Ming-Liang Tsai

7.6 Rebels of the Neon God (1992)
6.8 Vive l'Amour (1994)
7.3 The River (1997)
7.4 The Hole (1998)
7.5 What Time Is It There? (2001)
7.2 I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006)
7.2 Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003)
6.6 The Wayward Cloud (2005)
6.2 Face (2009)
6.6 Stray Dogs (2013)
7.2 Afternoon
7.2 Days (2020)

Taiwanese director Ming-Liang Tsai (Malaysia, 1957) specialized in a minimalist style of static camera, very long takes, laconic dialogue and no musical soundtrack.

Qing Shao Nian Nuo Zha/ Rebels of the Neon God (1992) is a delicate and morbid dance between two main characters, an introverted psychotic virgin and a cynical decadent criminal. The sparse dialogue does little to shine any light on their stories. Their present, however, is sharply photographed by their actions. On one hand a zombie-like existence and on the other one an aimless moving between videogames and girls. One of them has become obsessed with the other, whereas the latter doesn't even know that the former exists. Neither has a goal in life. It is not that they don't have a past to talk about, they don't have a future either.

On a rainy night two kids, Ah-tze/At and Ah-ping/Ap, enter a phone booth, drill a hole in its coffer and steal all the coins. Meanwhile, another kid, Hsiao-kang/HK breaks the window of his own room to kill an annoying cockroach and wounds himself, and then walks out indifferent to the puzzlement of his parents. The two thieves waste their loot on videogames, and HK sees them. Ah-tze and Ah-ping ride around the city in their flashy motorcycles. Then At returns to his filthy flat, always flooded because of poor drainage, and masturbates after hearing his neighbor make love to a girl. He actually just heard a one-night stand: the man leaves the girl a business card. Hsiao-kang wants to drop out of school, his scooter is towed, and luckily for him his father is passing by and gives him a ride in his taxi. They make plans to watch a movie together. Meanwhile, the girl, Ah Kuei, wakes up and uses the bathroom. She leaves the apartment at the same time that At leaves his. They take the elevator together. She doesn't even know where she is and asks At for a ride. They take off on At's motorcycle. Father and student are driving towards the movie theater when At's motorcycle speeds in front of them. HK recognizes At as one of the kids who were at the videogame arcade. At the traffic light HK's father honks at At, who responds by breaking the side-view mirror of the taxi. HK's father loses control of the car and hits another car. After the accident, the old man doesn't want to watch the movies anymore and HK wanders around by himself. HK's mother is equally useless for the kid: she is a religious fanatic who performs traditional rites at the temple. At home she tells her husband that HK is the reincarnation of a god, Norcha. HK overhears them from the bathroom and later behaves like a demon. His mother is frightened but his father realizes that he's just acting and gets mad at him.
During the night At and Ap ride their motorcycles to the place where the girl works, in a skating rink. They invite her to movie and agree to share her between them in the theater; but first she wants to buy a red dress and they stare at her through a mirror. After the movie they drink, they eat, they play games, they ride around in the motorcycles, until the girl collapses. Then the boys take her to a cheap hotel, typically used for sexual encounters. The boys watch porno movies on tv while she's already asleep in the bed. Instead of taking advantage of her, they leave and go play videogames as usual. The girl wakes up in the morning alone in the hotel room and calls At: she wants to see him again.
HK withdraws from school without telling his parents and keeps the refund money. He buys a pellet gun, then goes to videogame arcade and follows At, Ap and the girl. HK keeps following them discreetly and sees when they break a lock to a back entrance. HK watches but never utters a word. It is hard to tell what he is thinking. After work the is girl stood up by At: she waits in vain for him to come and pick her up. He is at the arcade with his buddy Ap. When the arcade closes, all the customers are showed out, but At and Ap sneak back in from the back entrance, and steal the coin containers of the machines. HK follows them hiding behind the machines and watches silently as they carry out their crime. When the two thieves leave, they restore the lock that they had broken and thus they inadvertently lock HK inside. He has to sleep in the arcade until the security guard reopens the place in the morning. His father looks for him at school and realizes that the kid ran away with the money. Meanwhile HK is practicing how to use the pellet gun. The girl at the skating rink phones an older man for blind date. HK comes and hires boots to skate. He is now stalking her too. At closing time At shows up to pick her up, but she walks away after telling him that she already has a date. Atse insists and eventually she leaves with him. HK witnesses the scene and follows them on his motorcycle. At takes the girl to a hotel room where they make love. It is raining heavily. HK vandalizes At's motorcycle and then takes a room in the same hotel after his father slams the door into his face. After sex At leaves te girl alone again and goes back to play videogames. She wakes up, doesn't find him, dresses up and leaves. Meanwhile, HK is waking up in another room. He sees At walk to his motorcycle and enjoys At's dismay at seeing how the bike has been vandalized. HK has signed the sidewalk with the name "Norcha". For the first time HK is jubilant. He then walks out and innocently approaches Atse who is pushing the motorcycle in a busy street offering to help but Atse rudely sends him away. Ap comes to rescue At, and the pair visits another arcade. They ask to talk to the boss and they offer him the coin containers that they stole. Unfortunately for them, the owner of the other arcade is there and recognizes them. They are chased in the narrow alleys by the boys of the owner and Ap is beaten badly. Later At come sback to pick him up. He flags down a taxi and it happens to be HK's father, but the old man doesn't seem to recognize him. At's apartment is flooding again The girl comes looking for him. At explains that he recognized the taxi driver and felt guilty about what he had done. HK visits a phone dating system . He pays for it but then doesn't pick up the phone when the girls start calling.

