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.



I took a brief trip to Chicago last weekend. Every other year, I seem to miss the Midwest more than usual around late summer and inevitably plan a little trip back in October in hope of experiencing one of those auburn autumn weekends with peak foliage, the scent of burning leaves and promise of hot, cinnamon-stoked apple cider.

I never seem to learn that a Midwestern October is more often than not suffused with rain and wind and chill, and this weekend had all that in copious amounts. Still, I had a lovely time. My motive for this particular trip was to see one of my oldest friends, whom after spending a few years in Poland just relocated to Chicago. She lives on the 36th floor of a high rise overlooking Lake Michigan, Lake Shore Drive, the John Hancock Tower, and, um, the Playboy headquarters (not the same building as the Playboy Mansion).

The weather wasn’t too frigid to keep us from strolling along State Street and Buckingham Fountain or through the metal monstrosity that is Millennium Park (an extravagant waste of money, but admittedly cool in a gauche tourist-trap sort of way). As with most Midwestern cities, the food was the best part—tapas one night, Turkish the next, and an excursion to Chinatown that included ultra-ultra-fresh seafood, gargantuan almond cookies, and a typically bizarre soap opera broadcast on a Chinese television network (out of Toronto, naturally).


A Recent Film Round-up

KINSEY: Biopic of sex-researcher Alfred Kinsey, as directed by Bill Condon. Liam Neeson is fine as the good doctor (if only Ian McKellen was a little younger to play the part), Laura Linney is insightful and game as his wife, but the revelation is Peter Sarsgaard as Kinsey’s primary assistant. Sensitive and softer that I’ve ever seen him before, yet not a caricature, this well-executed role greatly broadens his already impressive range.

Condon says he wanted to make something that resembled a Hollywood film from the time this is set (mainly the ‘30s through the ‘50s). While that’s not a bad idea, he often ends up playing to those conventions rather than subverting them. And what the hell is smarmy Chris O’Donnell doing in this otherwise intelligent cast? Kudos to John Lithgow in an unlikely minor role as Kinsey’s preacher father, and see if you can recognize the forever chameleonic Lynn Redgrave. At least it’s not a bowdlerization on the order of A BEAUTIFUL MIND, and it concludes thoughtfully. But I’d rather watch GODS AND MONSTERS again—with that film, Condon made glorious, transcendent camp worthy of his subject’s art. This one merely skips along the tried-and-true biopic road.

I HEART HUCKABEE’S: Pretty audacious for a studio comedy, even if it’s technically an indie studio. David O. Russell’s existential romp is a love-it-or-hate-it receptacle if I ever saw one. I loved it, but I’m skeptical as to how much it’ll resonate with subsequent viewings like Wes Anderson’s work (which this is getting compared to, primarily ‘cause it’s quirky and features Jason Schwartzman). If anything, it has a solid cast with good work from Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, and Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, the cinematic couple of the year (Streisand has some daunting shoes to fill in MEET THE FOCKERS). A silly movie that, nonetheless, makes you think. Awesome.

VERA DRAKE: I’m surprised Mike Leigh hasn’t made a film set in post-World War II London until now—and this is one of his best. Less dreary than ALL OR NOTHING but no less brutal, this is about a working class housewife who, in addition to taking care of her invalid mum and cleaning up after rich folk, performs the occasional abortion (or as she gingerly puts it, “helping a woman out”). Buoyed by a grand, heartbreaking lead performance from Imelda Staunton, this is a fair, wise, intricate and ultimately shattering story that unfolds with grace and eloquence.

THE YES MEN: Hilarious documentary on two satirists-cum-activists who pose as WTO members to educate the public about that organization’s damaging effects on corporate politics, third world ecosystems and beyond. A little more entertaining than provocative, it’s a sly diversion that subtly observes whereas something like FAHRENHEIT 9/11 clumsily rants and raves.



I wouldn't wish Jonathan Caouette's life on anyone. Raised by a single mother who herself was left brain-damaged by ill-advised electroshock therapy treatments, he bounced around abusive foster homes until eventually winding up with his grandparents, whose behavior was also questionable. Obviously aware of his sexuality and sensing his life was a little different from an early age, he started filming himself and his surroundings.

