Sunday, July 5, 2015

Tsai Ming-Liang's "Rebels of the Neon God" at SIFF Cinema: Jul 17 - 23

Later this month SIFF Cinema presents the directorial debut from the auteur at the heart of Taiwanese Cinema's Second Wave and programming director for the recent series of brilliant restorations of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien by Central Motion Pictures, Tsai Ming-Liang has positioned himself at the vanguard of what's come to be known as the 'Slow Cinema' movement. From 1992's breakout film, "Rebels of the Neon God" Tsai would enrich his neon, spacial, melancholy vision of life in Taipei and Malaysia into a filmography of refined longing. It watches as foreshadowing of his stylistically established work of the later 1990's like "The River" and award-winning existential poetry of the early 2000's, "What Time is it There?" explored in interview by IndieWire for their "Cities and Loneliness: Tsai Ming-Liang's 'What Time Is It There?'". By this point having distinguished a cinematic voice of his own, he became the focus of Jared Rapfogel's excellent essay for Senses of Cinema, "Tsai Ming-Liang: Cinematic Painter". Yet some of Tsai's strongest, most characteristic work was to follow. 2003's deeply nostalgic meditation on time, cinema and the city, entirely set within a dilapidated theater in Taipei, "Goodbye, Dragon Inn" ranked on The Guardian's "10 Best Films about Films" and was the focus of of Senses of Cinema's Great Directors feature as well as Roger Clarke's "The Incomplete Tsai Ming-Liang" for Sight & Sound. Clark's classification of Tsai as "contemporary cinema's best poet of loneliness" came to fruition in the Malaysian night ambulations of 2006's "I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone" A.O. Scott's "Once Upon a Mattress, a Tone Poem Made Up of Moods" details it's yearning nocturnal quest for a sense of connectedness among the urban underclass.

Moving into an increasingly formalistic minimalism, 2013's "Stray Dogs" watches like a first feature-length effort at a new approach to dramaturgy. One that resembles neither traditional cinema or video art, but incorporates durational, editing and pacing considerations from both. This shift was first seen in his short digital works of recent years, the Tsai Ming-Liang & Lee Kang-Sheng Shorts showcase at the Rotterdam Film Festival pointing toward a new narrative hybrid from the director. More work has followed in this style, with the feature length 'walking' films that began with 2014's "Journey to the West" featuring Lee Kang-Sheng reprising his role as a Buddhist Monk traversing the western world on foot. “Rebels of the Neon God” tells a slighter, somewhat more conventional story than many of the films above, yet there's no mistaking it for anyone else’s work. Already fully formed in many ways, this early feature from two decades past contains many of what would become his trademarks. The unabated presence of water, the fraught family dynamics, the observational pacing, the lingering eroticization of the body, the directionless nighttime ambulations, the strange mixture of moodiness and slow-burn almost silent-slapstick, and of course, the presence of Tsai’s regular lead, the airily emotive Lee Kang-Sheng. New York City was the place to be this past April, Film Comment's Film of the Week review and Chen Huei-Yin's interview with the director coincided with Film Society at Lincoln Center's debut of the new restoration, running concurrently alongside the complete retrospective of Tsai's feature-length work at the Museum of the Moving Image.