Aiqing Wansui/ Vive l'Amour (1994) is a comedy of alienation that turns into tragedy.

A delivery boy sees a key in the lock of a door and takes it. Later, he comes back and uses the key to enter the apartment. The apartment is furnished but obviously nobody lives there. He takes a bath. At a cafe another young man is drinking alone when a young woman sits at a nearby table and starts drinking alone too. He follows her to a movie theater and then on a shopping street. He pretends to make a phone call and she waits in front of the phone booth. Meanwhile, the boy alone in a small room of the apartment decides to slit his wrists, although it takes him forever to find the strength to do it. Just then the couple, without speaking, enters the apartment, walks to the main bedroom and starts undressing. The boy wakes up and eavesdrops on them, holding his bleeding arm. Clearly he has survived his suicide attempt. Nobody has said a word.
The following day she's dressed up for office work. She hangs real-estate signs around town. We understand that the apartment is one of the properties that she is trying to sell, and that's why nobody lives there. The suicidal boy enters a cafe all dressed up too. While having breakfast, he prepares his brochures: he sells funeral urns. She forgot the keys in the apartment and returns to the apartment but doesn't find them. She almost discovers the boy, who has become a squatter. Her one-night stand returns to the apartment too: he stole the key from her. He unloads his luggage in the master bedroom. While he is taking a bath, the suicidal boy returns home with a watermelon. It takes a while for the boy to realize that someone else is in the house. He hides in his small room until the other man realizes that someone is hiding there. They confront each other: both have stolen the keys, both have no place to stay, both decided to live temporarily in that apartment for sale. The other man is a street vendor who sells clothes on the sidewalk at the night market. She returns to the apartment one more time and her one-night stand has to hide under the bed. Luckily she falls asleep and he can squeeze out. The other man is doing the same. The two men finally introduce each other: Hsiao-kang is the salesman and Ah-jung is the street vendor.
The woman lives alone in a small ugly apartment. The shy Hsiao-kang turns out to be a homosexual: alone at home, he dresses like a woman, including high-heel shoes, and then masturbates. The woman wakes up early to deliver brochures. Then she takes a casual stroll at the night market and finds Ah-jung selling his ware. They go home together and have sex on the usual bed... but Hsiao-kang is hiding under the bed and starts masturbating. After she leaves, Ah-jung remains asleep in bed. Hsiao-kang lies down next to him and kisses him. The woman cannot start her car. She starts walking and keeps walking for a long time. She finally sits on a bench and starts crying.

He Liu/ The River (1997) continues Tsai's analysis of urban alienation with a bleaker story of solitude, impossibility of communication, and sordid sexual lives. The narrative is mostly elliptic: it is left to the viewer to connect the dots. It takes us several minutes to realize that three apparently unrelated characters are actually members of the same family. And the ending is left to us to imagine.

