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In Taiwan’s Mountains, a Director Works to Slow Life Down

The filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang moved to his current home, on the verdant mountainsides that ring Taipei, seven years ago, after he became afflicted with a mysterious ailment resembling panic attacks. Around the same time, Lee Kang-sheng, his longtime collaborator and muse, suffered a relapse of a neck problem that had long troubled him. Looking for a place to convalesce outside the city center, the two came across a block of abandoned, half-constructed apartments, stretching the length of a deserted street. They moved in and began rehabilitating the buildings alongside their own bodies.
I never knew where I would die until I moved here, Tsai told me when I visited him one afternoon in the middle of July. I thought this place was maybe where I finally belonged. Tsai, now sixty-three, was waiting for me at his dining table, wearing a gray T-shirt and flip-flops. Two large bunches of green bananas that Lee had picked, complete with their blossoms, rested on the kitchen counter. Tsai has a shaved head and bushy eyebrows that, along with his spontaneous laughter, give him the demeanor of a mischievous monk. A tower of film cannisters lined the wall alongside life-size Buddhist statues, and scattered awards, from Taipeis Golden Horse to Berlins Silver Bear, were shelved haphazardly under a staircase.
Tsai and his longtime collaborator Lee Kang-sheng in a scene from Tsais documentary film Afternoon (2015).Photograph by Chen Chien-Chung / Courtesy Homegreen Films
Tsai and Lee are the only residents on their road, inhabiting a tastefully renovated rowhouse, which doubles as their studio, sectioned between raw concrete units left in their unfinished condition and overgrown with tropical plants that peek through the gaping windows. The labyrinthine, hollowed-out frame and its surroundings have become settings for most of his recent projects. I realized that I could shoot all of my films from this mountain, he told me.
Over the past thirty years, Tsai and Lee have created a body of work unlike any other in world cinema, capturing urban ennui and desire amid the ethereal, neon-lit dreamscapes of Taipei and other Asian metropolises. Though their work has been lumped by some critics into the umbrella category slow cinemaa loose coalition of film-festival regulars like Béla Tarr and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, identifiable by their long takes, minimal plot, and predilection for stationary camerasthe pair have followed their own path, constructing a symbolic universe in which loneliness and longing become material, manifesting in floods, leaks, and droughts, as well as diseases both existential and corporeal.
When I met Tsai, Taiwan was just emerging from a soft lockdown, ordered after the island saw its worst outbreak of COVID-19 following a year with little to no community transmission. Under normal circumstances, he and Lee would be travelling around the world, attending film festivals and premières for Days, which after delays eventually came out in the U.S. this August. Instead, as on every morning for the past year, Tsai began his day by sweeping the floor, brewing coffee, and making a simple lunch for himself and Lee. Lee Kang-sheng sleeps until very late, Tsai said. As if on cue, a groggy-looking Leenow fifty-two, but carrying an ageless insouciance that has graced his entire careerventured shirtless downstairs to investigate the commotion before promptly returning to his bedroom. Despite much speculation about the nature of their relationship in the course of their collaboration, the two describe it most often in familial terms: Tsai the parent and Lee the wayward teen-ager. (After many years of ambiguity, Tsai announced in 2018, during a referendum on same-sex marriage, that, while he was gay, Lee was not.)
Tsai has filled the rest of his time painting, a practice he picked up in recent years. We went upstairs to his studio to look at canvases he had been working on during the pandemic, a series of oil paintings drawn from set photographs of Days. One showed a young man resting on a floral futon, playing with his cell phone, while covered by a damask blanket; in another, two men sprawled naked on a hotel bed, swathed in earthy reds reminiscent of a Francis Bacon. Tsais own mattress was visible on the floor behind him, and his laundry hung out to dry on the balcony.
We were lucky to move here, Tsai said. If we had gotten sick in Taipei, we might have been very uncomfortable. Theres another kind of life here, slower. You have to take care of your surroundings. You need to cut the grass, tend to the trees. Tsai pointed proudly to his hand-held mower resting outside. This is a place to recuperate, he said. Before, I always had a feeling like I wanted to come back here. Now, I have the feeling that I want to go out, although with a different mind-set. It makes me feel like the world is something that can be truly appreciated.