This documentary splices together those fragments of Caouette's life as if it were a "This Is Your Life" documentary reimagined by Kenneth Anger or Derek Jarman. He audaciously, deliriously combines photographs and home video footage with snippets of signifying TV shows, movies, and pop songs, often in a kaleidoscopic whirl of ironic juxtapose (Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" brilliantly, brutally accompanies one particularly disturbing montage), bleeding images and dreamlike video special effects. Although structured as a journal-like narrative, the results feel more poetic and associative.

Like CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (only with the director as its subject), this film isn't an easy one to quickly process, for it raises many unavoidable questions. Why does Caouette narrate the film mostly in third-person subtitles instead of his own voice-over? At what point did he comprehend that he was consciously constructing what would become this film? Is he exploiting his family (and himself) or documenting them? Most importantly, is what we're seeing genuine or something not entirely unstaged for the camera? TARNATION may frustrate viewers with these questions, but I thought it was equally fascinating because it brings them up in the first place. It begs/requires you to gradually piece together what you've seen much in the way Caouette stitched together this film.

Given how popular this film may ultimately prove and continual advances in user-friendly technology (this was edited with iMovie, a basic, inexpensive computer program), we may see a lot of TARNATION imitations to come. But for all of its ethical conundrums, Caouette's film sets the bar admirably high for this type of approach: his collages are by turns amusing, startling, uncomfortable and downright cathartic.



Today, I screened over five hours of submissions for this year's Chlotrudis Short Film Festival. Nearly four of the hours were unwatchable, and the remainder was merely competent. Whenever I tell people I've spent an afternoon doing this, they'll mock my wary face with fake violins and say, "That can't be too difficult, watching movies all day". Well, as I'm sure the former MST3K cast members can attest, consuming a lot of bad movies at once very nearly crushes the soul. During the most crap-tacular entries, there were times where I caught myself questionably laughing, but not because the films were intentionally funny (or even ha-ha funny).

The premiere of the new ABC hour-long drama DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES cheered me up somewhat. This sharp, faintly subversive black comedy has potential to become a transcendent guilty pleasure like SEX AND THE CITY--at least, until it becomes too predictable or self-consciously quirky.

INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS is a clever, often side-splitting little film. The less said about what it's about, the better. All you need to know is that its lead "character" is the always intriguing Werner Herzog, and it breathes life into a certain tricky genre, revealing a surprising complexity where so many other attempts have fallen flat.

A DIRTY SHAME, on the other hand, is sadly an intermittently amusing but generally trite film. I wasn't expecting John Waters to make another PINK FLAMINGOES, but there's absolutely nothing shocking going on here. Like every other post-Divine Waters effort, it's equally affectionate and ironic, but sillier than anything else--sex is literally a quirk, a wacky personality trait that's not seriously dangerous or damaging or even meaningful. Rather than having anything genuinely interesting to say about it, he just drops the same jokes over and over again. Tracey Ullman is an inspired choice as the lead--she's not this funny in everything, y'know (see Woody Allen's forgettable SMALL TIME CROOKS) and that scene where she does the Hokey Pokey is classic. The Godard-inspired flashing titles are a nice touch, too. But everything else drags, and that's a... well, only Waters would be so obvious to spell it out for you.

I'm not sure how subversive HOW TO DRAW A BUNNY actually was, either, but it did justice to its subject, collage artist Ray Johnson (who was inarguably subversive). This is the usual collection of talking head interviews interspersed with rare archival footage, but Johnson was such a fascinating enigma that you'd have to try really hard to make a dreadfully boring film about him. What I really admired about this documentary is that it didn't come out and "explain" Johnson's art to you from the get-go. It's more like an excavation or putting together puzzle pieces. Not everything fits, but at the end, you get a keen sense of echoes and associations. I'm still unsure of what Johnson was getting at when, for an audience at an exhibition, he lashed away at a cardboard box with a leather belt for twenty odd minutes. However, some of his other endeavors (particularly his final, brilliantly conceived and executed "work of art") often drove me to re-evaluate existing conceptions of how art and life are related long after the film was over, and I wish more art (and film) did that.

Also saw Richard Linklater's SLACKER again (purchased the newly released Criterion DVD). Still very much of a particular time and place, but more prescient and affecting than ever. Expect a longer review to appear here eventually... if I ever get my shit together, this blog is going to skew towards more developed essays as opposed to sloppy lists (although I can ensure you the latter will probably never entirely disappear.)