A girl and a boy, Hsiao-kang, accidentally meet after two years. She invites him to witness the shooting of a film by the river, where a mannequin is employed to simulate a drowned person. Since the mannequin doesn't work well, the female director offers the boy to act the drowned person. Hsiao-kang accepts. After shooting the scene, his friend takes him to a hotel room where he takes a shower as the water of the river was particularly dirty. The girl then returns with some food and they have sex. The film then moves to a sauna's bedroom where a middle-aged man caresses the intimate parts of another middle-aged man who is napping. The napping man does not respond and the molester walks away. The napping man wakes up, washes himself and walks home. He eats his dinner, irons a shirt and walks outside. He stops to watch as Hsiao-kang rides by on his motorcycle and falls from the motorcycle. Hsiao-kang walks away without saying a word. The middle-aged man takes a bus and meets a friend at an eatery. The film then moves to a shopping mall. A woman who works there packs some food and then walks out where a man is waiting for her in his car. They drive away. He drops her off at her place as it starts raining. When she walks into her home, we realize it's Hsiao-kang's place: his neck hurts and he asks his mother for help. Then we see the middle-aged man in a bedroom where the ceiling is leaking. He moves a bed and puts a bucket under the leak. Hsiao-kang wakes up feeling even more pain in his neck. His mother takes him to some kind of exorcist. Meanwhile the middle-aged man has called a handyman to fix the leaking ceiling. Suddenly we realize that he is in the bedroom next to Hsiao-kang's: he is his father. Hsiao-kang still doesn't talk to him. Hsiao-kang tries to ride his motorcycle but crashes right away. His father sees the crash and stops him from trying to restart. Eventually the father sits in the back of the motorcycle and holds his head straight as Hsiao-kang rides the motorcycle to a doctor. Back home, the father returns to work at the leak. Hsiao-kang sees a chiropractor but the pain keeps increasing. His head is permanently bent on one side. He has trouble even eating. At home his father and his mother never interact. After giving Hsiao-kang an electrical massage gadget, she watches a porn video in her bedroom, while the father sleeps in the bedroom with the leak. Another day the father eats at the restaurant and eyes a young handsome man and follows him outside, clearly lusting after him. Later we see them lying next to each other, undressed, in the bedroom of the sauna, and the young man masturbates the older man, but refuses to perform oral sex. Hsiao-kang walks around holding his head and enters the sauna by mistake just when this young man is leaving. Their paths cross again minutes later on a bridge. Back home, his father brings Hsiao-kang a medicine and inserts needles in his hand, but not even acupuncture works and the pain keeps getting more intense. His father takes Hsiao-kang to the hospital and then phones his mother who rushes to the hospital and finds Hsiao-kang in excruciating pain. His father takes him to see a Buddhist healer in another town, who uses burning incense on his neck and claims he has visions from a god. They stay at a hotel waiting for the healer to communicate with the god. Hsiao-kang now wears a cast around his neck. While his father is out, Hsiao-kang sees a sexy woman enter the room next door and places his ear against the wall to hear what happens. Meanwhile Hsiao-kang's mother is watching a porn video at the place of her lover, while he is sleeping on the coach, and she's getting excited. Still in pain, Hsiao-kang decides to try a sauna. He takes a bedroom in the dark, presumably intentionally to get some sex. The man who is lying there starts caressing him and masturbating him. Hsiao-kang reciprocates and now we see that the other man is... his father. When they are done, the father turns on the light and realizes he just had sex with his own son. He slaps him and remains petrified. Hsiao-kang's mother, alone at home, finds water flooding the apartment: the father's temporary fix of the ceiling leak has collapsed. She knocks in vain at the door of the apartment upstairs. She then climbs to the apartment upstairs despite heavy rain and finds that a faucet was left open. The following morning the Buddhist healer tells the father that the god suggests Hsiao-kang sees city doctors. While his father is in the bathroom, Hsiao-kang wakes up and walks out into the balcony, still shaking his neck in pain.

Dong/ The Hole (1998) is a Kafka-esque apologue with a minimal plot about a hole that connects the private lives of two lonely inhabitants of an empty tenement. To add to the surreal atmosphere, the tale is rudely interrupted several times by cheesy musical fantasy skits (set in the same dilapidated tenement) transported straight out of a 1950s night-club, whether calypso or rock'n'roll. It is hard to find out how these musical intermezzos fit with the laconic hyper-realist tale. (These are very lonely, empty lives. Do the musical skits evoke shows for desperately lonely people?) But perhaps this is a subtle allegory of a society that is rapidly disintegrating, the virulent disease being alienation, a world in which individuals live lonely pointless lives and only an accident followed by morbid curiosity can lead two of them to create a bond.

