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Ecstatic Nostalgia: New Theater Work by Tsai Ming-liang

In a series of monodramas, Tsai offers both an intensified take on his brand of voyeurism and a sweet valentine to his cast of regulars.

For Tsai Ming-liang, emotion is skin-deep.  No other working filmmaker is more sharply attuned to how raw, mundane feeling—feeling before it has been made compelling by drama or comprehensible by psychology—is undergone within the body and then hidden on its surface. The stupor induced by a long fit of crying, the half-bored mindlessness of bad sex, the feeling of one’s face on the pillow or one’s bare ass on the cold toilet seat: Tsai magnifies these semi-conscious fumblings and renders them lucid. His focus on minimally expressive figures making their way through a series of urban landscapes may owe a debt to Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, but his style also distinguishes itself through an elevation of bodily embarrassment, its location of all that fleshy palpability onscreen within moments of non-being and self-forgetting.

So airtight has this style been at times that it’s easy to overlook the flesh-and-blood actors at the center of Tsai’s worldview. Even at their most passive and glassy-eyed, they remain the barometer by which his cinema’s humanity is measured (imagine, for instance, The Wayward Cloud’s anti-porn critique without Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi’s climactic exchange of glances, and you’ll see an ugly, empty piece of shock value). It’s a thrill then to discover that Only You, a series of three monodramas which were commissioned by the National Theater and Concert Hall Taiwan and premiered in late October, is a valentine to his cast of dedicated regulars, one in which they seem freer from his tight auteurist grasp (and even get a flower and hug from him at curtain call). With Lee, Lu Yi-ching, and Yang Kuei-mei each headlining their own solo productions, and reportedly authoring much of the onstage action, his two-decade investment in these same faces and bodies and postures acquires a fresh, unexpected emotional power.

Few have ever captured urban ennui with greater precision, but it’s taken time for Tsai to access the elemental, to-the-bone sadness found in these plays’ best moments. His first films are gorgeously glacial, but when they attempt to thaw out—as in the audacious ten-minute sob-fest at the end of 1994’s Vive l’Amour—they come off scripted, partly because they persist in keeping melodramatic excess wrapped under a clinical façade. The accumulation of time—which now no longer refers to discrete scenes or films, but to the Tsai oeuvre’s steadily lengthening, decades-encompassing shadow—has served to deepen the bluesiness in his tone.

Like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhangke, he has moved from an early commitment to more or less straightforward verisimilitude to an airier, more romantic timbre and a freer indulgence in surface beauty. In 2006’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, we even find his definition of love tenderly articulated in the relationship between a sick Lee Kang-sheng and his caregiver. The past decade has been a gradual opening up toward different layers of reality—the surreal, the sociopolitical, the glamorous, the deeply sentimental—and Only You is an extension of this maturing and mellowing out. While it may seem ahead of schedule for the fifty-four-year-old Tsai to be fixating on death as his primary theme, the new plays are saturated in that autumnal quality more typically associated with artists’ late careers. Lu’s show, subtitled “The Dead Sea Where I Belong To”, is particularly stark in its handling of lonely, late-life dailiness, complete with scenes of the actress attaching BenGay pads to her own back, throttling herself with a massage stick, and playfully fiddling with her IV drip. On the surface these moments seem designed as comic relief, but the whole affair is a bit too frigid for anyone to think about laughing.

Perhaps because it was the first play I saw in the series (no particular viewing sequence was prescribed), I found the blunt approach to illness underwhelming, especially when Tsai succumbs to obviousness at the end with title cards flashing mundane verbs like “Eat,” “Drink,” and “Sleep,” clearly in an effort to drive home the character’s prison-like solitude. It could all be so easily pigeonholed as self-parody: so much pent-up desperation, all that time being longed for even as it’s wasted. But after encountering the pleasures of its companion plays, both of which follow a more satisfying path from melancholy to whimsical to transcendent, I couldn’t help but respect the sobriety of Lu’s show, its refusal of false consolation. As is so often the case in Tsai’s more uninviting works, navigating through aimless stretches of silence and stasis is simply the prerequisite for sniffing out the hints of clarity (and sometimes even grace) ahead.

In bringing the audience into the same room with actors whose bodies he has mercilessly poked, prodded, and undressed throughout the years, Tsai amplifies the already intense level of intimacy with which we’re accustomed to viewing them—this time, paradoxically, with everyone’s undergarments staying on. In the small black-box theater space—a form he helped pioneer in the 1980s by founding the experimental Xiao Wu Theater and writing/directing a handful of minimalist plays that have been periodically revived in Taipei throughout the years—we can smell Yang Kuei-mei’s cigarette as it’s being smoked and Lee Kang-sheng’s fish chips as they’re being eaten, we can hear other audience members breathing and stirring within the same space and time as the performer, and those lucky enough to sit in the front row get to plant their feet in the same thick layer of red dirt from which the entirety of the characters’ wasteland of a living room is built.

Tsai teases us with this proximity, and uses it to elaborate on the built-in layers of dread and anticipation inherited from his filmography. The question arises over and over: What should be our relationship to the space and the body in front of us? A seasoned viewer of Tsai’s films can learn a certain kind of uneasy spectatorship, and can figure out how to take even the director’s most cynical provocations in stride, but the theatrical space forces us to reassess his imposition of voyeurism as the inherently discomfiting activity it is. When Lu’s sickly protagonist takes to her bed and shuts the play down for what must be more than ten minutes, we’re left in an awkward state of suspension, wondering whether the character has died or the actor has fallen asleep on the job. The patient cooperation this scene requires of the audience feels like a marathon-like exertion of endurance, and before too long I began to suspect that my gaze—the fact of it being inflicted upon the character, or of it being stretched to its limits by the director—was becoming increasingly impolite with each passing minute.

