AFTER THE DELUGE: THE FILMS OF TSAI MING-LIANG at Cinematheque Ontario (Art Gallery of Ontario, Jackman Hall, 317 Dundas West), from Sunday (November 4) to November 15. Rating: NNNNN
in a tsai ming-liang film, apart-ments weep buckets and people stand as stoic as cinder blocks. Tsai makes films in which the narratives are compacted and the emotions trapped like hair in a drain. They're some of the most beautiful, most haunting films of the past decade. Almost predictably, they are from Taiwan.Cinematheque Ontario's survey of his work includes all the features -- Rebels Of The Neon God (Sunday, November 4, 1 pm), Vive L'Amour (Tuesday, November 6, 8:45 pm), The River (Thursday, November 8, 6:30 pm) and The Hole (Wednesday, November 14, 8:45 pm) -- plus rare video pieces.
In stature, Tsai stands with fellow Taiwanese directors Edward Yang (Yi Yi) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (the subject of another Cinematheque retro this month).
But his films are of a different order. Where their portraits of aimless youth and disconnected families arise from an almost tragic appreciation of what's been lost in the rush from Confucian to consumer culture, Tsai's vision of rootless young cosmopolitans finds no solace in the past. Tsai is a Malaysian immigrant to Taiwan, which may help explain why the parents in his films are as screwed up as the kids, and no place in Taipei offers refuge.
Every great director constructs an imagined physical space to work in, whether it's a city or a drawing room. Tsai's Taipei is vivid: bleak roads that end in buildings invaded by water, rot and crawling creatures. In The Hole, the crawling creatures are people.
"My own way to describe my films is as a mixture of the realistic and the symbolic," Tsai once told me at the Toronto film fest. "I want to construct the inner worlds of my characters. The rain, the architecture, the hallways, the elevators are a part of their reality. But they also become very symbolic.
"When you live in a big apartment complex and walk in and out every day, it's very difficult to meet people, although you realize there are hundreds of people living in the same building as you. So you have these empty hallways, which symbolize something of the inner bleakness of the characters and their lack of communication."
Tsai's vehicle is actor Lee Kang-sheng. He's in all four features, and was first seen in an hour-long video narrative called Boys (Saturday, November 10, 4 pm). For Tsai, Lee lies somewhere between what Jean-Pierre Léaud was for François Truffaut and what Buster Keaton was for Buster Keaton.
He's both a sad-eyed observer and a fated participant in Tsai's personal, sometimes absurd calamities.
"It's actually unfortunate to have all this freedom, making my own kind of personal films," Tsai jokes. "I'm using the films to document what I think. For a lot of audiences, my films are too exhausting. It's too exhausting to read between images."
"But," Tsai says in that impish way he has, "life is like that."