Balancing reticence with boundless compassion, despondency with deadpan absurdity, debilitating inertia with a visceral urge for escape, Tsai Ming-liang's unblinking portraits of rootlessness in post-boom Taiwan double as trenchant anatomies of desire—in particular the disavowed, diverted, and repressed varieties. Nothing if not a city of sadness, his Taipei is a sort of overpopulated ghost town whose heartsick inhabitants, entombed in anonymous, mausoleum-like high-rises, seem to exist in their own private limbo—their chronic unease exacerbated by an incessant murmur of white noise and a mind-boggling array of plumbing woes. Even more waterlogged than the Wong Kar-wai oeuvre, Tsai's films return time and again to a single element: a flooded apartment in Rebels of the Neon God, a convulsive torrent of tears in Vive L'amour, an ominous leaky ceiling in The River, an apocalyptic downpour in The Hole.

The Walter Reade's near-complete Tsai retro offers the opportunity to consider these movies as a whole and take in the intertextual resonances embedded within this obsessive, remarkably congruent body of work. Each film builds on previous ones, reiterates and revises established themes, triggers unexpected echoes (Tsai's camera lingers so patiently that even the tiniest detail will suffice—from rice cookers to elevators to an eager gulp of water to a barely inflected father-son interaction). Completing the metaphysical circle, the director's regular star, Lee Kang-sheng, has appeared in every one of his features to date playing a reliably undemonstrative character named Hsiao-kang. The muse/alter-ego relationship calls to mind, if not Truffaut/Léaud, then certainly Carax/Lavant.

The 43-year-old Tsai began his career in TV and theater, and he favors proscenium framing and extended takes with virtually no camera movement. The medium- and long-shot compositions are unfailingly fastidious, deriving significance from the placement of characters and how they enter or exit a frame. While the Malaysian-born Tsai (he moved to Taipei in his late teens) is deemed the key figure of new Taiwanese cinema's second wave, his work is less political and historically freighted than that of forerunners like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. The national identity crisis that the previous generation wrestled with is replaced by more personal fumblings—often stemming from romantic longing and sexual confusion.

Singin’ in the rain: Lee and Yang in The Hole
photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center
Singin’ in the rain: Lee and Yang in The Hole

Fassbinder was in fact the most commonly cited reference point when Tsai emerged on the festival circuit with his first feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), a tender/tough survey of beautiful, dissolute Taipei youth on their nightly prowls of fluorescent-lit food courts and video arcades. Ejected by his parents after he drops out of school, the morose Hsiao-kang becomes fixated on a street punk (Chen Chao-jung). Content at first to play voyeur but increasingly unable to untangle, or even begin to articulate, the knot of emotions in the pit of his stomach, Hsiao-kang responds impulsively—slashing the other boy's motorbike seat and spraying the word "AIDS" on his gas tank.

Vive L'amour(1994) elaborates on the nature of Hsiao-kang's desire, but withholds certainty until late in the film. Our hero has grown into a columbarium salesman, dejectedly hawking ash-urn storage space, and Chen again plays the aloof object of obscure desire. A triangle is formed with a thirtysomething realtor (Yang Kuei-mei), whose tearful final reckoning constitutes one of the all-time great movie endings. In a scene saturated with the perversely lucid regret of a bleary morning-after, she walks through a desolate park at daybreak, seats herself at a bench, and starts to cry—an implacable tidal wave with a life of its own, going beyond surrender, beyond absurdity, beyond catharsis, right into the realm of fables. The fade to black arrives just as you've convinced yourself she could go on weeping forever.

The River(1997, due to open at Cinema Village next month) explodes the nuclear family of Rebels. Hsiao-kang and his parents (again played by Lu Hsiao-ling and Miao Tien) share an apartment but essentially drift through a strangely emptied-out Taipei in separate orbits. Water, which generally represents undammed passions in these films, is here also an agent of infection. Hsiao-kang develops a mysterious neck pain after a dip in the titular Tanshui, and the fruitless search for a cure culminates in a stinging slap in the face, both for the protagonist and the viewer—an astonishingly confrontational outcome that makes a horrifying sort of sense once the shock wears off.

Tsai's subsequent film, The Hole(1998), retreats profitably into fantasy. Set on the eve of the 21st century, during a disease-bearing monsoon, the film positions Hsiao-kang as an improbable white knight for the hapless woman downstairs (Yang Kuei-mei, again heartbreaking) when a plumber inadvertently knocks a hole in his floor. As the cavity between the apartments widens, Tsai duly piles on the penetration and (re)birth metaphors, punctuates the action with incongruously resplendent musical numbers set in the damp corridors and stairwells of the drab apartment block, and advances the taciturn romance with his distinctive strain of poker-faced, prop-ridden slapstick.

Tsai's recent Cannes entry, What Time Is It There? (not included in the retro), pays homage to his favorite film, The 400 Blows, and the sample of the director's early TV work on display here shows a tremendous empathy for downtrodden youth—not least 1989's All Corners of the World, which chronicles the hard-knock existence of a brother and sister whose neglectful parents make a living cleaning love hotels and scalping movie tickets. (One scene has them comparing proceeds from a Schwarzenegger blockbuster and Hou Hsiao-hsien's City of Sadness.) The series also features the local premiere of a brand-new digital documentary, A Conversation With God, which opens by connecting the dots between spirituality and eroticism—cutting from a shirtless medium in a sweaty trance to a stripper gyrating to " . . . Baby One More Time"—and ends up a stubbornly cryptic contemplation of rotting fish.

Steeped in free-floating despair, Tsai's films are nonetheless disinclined to take their leave without first maneuvering their lonely individuals into agonizing proximity, poised to achieve momentary contact—a fleeting stolen moment, a hallucinated figment, a soul-scalding collision. His entrenched pessimism notwithstanding, Tsai betrays a romantic's faith in last-minute possibility (a couple of Rebels' final scenes end with doors being left slightly ajar). Concluding grace notes are fraught with ambivalence, and in context, that's more than enough to register as a glimmer of hope.

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