation was exhibited in the Taiwanese Pavillion at the Venice Biennale, after which it went on permanent display at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. In 2009, his film Face was the first film developed through a a new production by the Louvre Museum.

Tsai Ming-liang: The Deserted is curated by the artist with Aephie Chen and Tate Film (Andrea Lissoni and Carly Whitefield).

T H A N K S TO: Judith Bowdler, Huiji Chen, Simon Field, Beatriz Garcia-Velasco, Homegreen Films, Shihyin Huang, Cheryl Lai, Travis Miles, Mehelli Modi, Georgie Paget, Mariusz Pozierak, Oli Rogers, Starr Cinema AV, Claude Wang Design by Tate Design Studio This programme has been made possible thanks to the contributions of the Ministry of Culture of Taiwan, Taiwan Film Festival UK and Film Taiwan. Tate Film is supported by In Between Art Film tate.org.uk/film Thoughts, comments, reviews? Tatefilm

Cover image: Tsai Ming-liang Goodbye, Dragon Inn 2003, film still. Photo: Lin Meng-shan. Courtesy Homegreen Films

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