In the nearly three decades since his debut feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), Tsai Ming-Liang (b. 1957) has built a contemplative body of work that ruminates on fundamental experiences of existence. His focus on themes of solitude, alienation, and desire early in his career eventually expanded to explorations of the passage of time, memory, and spirituality later on; Tsai aspires to observe life and, consequently, has put his inner self on display. A maverick whose long takes have stretched the limits of filmic minimalism and stillness, Tsai has also reconsidered the very concept of cinema by borrowing elements from performance and Conceptual art. Nothing encapsulates this evolving exploration like his Walker series (2012–18), a set of short films or, rather, recordings of live performances, depicting his muse/alter ego Lee Kang-Sheng as an ancient Buddhist monk moving through contemporary settings at an impossibly slow pace, pushing against currents in time and space.
Often associated with Taiwan New Cinema—which marked the rise of a post-1980s generation of auteurs, including Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, whose work explores Taiwanese history and identity—Tsai embarked on a singular path, with an all-consuming focus on the personal and the individual. A decade younger than the aforementioned directors, Tsai, a Malaysia-born Chinese who moved to Taiwan to study theater at the age of 20, found himself immersed in a Taiwan gradually opening up after a long period of martial law, which ended in 1987. It was in this new political climate that Tsai established himself with films dealing with queer themes, personal space, social taboos, and unspoken desires. His second feature, Vive L’Amour (1994), earned him international recognition when it won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion.
Working with Lee Kang-Sheng, a fixture in all of Tsai’s features and nearly the entirety of his creative output, the director has crafted an oeuvre united by overlapping characters, actors, motifs, and scenarios. Projecting an aura of unwavering stillness and otherworldliness, Lee is inseparable from the director’s artistic universe—and even his personal life. On multiple occasions, Tsai has called Lee his reason to make films. As the director-actor duo ages over time, Tsai turns his focus to the subtleties of the human face and body. He has become, more than ever, enthralled by memory and the passage of time—in real life and on screen.
This retrospective, which marks Tsai and Lee’s first visit to the US since 2009, includes all of Tsai’s features, along with a selection of his shorts.
Organized by La Frances Hui, Associate Curator, Department of Film. Thanks to Taipei Cultural Center. Additional thanks to Claude Wang, Olivia Priedite, Caren Wu, Kanglan Chin, J. Michael Eugenio, Doc Films, Tom Vick, and the National Museum of Asian Art (Smithsonian Institution).