Rebels of the Neon Screen: A Tsai Ming-Liang Retrospective

Programmed by J. Michael Eugenio

Doc Films is excited to announce a complete retrospective of the films of Tsai Ming-liang, presented in collaboration with the Center for East Asian Studies and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. Tsai is one of the most important and influential auteurs of the twenty-first century, and this will be the first complete presentation of his feature films to ever take place in the Chicago area. This series will feature several rare 35mm prints imported from Taiwan, as well as several of Tsai's short films that are otherwise inaccessible.

A leading filmmaker of contemporary Chinese-language cinema, Tsai Ming-Liang has produced one of the most striking cinematic oeuvres of the past quarter-century. Malaysian by birth, Taiwanese by residence, internationally funded but belonging to nowhere in particular, Tsai makes moody, pensive, deadpan films haunted by loss, failure, and broken attachments. But these films are not mere exercises in nostalgia: collaging the fragments of contemporary life into a cinema of alienation, precarity, and queerness, Tsai's slow style and serial characters iterate and interrogate all the ways attachment falls short amid the austerity, inequality, and increasing uncertainty rapidly proliferating in the margins of modernity.

Tsai's muse, Lee Kang-Sheng, stars in every film as Tsai's alter ego, Hsiao-Kang ("Little Wealth"), a transient protagonist working job after unstable job on the abject underside of the fast and flashy global economy. Wayward encounters, unorthodox intimacies, and inarticulate desires give way to austere, surreal tableaus: shots and scenes extend for many minutes, producing a cinema as intense and precise as it is diffuse and disorganized. Individually, the films flirt with formlessness, but are threaded together by recurrent motifs--phone booths, flooded apartments, mysterious ailments, glowing screens, cockroaches, mumbled meals, lost keys, spiritual possession, and watermelons. As the series progresses, the films amplify, reinforce, and refract one another, exploring the incoherence structuring our attachments to objects and others.

This series is co-sponsored by the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago with generous support from a Title VI National Resource Center Grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

1/10/2020 @ 7:00 PM & SUNDAY @ 1:30 PM

Rebels of the Neon God

· (Tsai Ming-liang, 1992) ·
Tsai Ming-liang's debut portrays an aimless love triangle of teenage dropouts roaming the malls, video arcades, and hourly hotels of Taipei's claustrophobic entertainment district. Hsiao-kang, debuting here as a struggling and lonely student, obsessively follows the perpetually frustrated throuple. Many of the motifs and themes of Tsai's cinematic mythology--from incessant flooding to background porn to triangulated desire--begin in this masterful account of urban alienation and ambivalent desire.

runtime: 106m format: DCP


1/17/2020 @ 7:00 PM & SUNDAY @ 1:00 PM

Vive L'Amour

· (Tsai Ming-liang, 1994) ·
Three exhausted salespeople struggle in a rapidly developing Taipei. Hsiao-kang, a suicidal vendor of columbarium niches, begins squatting in an unsold luxury apartment. A James Dean-impersonating street vendor also begins squatting after an evening of meaningless sex with the apartment's ambitious realtor. A thoroughly modern melancholic slapstick--all three unwittingly share an apartment that none of them own--Vive L'Amour is a masterpiece of queer frustration. Print courtesy of the Taiwan Film Archive

runtime: 118m format: 35mm


1/24/2020 @ 7:00 PM & SUNDAY @ 1:00 PM

The River/My New Friends

· (Tsai Ming-liang, 1997/1995) ·
Introduction on January 24 by Melika Bass.
A deep exploration of "the relationship between human psychology and illness," The River finds Hsiao-kang afflicted with a mysterious, intractable crick in his neck. The family, while committed to alleviating Kang's pain, is as repressed and estranged as ever--Kang's mother has a passionless affair with a pornographer, while his bathhouse cruising father comically tries to stave off inexorable leaks. This uncertain convalescence makes for a fascinating study of seduction, faith, and longing.

runtime: 115m/56m format: DCP


1/31/2020 @ 7:00 PM & SUNDAY @ 1:30 PM

The Hole

· (Tsai Ming-liang, 1998) ·
Introduction on January 31 by Jennifer Reeder.
Introduction on February 2 by Alex Wen of subtitle magazine.
A mysterious Y2K bug has hit Taiwan. Those infected scuttle, seek, and scatter like cockroaches. Hsiao-kang, a clueless customer-less shopkeeper in a quarantine zone, begins picking at a hole left by a plumber in his floor, irritating his neighbor as she fastidiously attempts to keep her flooding home intact and the bug at bay. Alienated, frustrated, and days away from a water shutoff, she fantasizes about connecting with Hsiao-kang--through nostalgic technicolor musical interludes imitating 50s Hong Kong chanteuse Grace Chang.

runtime: 95m format: 35mm


2/7/2020 @ 7:00 PM

What Time Is It There?