The radio accounces that people are being evacuated to fight a deadly epidemics. It is raining hard outside a mostly empty tenement. A plumber shows up while "The Man Upstars" is napping on a couch and asks to check his plumbing because there's a leak downstairs. The plumber makes a hole in the living room's floor and leaves Meanwhile, "The Woman Downstairs" comes home and finds her place flooded by the leak. She calmly proceeds to clean up as if this happened all the time. She listens to the broadcast that another person has died of the disease but doesn't seem worried. Then suddenly she notices the hole in her ceiling. The man upstairs is sick. He can hardly walk. He tries to walk outside but has to return to his apartment and, of all places, decides to throw up in the hole. The vomit flows down into the woman's apartment. Finally the man walks outside. There is nobody around. He opens a grocery shop. All the others are closed. There is still nobody around, no customers at all. He feeds his cat. Finally a customer shows up but he wants something that has long been discontinued. The man upstairs doesn't seem to panic that there is no business. At the end of an uneventful day the man upstairs shuts his store ang walks home. It is still raining heavily. The woman downstairs has left a note to his door. In the evening the man upstairs starts peeking through the hole at the woman downstairs, who has ammassed a huge amount of toilet paper. She realizes she is being spied and sprays something that smells horrible to the ceiling. She then hears a couple argue and tries to figure out where they are in the tenement. The following day she walks to the man's store (it is still raining) and tells him that the plumber is scheduled to come and fix the problem. But the plumber calls to cancel the appointment, just when she has found another leak coming from upstairs, this time right on top of her toilet. A child rides his bicycle in a corridor of the tenement. The man upstairs finds a drunk man crawling in the garbage near his shop and thinks he must be drunk. At home the woman witnesses how five men carry away a man who is gesturing hysterically. She hears a broadcast explaining that the victims of the virus start crawling like cockroaches. On his way home the man upstairs meets the workers who are disinfecting the building while the woman downstairs, panicking, is spraying her whole place with insecticide. She uses so much of it that the man upstairs cannot breathe. She tapes the hole. tears down the wallpaper that is peeling off anyway lies down by her piles of toilet paper and talks on the phone with a man. She feels erotic pleasure in rubbing the toilet paper on her skin. It is still raining heavily. They cook and eat in their respective apartments. He pours water in the hole until the tape breaks down. Someone rings the bell repeatedly but he doesn't open the door (could it be the plumber?) He finally decides to clean up the mess left by the plumber but then he uses a hammer to make the hole bigger. He can now even swing a leg down the hole. At night she wakes up because she can't breathe well, and she starts crying, either because she feels she is getting sick with the deadly disease or because she is exhausted of having the house flooded all the time by the various leaks. Fact is she starts crawling like a cockroach into a dark corner of the room under the pile of toilet paper... The sound of the rain is still the only soundtrack. The man upstairs grabs the hammer again and tries to make the hole bigger, but then he too starts crying, possibly realizing how pointless his life is or because he doesn't see her anymore and senses that she got the disease. She comes back to life and crawls out of her hiding place. He hands her through the hole a glass of water. Then he offers her his entire arm. She grabs it and he pulls her upstairs through the hole. In the last musical scene the two are dressed formally and dance a slow romantic dance.

Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) is an incredibly subtle love story. It involves the two people who man an old theater. The focus of the plot actually revolves around the audience (one young man in particular) and eventually the theater becomes the real protagonist. But this is part of Tsai's weird perspectives: he shoots scenes from strange angles, and he tells his love story also from a strange angle. Most of the film is not spoken, the only words coming from an old movie that is being shown in the theater.

