I really, really want to recommend the work of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang to everyone I know, but I’m always fumbling for precise words to describe why what he does is so special. Compare him to another director, and inevitably you'll miss something important. Buster Keaton Updated for the Modern Age is an apt place to start, as Tsai’s films rely on a fair amount of physical, deadpan humor, falling ever-so-subtly between funnies ha-ha and peculiar. His fine-tuned mise en scene and sound design also recall Jacques Tati, and French New Wave is an undeniable touchstone, although he surely watched more of Truffaut's poetic self-exploration than Godard's pop-political irreverence.

Still, in just six features dating back to REBELS OF THE NEON GOD (1992), Tsai has proven as distinctive and ingenuous an artist as fellow Taiwanese contemporaries Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang. After viewing REBELS as part of a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in early 2002, I made my way through Tsai’s catalog. As a whole, I found his work equally gratifying and frustrating, and it’s the latter reaction that renders me tongue-tied when encouraging others to check him out.

To anyone who sees the art solely as a means to entertain like a Great American Novel, Tsai’s films may initially seem bewildering. Not that he’s avant-garde, or even all that esoteric, but his stuff seems to exist in a world all its own, a melancholy but not altogether dreary, rain-soaked cityscape where action progresses naturally instead of jumping from one highlight to another. Characters spend so much time alone in their own worlds that their fleeting connections, not to mention their endearingly clumsy and sincere attempts/desires to connect with anyone resonate much more deeply (and less obviously) than you’d expect.

GOODBYE DRAGON INN is Tsai's most minimalist and austere gesture, centered around a decaying, neglected movie palace. Instead of focusing on his usual alter-ego, Lee Kang-Sheng (who does make a surprise appearance near the end), we observe a cavalcade of what in other films would be secondary or supporting figures: a leg brace-wearing ticket taker whom, apart from the projectionist seems to be the theater’s only employee; a Japanese man who spends more time cruising the theater’s secret crevices than he does watching the film; an elderly man and his grandson, the former poignantly identifying with DRAGON GATE INN, the 35-year-old martial arts epic playing onscreen.

Through it all, the theater itself emerges as the main character. The eighty-odd minutes Tsai spends wandering through the last night before its “temporary closure” is a delicate, sad, meditative paean to a dying art, or as some theaters still put it, “watching movies the way they were meant to be seen.” But Tsai is more an observer than an activist. While his deliberately stretched-out takes are challenging, they’re rewarding in what they capture (or, in some cases, do not show), whether it pushes the “narrative” forward or simply lets it hang there. He allows the viewer to study something and deduce the meaning of it for themselves instead of necessarily telling them what to think and how to react.

WHAT TIME IS IT THERE (2002) is still, in my opinion, Tsai’s best film, a masterstroke of structure, symmetry, longing and alienation, all handled with an admirably light touch. But this follow-up might be his most affecting in how well it ends up conveying an entire world of stories and a lifetime of emotions within its spatially constricted borders.