· (Tsai Ming-liang, 2001) ·
Introduction by Kat Sachs.
In this meditation on queer time and compromised comforts, Hsiao-Kang, now a black-market watch salesman, laconically mourns his father--whom his mother inconsolably tries to conjure. Meanwhile Shiang-Chyi aimlessly vacations in Paris. Lonely and purposeless, she repeatedly tries to call Hsiao-Kang, who then impulsively changes every clock in Taipei to Paris time. The nuclear family reprised from Rebels of the Neon God and The River, is now, finally, queered and atomized. Print courtesy of the Yale Film Archive

runtime: 116m format: 35mm


2/14/2020 @ 7:00 PM & SUNDAY @ 1:30 PM

The Wayward Cloud

· (Tsai Ming-liang, 2005) ·
Introduction on February 14 by Cameron Worden.
Introduction on February 16 by Jennifer Dorothy Lee.
This musical porn parody of a water-starved but watermelon-plenty Taipei charts the attempted relationship between a water-hoarding Shiang-chyi, desperate to explore her sexuality, and an alienated Hsiao-kang, a porn star incapable of romantic intimacy. The surreal, saturated musical numbers--including a glimmering merman crooning in a water tower and a cross-dressing, partner-swapping date in a park--delight just as much as the increasingly hardcore porn scenes strain, yielding a scathing critique of porn’s exploitative nature.

runtime: 116m format: 35mm


2/21/2020 @ 7:00 PM & SUNDAY @ 1:30 PM

Goodbye, Dragon Inn/The Skywalk Is Gone

· (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003/2002) ·
Introduction on February 21 by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Introduction on February 23 by KyungMook Kim.
A cinematic 4'33", Goodbye, Dragon Inn shows us the atmospheric corners of a decaying cinema's final screening--the drag of the managers limp mixes with the flickering projection glow, a chorus of cruisers flushing urinals, and echoes of King Hu's Dragon Inn. Hsaio-kang, the projectionist, is nearly absent, much to the dismay of the doting manager, while the theater is populated by ghosts (including two of the actors from Dragon Inn). Seeing this haunted elegy to cinema in a theater cannot be missed.

runtime: 82m/25m format: DCP


2/28/2020 @ 7:00 PM & SUNDAY @ 1:30 PM

I Don't Want To Sleep Alone

· (Tsai Ming-liang, 2006) ·
Introduction on February 28 by Liang Luscombe.
Tsai's first film set in the smoggy moist streets and derelict edifices of his native Malaysia is one of his most intimate and political Hsaio-kang--ever shifting, objectified, and alienated--is finally shorn in two: a dependent paraplegic attended to by Chyi, a waitress, as well as a badly injured Taiwanese immigrant taken in and cared for by Rawang, a migrant worker. This tender exploration of unrequited love, erotic solicitude, is a welcome dream.

runtime: 115m format: 35mm


3/6/2020 @ 7:00 PM & SUNDAY @ 1:30 PM


· (Tsai Ming-liang) ·
Introduction on March 6 by Leah Li.
Commissioned by and largely shot within the Louvre, Face is Tsai's mediation on the post-colonial cinematic process and an ode to Truffaut. Here Hsaio-kang directs a filmic retelling of Strauss's operatic retelling of Wilde's theatrical retelling of the biblical Salome—-starring none other than Jean-Pierre Léaud (Truffaut's own Lee Kang-sheng)--all the while struggling with the loss of his mother. Full of fantastical, gorgeous images responding to the Louvre's collection, Face highlights Tsai's painterly stylized compositions.

runtime: 136m format: 35mm


3/13/2020 @ 7:00 PM & SUNDAY @ 1:30 PM

Stray Dogs

· (Tsai Ming-liang, 2013) ·
Introduction on March 13 by Ben Sachs.
Stray Dogs, intended to be his farewell to feature filmmaking, is Tsai Ming-Liang at his most deliberate and dilated. Hsaio-kang, an alcoholic father and human signpost for luxury condos, shepherds his two children from squat to market to skyway, occasionally leaving them in the care of a maternal woman, played by a triad of Tsai Ming-Liang regulars. Fully forgoing continuity editing, Tsai juxtaposes social realist depictions of life on the margins with dreamlike sequences of familial longing.

runtime: 138m format: DCP


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