An old historical film (that has the same title, "Goodbye Dragon Inn") is being shown in a large theater. We see the audience from the backstage, through a couple of drapes that are moved by the wind. Outside it is raining. There seems to be nobody in the streets. A Young Japanese man walks into the theater, perhaps to take shelter from the rain. A crippled young woman is washing something in the restrooms while he sneaks into the theater. The theater is almost empty. The crippled woman has warmed up her food, which is a cake. She takes half of it and, walking slowly, brings it to the projectionist. He is not there. She leaves the foot and walks slowly back to the ticket window. THe Japanese boy changes seat because someone is sticking his feet next to his face. He doesn't seem completely sane: he tries to draw the attention of one of the spectators by leaning towards him. The crippled woman is checking the women's restrooms. The Japanese boy enters the men's restrooms and takes the john next to another man. A third man walks in and also takes a john next to them. Nobody moves, but clearly nobody is peeing either. The crippled woman keeps walking slowly around the theater, and up and down the stairs. Maybe she's looking for the projectionist? The Japanese boy meets another young man in a hallway and asks for a match. The other man tells him that the theater is haunted. He replies by shouting that he is Japanese (those are the first and only words uttered by the characters of the film). The Japanese boy walks back into the theater. He can hear a sexy girl eating two rows from him. She drops a shoe and has to look for it in the dark. Then she moves closer to the Japanese boy, who seems scared about the noise behind him. The theater looks empty when viewed from the top, but reveals one or two spectators when the camera moves through the rows. The movie ends. The lights go on. Now that is empty and lit, the theater looks much bigger. The crippled woman walks in and cleans the floor. When she's done, only silence remains. The spectators are leaving the theater. One of them meets his old teacher. It is still raining. The projectionist rewinds the tape: he has not touched the half cake that the crippled woman left him. The crippled woman is checking the restrooms. Then she walks back to the ticket window, packs her stuff, shuts the lights and walks outside. But then she waits, in front of the sign that says "closed" (so we learn that the theater will be closed for a while). The projectionist locks the theater's entrance, and then walks outside. The crippled woman has waited, and watches him leave in the rain. She walks home alone.
At the end we understand that she is in love with the projectionist and that was the last chance to talk to him. She gave him half of her cake as a gesture of love. She looked for him in the building, but never found him. Whether he knows or not of her love, we don't know. The spectators, the weird Japanese boy, the movie shown on the screen were simply signs about the lives that the two have been living for who knows how long.

Ni Na Bian Ji Dian/ What Time Is It There? (2001) is a triple tragedy of loneliness. The three characters live pointless lives and don't even search for meaning anymore (not to mention the dead man himself, who dies alone). When they try to find meaning (or at least emotional rescue) in sex, all three are disappointed. The real protagonist is the passage of time. Watches and clocks become a metaphor for their existence: they exist where their watches and clocks are. So the kid starts living as if he were in Paris, and the girl keeps living as if she was still home, and the mom adjusts her routine to the time marked by the clock. The director emphasizes ordinary life by showing even the most intimate moments (for example, by showing people while they urinate, defecate, vomit and masturbate) and by introducing elements of humor (like the fat gay kid or little incidents of domestic life).