The director of eleven feature films and several shorts, Tsai was born in Kuching, Malaysia, in 1957, to Hakka Chinese farmers. Raised partly by his maternal grandparents in the city, Tsai would accompany them to the cinema every evening, often watching movies back to back as his grandparents traded off shifts at their nearby noodle stand. In his twenties, he moved to Taipei to study theatre, working as a scriptwriter and director for television before making his first feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), which electrified audiences with its unvarnished depictions of urban Taiwanese youth. He had asked Lee, then a recent high-school graduate with an uncanny resemblance to James Dean, to act for him after seeing him propped on a motorbike outside an arcade, serving as a lookout for police raids on illegal gambling. Lee has since appeared in every major Tsai project.
Tsai is part of the second generation of the Taiwanese New Cinema, a movement of filmmakers who developed a style of dreamlike tranquillity and an attentiveness to everyday life at the end of Taiwans long period of martial law. His films departed, however, from those of peers like Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, which had dealt explicitly with the White Terror, Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang partys reign over the island. Tsais films instead take place after 1987, when Chiangs son, Ching-kuo, ceded one-party rule to the current multiparty democracy. The milieu they portrayurban youth coming of age during Taiwans economic boomis drawn more to American pop culture than to the Chinese mainland. Although his early films revelled in the newfound sexual and political freedoms of the period, they also hinted at the darker underpinnings of Taiwans assimilation into the global market, focussing on drifters, idlers, and insomniacs on the fringes of the worlds supply chain.
With Rebels, Tsai also introduced a queer sensibility into Taiwanese cinema, débuting Lees alter ego, Hsiao Kangthe Chinese characters can mean Little Health or Little Wealthan aimless cram-school dropout who becomes fixated on a handsome, small-time hoodlum. Their follow-up, Vive LAmour (1994), which depicts a trio of solitary Taipei residents passing through the same staged real-estate agents apartment, garnered international acclaim and further cemented the hallmarks of Tsais aesthetic: the use of parallel narratives, themes of repressed longings and missed connections, and Lees unique dramatic presence, marked by his androgynous impassivity. Around this time, Tsai observed that Lee had begun suffering from a painful stiffness in his neck, and made it the plotline of his next film, The River (1997), in which Hsiao Kang finds himself paralyzed after floating in a polluted stream. As he seeks various remedies, we also peer into the lives of his father, a closeted retiree who frequents Taipeis gay saunas, and his mother, an elevator attendant conducting an affair with a pornography distributor. A leak that begins as a trickle in their apartment grows gradually into a torrential current, suggesting how the unspoken can come spilling out in unanticipated forms.
In 1998, Tsai was invited to contribute to an anthology envisioning the year 2000. By then, a lot of problems had already appeared, Tsai remembered. The earth had been damaged for a long time. In Taiwan, I thought it might be raining without end. For what would become his film The Hole, Tsai landed on the idea of an epidemic of Taiwan Fever, a virus suspected to originate from cockroaches that induces people to crawl on all fours and shun the light. Two neighbors, played by Lee and Yang Kuei-mei, remain in their apartment building despite its being condemned as a virus hotspot, and begin to interact through a strange gap that appears in the floor between them. Interspersed among scenes of their increasingly desperate existences are fantastical, gloriously campy musical interludes, set to the songs of Grace Chang, a mid-century pop star. They infuse a dreamy quality to the films atmosphere of isolation, providing an outlet for emotional overflow in a gesture that seems jarringly prescient.
Although his international profile continued to grow, Tsai found it difficult to find commercial traction at home. While some critics accused his films of inaccessibility, domestic productions were also finding themselves crowded out by Hollywood exports. Tsai and Lee set up their own production company in 2000, and devised a direct-to-consumer promotional strategy: Tsai would arrive unannounced at offices, and visit college cafeterias during lunchtime to sell tickets to his own movies. In half an hour, I could sell one to two rows, he said, not without pride. Its hard to imagine many other filmmakers of Tsais stature in the same position, and he began to feel a mounting frustration with the demands of commercial cinema.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) takes place in a derelict movie theatre on the night of its last screening, as it shows King Hus 1967 martial-arts classic Dragon Inn. Tsais film has the air of a vigil, as ghostly apparitions walk the aisles of the sparsely attended theatre, alongside the workers who had barely managed to keep it afloat before its closure. The demise of communal spaces forms a recurring theme in Tsais work, even as it has progressed from tales of youthful alienation to portrayals of the precarity of migrant workers in films like I Dont Want to Sleep Alone (2006). His films trace an arc resembling that of the region, as decades of unfettered economic expansion gave way from initial exuberance to the reality of shrinking outlets for community and more

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