“The Fish of Lee Kang-sheng: The Journey in the Desert,” in which Tsai’s career-long muse plays a fishing enthusiast who may or may not be himself, utilizes its perverse elongation of time to more spiritually suggestive (and at the same time loonier) ends. In an early scene, Lee inches at a snail’s pace from one side of the stage to the other, dragging his feet to make an unbroken line in the dirt. The interminable repetition of this minutest of motions and the deep concentration with which it’s performed leave the viewer in a half-meditative, half-groggy state, which is soon interrupted by an interlude of crowd-pleasing audience interaction. Lee brings out platters of seafood hors d’oeuvres from backstage, serves them smilingly to the first few rows, speaks with casual authority about his fishing experiences, and even refers to himself by name. Later, documentary-like video plays of him actually at sea, trapping live shellfish in jars and flipping octopi inside-out before thrashing them dead against the rocks.

With these disarming gestures of actor-audience intimacy, Tsai uses intimations of his star’s off-screen life as bait, hooking us in for the more abstract path he intends to steer us toward. For a moment, one feels as though a once impenetrable curtain has been raised. This stone-faced star has for years been subjected to Tsai’s enactments of base desire and apocalyptic depravity but never to any real psychological probing, all this time managing to remain free from any one fixed biography or easily explainable set of motivations. And now here he is in all his mystery—taller and more muscular than he seems onscreen—humbly inviting us to an innocent impromptu party held in our honor. The scene passes quickly, though, and we’re left scratching our heads again as the remainder of the play suggests another batshit shape-shift: Lee—his filmed image flickering in the background, Zenned-out amid billowing white silk screens—preparing for monkhood.

Such absurdist indulgences certainly don’t sound like much to get choked up over, but they’re couched within an irrepressible sense of wonder Tsai has rarely sustained across the entire length of a work. Lee spends much of his time getting his hands dirty with a number of different props—kneading a bloody slab of meat, laying out his collection of sand-encrusted seashells—and the meticulousness of each movement represents anew this body we know so well from the movies. Removed from the cityscapes and even the animal lusts that have defined Tsai’s films, Lee looks mature, focused, and perfectly at home in this choreographed show-and-tell. And yet, even as Tsai seems determined to prolong each moment to eternity, the themes of aging, memory, and mortality seep in, most notably in a beautifully photographed segment (excerpted from his 2007 short film It's a Dream) that features a young boy sitting in an abandoned vintage movie theater not unlike the one in 2003’s Good Bye, Dragon Inn, eating durian with his father as a young man (played by Lee) and his mother as an old woman.

My experience of Only You over three consecutive nights was capped off by Yang Kuei-mei's piece (“The Spider Demon of Yang Kuei-mei: The Evil Spirit in the Other World”) and it was clear from the outset that the atmosphere in the theater would be quite different from the previous performances. Yang—a Golden Horse-feted actress famous in Taiwan for her work on several TV dramas—likely brought in her own fanbase, judging from the excited chatter and the line that was still snaking around the theater fifteen minutes before showtime. In Tsai’s films Yang has often navigated between a cool imperiousness and sudden revelations of vulnerability. Together she and Tsai have constructed a role befitting a diva, with hints of the mainland Chinese chanteuses who dominated the 1930s and to whom Tsai has consistently paid tribute (the play takes its title from a song by Li Xianglan, the director’s favorite of early mandopop’s Seven Great Singing Stars).

Though “Spider Demon” is his most open-hearted, least ironic love letter yet to the bygone era of pop culture that influenced him as a kid—one that he came into contact with as symbols of dreamy Chinese sophistication on the Malaysian airwaves—it holds off on the glitz until the very end, instead beginning with an almost horror-movie vision of domesticity. Yang takes her sweet time climbing out of bed, her long witchy hair hanging in her face. She goes to the bathroom, makes an effort at tidying up her place. Then, as Tsai keeps ratcheting up the lunacy in barely perceptible increments, she starts lipsyncing to songs on the radio, doing a long-strided dance (courtesy of choreographer Cheng Tsung-lung) in circles around her bed, lighting a wet cigarette with her hairdryer.

This idea of a female performer rendered mute (by a broken heart? by sheer boredom?) puts me in mind of Bergman's Persona, but Tsai reaches out from behind all the gloomy atmospherics with a few thrilling last-minute cathartic thrusts. Near the end, Yang murmurs the line “I can smell your scent,” repeating it over and over again like an incantation, then singing to us a capella. After having spent most of the play in complete silence, Yang and her mess of incoherent flailings are finally ready for the spotlight, and ready to slip into the skin of a persona. Not only do her reedy speaking voice and lovely, birdlike singing make her unbearably tangible to us, but the line itself—"I can smell your scent"—highlights the two notions of nearness the play enshrouds us in: the absent-presence of us the audience behind the fourth wall, juxtaposed against the present-absence of the former lover whose memory floats in the air.

After nearly twenty years of working the same thematic and aesthetic ground, even fans have wondered if this major artist is just spinning his wheels. Only You is in certain ways a remix of Tsai’s directorial fetishes—an affirmation of nostalgia as its own form of ecstasy, in the vein of Good Bye, Dragon Inn. But these plays also add resonance to the old idea of the past haunting the present. When Tsai began making films, he was devoted exclusively to the here and now, or as he once put it, the "particular moment precisely... in 'that' space, with 'those' characters." Theater, even more than cinema, is the realm of the present, and yet Tsai's career-long repetitions, the web-like connections he creates across works, make memory inescapable. Sitting in front of his actors, who are the archives of the images he's made of them and the behaviors he's drawn out of them, we contemplate not just these bodies, in this space, but all the selves each of us are in a lifetime.

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