An old man alone at home calls his son. Nobody replies. He lights a cigarette.
The son, Hsiao, brings the ashes of his dead father to the Buddhist temple, where the last ritual is performed (clearly the father has died and this is the son he was calling). At home he gets scared when he hears noises: the priest has told them that the old man has so many days to return as a ghost. Hsiao urinates in a plastic bag rather than walk to the bathroom.
During the day he sells watches on the sidewalk. One day a girl, Shiang, stops to to look at his merchandise, but she mainly likes his watch. She insists she needs that type of watch (that displays the time in two different cities) by the following morning because she is leaving for Paris. He mumbles something about the watch being a personal thing, that it would bring bad luck if he sold it. She replies that she's a Christian, and doesn't believe in those superstitions. Finally he accepts to sell it and she gives him a cake to thank him. That night he urinates in a plastic bottle. His mother looks every morning for signs that the dead came back. Obviously she was very attached and misses the dead. She reproaches the son for not being as diligent. No life must be killed, because anything, even a cockroach, could be father's reincarnation. In the middle of the night he makes a phone call to find out what time it is in Paris: that's where his watch is. When he cannot catch sleep, he watches Truffaut's 400 Blows, a French movie. His mother notices that the clock has changed time (Hsiao has set it to French time) and, thinking it's a sign from the old man, she readjusts their schedule to the time displayed by the clock.
In Paris the girl cannot sleep. She hears footsteps from the room upstairs. (Is the noisy neighbor the ghost of the dead man that followed Hsiao's watch to Paris?) She is a tourist in Paris but she doesn't seem to have anything to do. In the subwsy she doesn't know where to go. Meanwhile in Taipei, Hsiao enters a clock shop and sets all the clocks to Paris time. A fat kid sees him and follows him to a movie theater. Hsiao takes down the clock of the theater. The fat kid steals the clock from him and walks into the restrooms. Hsiao follows him and the fat kid comes up of a stall half naked with the clock covering his penis.
Hsiao's mother is getting more and more worried about father coming back. She sets the dinner table for three, the third one being the dead man, and serves food to all three. And she does so at odd hours, because she now follows the clock that Hsiao set to French time.
In Paris the girl is still hearing the noisy neighbor upstairs and cannot fall asleep. She has nothing to do in Paris. It almost feels like she went to Paris only because it's the excuse she came up with to get the watch and then she felt she had to live up to it.
Hsiao's mother is becoming neurotic. She cries in front of the dead man's favorite fish. Hsiao cries too, in bed, and watches 400 Blows. Another time his mother turns out all the lights in the house because she thinks that father is afraid of light.
Shiang meets a man in a cemetery, JeanPierre (it is actually the protagonist of Truffaut's 400 Blows).
Hsiao is becoming more and more paranoid: he sets the clock of a high-rise building to French time by using a pole from the roof. The traffic is reflected in the windows of building next to clock.
Shiang gets sick and throws up. At a restaurant she meets another Chinese girl, who is kind to her and invites her to stay at her place. Shiang drags her suitcase to the girl's apartment.
All three characters now turn to sexual experiences. The mother wears a sexy dress and prepares a candlelight dinner with her dead husband. Hsiao eats and drinks in his car and falls asleep, while a prostitute knocks at the window. Shiang and the other girl pretend to be asleep but they are both awake and spying each other in bed. The mother masturbates. Hsiao has sex to the prostitute. Shiang kisses the other Chinese girl but the girl turns away. The prostitute steals Hsiao's watches. Therefore the sex ends disappointingly for all three: Hsiao is robbed, his mother fails to evoke the ghost, Shiang is rejected. Now they are even more unhappy.
Shiang wonders around Paris dragging her suitcase. No matter how lonely and unhappy, she doesn't seem to be able to go back home. She falls asleep on a bench by a pond. Kids stole her suitcase and throw it in the pond. A Chinese man rescues it: it's Hsiao's dead father, who then lights a cigarette and walks away. He has come back, just in the wrong city, and apparently all because of the watch.
(Why is the watch related to the dead man, to the point of making him appear where the watch goes, is not explained. Why the dead man rescues the girl's suitcase, given that he never met her in his life, is not explained either. It's almost as if the dead man had reincarnated in the watch itself, and therefore been with the girl all the time that his widow was expecting him to return home. By rescuing her suitcase maybe he helped her return home and therefore return "him" to his home town and to his wife).

Tian Bian yi Duo Yun/ The Wayward Cloud (2005) stages again Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi, the characters of What Time Is It There?. The musical interludes are funnier than ever, and perhaps constitute the real essence of the film. The two characters get increasingly close but this time, unbeknownst to her, Hsiao-kang is a pornographic film actor. The megalopolis, crippled by a water shortage, is asking its citizens to drink watermelon juice instead of water, and therefore the watermelon acquires a fetishistic dimension. There is a strong satirical tone for most of the film, but it is not clear what Tsai is being satirical of: city life? sexual promiscuity? The peak of the film is the lengthy harrowing sex scene before the final musical skit: Hsiao-kang is being filmed by the the crew while having sex with a comatose porn star, but then, discovered by Shiang-chyi, forces oral sex into Shiang-chyi's mouth and she simply cries. This could be the peak of Tsai's anti-romanticism in sex.

Tsai also directed the short Tianqiao bu Jian Le/ The Skywalk is Gone (2002).

