My enthusiasm for Tsai Ming-liang has cooled down since I initially fell in love with him about four years ago and although this is a pretty fantastic effort, it’s not the one that is going to rekindle said affair. It’s a Tsai film through and through, but it’s getting to the point where it is almost self-parody. The Wayward Cloud has always felt like his defining personal statement, and his films that came before it were fascinating drives to eventually reach that point. It’s hard to not see a film like this as a bit of a retread. It’s technically perfect, and pretty beautiful at times, but there comes a time when someone needs to throw a wrench in the system if they’re going to set the earth on fire again. As it is, this is a really nice movie, one of Tsai’s most visually accomplished, but it doesn’t manage to pack the punch of even his technically lesser film.
There might be some alienation going on regarding Tsai’s sort of minimalist low-brow approach that I use to eat up almost subconsciously. It doesn’t seem to be as funny anymore, maybe because it feels slightly recycled from his previous efforts but more importantly, it feels stupid. There’s a befuddling scene in which Lee Kang-sheng has raw meat poured on himself in a bathtub, while women dance around a stylized meat locker. This is the movie within the movie, I guess, and maybe it’s not too different from static shots in The Wayward Cloud displaying the making of porn but it feels too self-conscious of its own attempt at being subversive. There’s a fine line between the absurdity and alienation of everyday life (which is executed perfectly more than a few times here) and something that is just plainly absurd.
In a way, this film makes more sense as a follow up to The Wayward Cloud than I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. The revival of musical numbers helps this theory, but Tsai’s tone is once again loud in the face of his “quiet” aesthetic. Chalk up to my own personal maturity, but it begins to feel somewhat cheap in instances here. It’s been so long since I’ve last seen anything else by him that I can’t help but wonder if it’s me or just this particular effort. It feels like it should be the former since again, this is a beautiful movie and nearly perfect execution of Tsai’s style, but it feels more empty than even the earlier (and uglier films) that left only a small impression on me. The River might be the calmest Tsai and it weirdly might be better than this film, even as this one is insanely more watchable.
I hate to regress back into personal experience, but another problem might be that the tension I once felt in Tsai’s compositions is gone. Perhaps I’ve seen it all done already. There was a weird thrill when I saw What Time is it There? for the first time because of the length of these static shots. I’ve never grouped him with “slow” filmmakers like say, Tarr, because his glacial style is weirdly energetic. It’s not ponderous, even though the length of the composition gives one time to think. Tsai’s closest companion might be Tati and he’s never felt too cold or brooding. Maybe the comedy is losing it’s charm for me, also.
It’s hard to put to text how this film has made me feel because as it wildly watchable and entertaining in the way Tsai has always been to me, it also feels empty, devoid of a heart. It’s poignant at times, sure. One sequence that takes place in complete darkness with a lighter might be one of the very best moments Tsai has ever composed. There’s not quite enough of this, though. There’s one set piece involving a leaky faucet and while it is comical, it feels like I’ve seen it done before. Maybe it is perfected here, but in the context of this film as a whole, it can’t really be “better” since the payoff doesn’t seem as rich.
Most of Tsai’s work isn’t immediate, but it does stick around in your brain and fertilizes feelings that make a revisit almost a necessity. This feeling is usually pretty strong, almost like an itch, but I felt fine ignoring it with this particular case. In all likelihood, this will change in a few days. Of course, it’s important to note that Tsai has, through previous efforts, given me unreasonable expectations. It’s fun to watch if you’ve been awed by Tsai before, but it’s nothing new for his fans. It’s a beautiful movie, but I guess I’m too hard on it for not shaking my foundation completely.