Hei Yan Quan/ I Don't Want to Sleep Alone/ Eyes Circled in Black (2006), set in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur, which is here depicted as a racial melting pot in which poor immigrants are confined to awful ghettos. By the end of the film, it has become the setting for an apocalyptic dystopia whose inhabitants are condemned to die by pollution. Meanwhile, a mute Chinese tramp becomes the object of desire of three people: a kind man from a faraway country, a young frustrated slave girl, her older frustrated master (also a woman). The scruffy mute seems to emanate animal sensuality and eventually leads to a menage a quatre, and most of the film is about how erotic impulses mingle with a collapsing civilization. The sex scenes are wildly implausible, lending credence to the hypothesis that the whole story might be dreamed by the comatose boy (played by the same actor who plays the mute Chinese tramp).
Architecture is prominent: the camera lingers repeatedly on the unconstructed part of the tenement, indulging in broken concrete, stagnating water and deserted stairwells.
Both the original title and the mattress are subtle references to a political scandal that rocked Malaysia a few years earlier.

In a busy alley a young Chinese woman is standing in front of a food stall, and a Chinese man is nearby: these two casual passer-bys are actually the protagonists of the film. An eloquent man is scamming a group of immigrants from Bangladesh, telling them that he can divine winning numbers and collecting money from them. His gang searches in vain a mute Chinese man for money and then presumably (not shown) beats him up and dumps him in the street. Then at night six of the Bangladeshi workers take a mattress in the dumpster of a back alley and carry it home through busy streets. They pass a man who faints on the sidewalk and carry him with the mattress. They reach their tenement and noisily carry the mattress upstairs, with the fainted man inside. Some of the men complain that they might be fined by the Chinese landlady. In the same decrepit tenement a comatose man is nursed by a young Chinese woman, Chyi, who doesn't belong with the crowd of poor immigrants. Construction workers are still at work to finish the tenement, and this new section has a big hole full of water in the middle. One of the Bangladeshi migrants, the generous Rawang, takes care of the Chinese tramp, Hsiao kang, who doesn't say a word, as if he were his own brother: takes him to the bathroom, cooks for him, feeds him, washes his body, etc. Meanwhile, the Chinese girl, wearing white gloves, is carefully washing the face of her paralyzed patient (the camera is fixed on the bald man's expressionless face with wide open eyes). The two caregivers are clearly juxtaposed by the film: Rawang from Bangladesh caring for a mute Chinese man, and Chyi the Chinese girl caring for a paralyzed Chinese boy.
At this point we do know Rawang's story and the story of his "patient", but not the story (nor the name) of the girl and of her patient. Now we are introduced to Chyi's boss, an older woman as they eat together at a restaurant. Later the older woman is rubbing some cream on the paralyzed boy's belly, getting closer and closer to the pubic hair. Meanwhile, Hsiao-kang has fully recovered and one day he meets Chyi in the stairwell. She is carrying a tray of food presumably to her boss and he stops her and takes some of the food. She is startled by his aggressive rude manners but doesn't object. He gives her a luminescent flower bouquet. Later Chyi is doing her job, rubbing more creams on the boy's body and changing sheets, when the boy's brother comes with a group of strangers interested in buying the place. His mother gets upset that this son of hers is indifferent to the paralyzed son, and then vents her anger on the poor girl slapping her instead of thanking her for her devout services. The older lady runs a restaurant. Later, in a narrow dark alley, she meets Hsiao-kang, who, as a foreigner with no passport, has just been refused a room in a hotel and was hanging outside her restaurant. She approaches him, unzips his pants and guides his hand to masturbate her. Back home she has Chyi rub creams on her own body. This gives her an idea: she drags Chyi to her boy's bed and guides the hand to masturbate her son. Chyi's condition seems to be one of sordid slavery. So far Chyi has not said a word in the entire film. Meanwhile, we have seen the mattress carried out again, presumably because it is not needed for Hsiao-kang anymore. Rawang dreams of fishing in the big hole full of water of the unfinished tenement. A butterfly stop briefly on his shoulder. A man appears behind him and comes to sit next to him. The radio news station blames a smoky haze that is shrouding the city on the fires lit illegally by these migrant workers. Gas masks are being handed out to the public. The haze is so bad that Chyi's boss keeps the doors of her restaurant closed. We see that Chyi is a waitress there, wearing a protective mask. Nonetheless, the poorest people stand outside in the smoke to watch a store's tv set. They are wearing plastic bags instead of protective masks. Chyi meets Hsiao-kang in front of one such store window and they silently walk away together, climb the stairs and enter Chyi's garret room. They don't realize that Chyi's boss is following her. The lovers can't even kiss because they start coughing the moment they take their masks off. The older woman instead, after eavesdropping, slips into sewage that has invaded the stairwell. Chyi and Hsiao-kang carry the mattress in the smoky street back to the smoky building and up the smoky stairs. While Hsiao-kang is asleep, suddenly Rawang, wearing a plastic bag as a protective mask, appears and threatens to slit his throat with an opened tin can, presumably in an act of jealousy. But instead he starts crying, just like a betrayed lover, while Hsiao-kang tenderly caresses his face. Not a word is exchanged. When Chyi returns to the bed, Hsiao-kang is fast asleep. She turns on the luminiscent flowers and takes off her gas mask. Then she lies next to Hsiao-kang. We see the face of the paralyzed boy, eyes wide open staring at the ceiling, and then the screen goes black, and then the mattress comes floating down like a magic carpet with three people crouched on it (Chyi, Hsiao-kang and Rawang); possibly implying that he is the one imagining the scene... and the whole film.

This was the last significant film that Tsai made. The two that followed are vastly inferior.

Visage/ Face (2009), another film with musical interludes, is a tribute to the French "nouvelle vague". The story has Tsai's old character Hsiao-kang as a Taiwanese director who travels to Paris to shoot a film and has to contend with the idiotic actress chosen by the producer while at the same time his ailing mother is dying.

Jiaoyou/ Stray Dogs (2013), his first digital production, relies on annoyingly fragmented vignettes and excessively static scenes. Tha story revolves around two nameless characters, and we are not even sure that they are married. Very few words are exchanged throughout the film. By his standards this is a very mediocre work.

The first, fragmented part is made of brief vignettes: a woman combing and staring at two children sleeping in the bed behind her; the two children playing in a forest; a man rowing away in a boat from a lush swamp; two men, wrapped in plastic bags, holding real estate placards in the middle of city traffic; children playing at the beach followed by a man (presumably one of the placard men); a child watching a spectacled man eat in a cheap cafeteria; the children in the supermarket where their mother works; etc. One of the human placards, who is shivering in the cold weather, suddenly tearful, begins reciting and singing an ancient poem. Later he eats with his children and teaches them good manners. They brush their teeth in public restrooms. They live in a shack outside town (the only place where we don't hear the noise of traffic). The woman feeds stray dogs while the man and the children are fast asleep in the shack, then she stares forever at a poster painted on a wall before crouching and peeing. After a lengthy scene of the man eating his lunch, there is a shot at the supermarket with the camera looking up at the people from inside a freezer. The man's little girl is staring at the contents of the freezer. The woman who works there brings the girl to the restrooms and washes her. At night the woman, wearing a blue dress and holding a flashlight, climbs a tree to check another place (but we are not showed what is inside). During the day the man walks to an empty apartment building to explore inside.
The film suddenly shifts gear. Now the father is a drunkard and one rainy night takes money from his son and tells him to take care of his sister. Then he walks to a bar and drinks alone. They now live in an apartment. When he gets home, his children are not around but he finds the painted doll that they created out of a cabbage. In a fit of fury he smothers it, dismembers it and eats it. Finally, he starts crying and hugs the remains of the cabbage. (This may be the prequel to the first part of the film, possibly describing how he ended up being a placard man squatting in a shack, separated from his wife). On a very rainy night he tries to take the children away in the boat, but the woman arrives in time to rescue the children, and he remains alone under the raining shouting their names from the boat while the woman hugs the children. (These all feel like flashbacks to their life before they became squatters). Next we see the woman and the children singing "happy birthday" to the father in the apartment. Next he is lying naked in the bathtub and the children are doing their homework assisted by the mother, all of them well-dressed. The girl complains that the apartment looks ugly now, and the mother explains that it is because the rain leaked inside (but it sounds like the girl has never lived in the shack of the first half). The man and the woman walk to the derelict place where she was shown feeding stray dogs, and they feed the stray dogs. Then they walk into the abandoned building and she stares for a long time at something (we know there is a poster painted on that wall) while he stands behind her. Possibly, this was their early life, before his alcoholism ruined him and he became a squatter. He drinks a sip from his bottle and a tear rolls down her cheek (another endless scene). He finally leans on her and we see that she has been staring at the huge poster painted on the wall. She disengages from his embrace and leaves him alone. For a few minutes we hear his breathing, then he too leaves.

Rizi/ Days (2020)

(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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