As has been previously argued, the films of Tsai Ming-liang are haunted by the ghosts of European art films of the past (1). Tsai’s films, like those by the other two world-famous Taiwanese directors, Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, have been compared extensively to non-Asian art films, especially those by Michelangelo Antonioni; in his What Time is it There? (2001), Tsai makes the French New Wave’s relationship to Taiwan a major theme. As a reaction to and elaboration of these studies, this paper seeks to examine Tsai’s relationship not to Western cinematic traditions but to Taiwanese and Chinese ones. His latest short film The Skywalk is Gone (2002), in particular, has an interesting relationship to these Eastern traditions – a nostalgia not determined by a search for a lost object, but a continuous feeling of an unfulfillable lack.
I adopt this notion of nostalgia from Rey Chow’s analysis of Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1987). Her following analysis of Hong Kong can certainly be applied to the city of Taiwan:
In the 1980s and the 1990s, the omnipresence of real-estate speculation means not only that “original” historic places are being demolished regularly, but also that the new constructions that replace them often do not stand long enough to acquire the feeling of permanence that in turn gives way to nostalgia before they too are demolished…If the expedience of technology means that human separation itself need no longer be mournful because of diminished travel distances, it also means that our relations to the past are drastically altered because of the unprecedented disintegration of stationary places. Nostalgia now appears differently, working by a manipulation of temporarily rather than by a simple projection of lack/loss onto space (2).
Chow then argues that there are two forms of nostalgia. The traditional notion is that nostalgia is the mental and emotional retrieval of an object lost in the past. Chow calls this notion “linear and teleological in orientation.” On the other hand, the form of nostalgia Chow chooses to analyse Kwan’s film is characterised by a continuous searching for the object. This notion of nostalgia is “a loop, a throw, a network of chance, rather than a straight line” (3). Her study concludes with a comparison of the film Rouge and the novel it is based on, and locates a specifically cinematic realisation of the second form of nostalgia.
Using textual analysis and the history of Taiwanese and other Chinese cinemas, here I will attempt a similar study of Tsai’s The Skywalk is Gone. Thinking about Tsai’s films in terms of their relationships to Chinese cinema can help map a new trajectory in Tsai’s works that started with The Hole (1999), continues into The Skywalk is Gone, and blossoms in his latest work Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) – that is, a direct communication with Chinese cinematic and popular traditions in the face of cultural change. The 22-minute film is a continuation of the story from What Time is it There? In the previous film, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) sells a watch to Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) atop the Taipei Train Station Skywalk. Hsiao-kang’s father (Miao Tien) has recently passed away and he, along with his superstitious mother (Lu Yi-ching), learns to cope with the death. Meanwhile, Shiang-chyi, with her new watch, goes to Paris. The three surviving characters wander their respective cities alienated from love and family through time-differences, cultural conflicts, and the boundaries between life and death. The Skywalk is Gone kicks off at an unspecified time later, as Shiang-chyi returns to Taipei to find that the skywalk and the watch vendor have disappeared. In several humorous episodes, she copes with jaywalking and water rationing. As he’s now without a job, Hsiao-kang bashfully auditions for the role of a doctor in an adult film.
The two objects of nostalgia are the city of Taipei, which transforms so continually that Shiang-chyi does not even recognise it after returning from vacation, and the cinema itself, particularly the culturally Chinese cinema of the past and the local Taiwanese cinema of the present. Of course, as is vividly demonstrated by the giant television screen plastered on a skyscraper and screaming slogans to the pedestrians below, city and cinema are closely related: the corrosion of one is paralleled by the deterioration of the other.
Chow’s nostalgia for a city under continuous technological change is perfectly depicted in The Skywalk is Gone. Chow describes nostalgia not as the search for a certain landmark, but as the “feeling” of searching for it, that unending sensation of urban alienation and nostalgia for a time of temporal and physical stasis. In Tsai’s short, Shiang-chyi is searching for the Taipei Train Station Skywalk, but the shots do not gravitate towards the fixed location of her search: Tsai’s camera insistently offers no clues about where she is going and what she’s looking for. The first six shots of the film are extreme long takes with no dialogue. We see Shiang-chyi wandering aimlessly through the city. The cuts provide no logical continuity; a long enigmatically composed shot of a reflective glass building cuts suddenly to a similar location, only from a different angle. We can’t discern if it’s a different building or the same. Thus it appears as a continuous, infinite search where the character is clearly looking for something but the audience is not finding it; Shiang-chyi’s eyes gaze off-frame, yet the cuts don’t provide reverse-shots to reveal the object of her attention. This happens for the first six shots, which comprise nearly six minutes of the film. In this sequence, there is an excessive display of city life – buildings, people, cars, and pavement – expressed in frustratingly long takes that provide ample time to take in every inch of visual information, yet never show what we’re really looking for: the object. In essence, the city appears to provide countless items to long for. We don’t yet know what Shiang-chyi is wandering towards, so we could be nostalgic for everything in Taipei. When she tells a cop that she’s looking for the skywalk, we realise that in an era of continuous dislocation through urban construction, the disappearance of a landmark leads to a search that cannot end: if a skywalk is gone, how does one possibly look for it? Shiang-chyi travels to where she thinks it ought to be, only to be led around it, in front of it, or on the other side of it altogether. The nostalgia for an industrialising city is thus by definition never ending.
While the inscrutable editing creates a temporal disorientation, Tsai’s framings playfully keep the viewer lost within the space of the shot. The compositions jolt us with their geometrical abstraction. These first six shots fetishistically focus on the optical illusions of mirrors and windows. For instance, the fourth shot of the film is split into three screens by the vertical lines on a typical industrial office building with a facade of “one-way” glass that functions from the outside as a mirror. Or does it? Like a magician toying with inscrutable surfaces, Tsai tricks the eye by having Shiang-chyi enigmatically emerge from behind the middle third of the frame and into the left section. Despite the symmetry of the image, her appearance reveals that the left section was not a mirror but open air that just happened to resemble the continuation of the images in the middle. Like the super-realist paintings of Richard Estes, the film presents a world where people, cars, and buildings are so suffocating that one can’t tell a window from air anymore – they’re all part of the cosmopolitan jumble of moving objects.
Nostalgia occurs during the final shot of the film: a sudden, unexplained long take of the clouds in the radiantly blue sky, untouched by the Taipei skyscrapers. For those familiar with Tsai Ming-liang’s oeuvre, it is a moment of reflection. The famous scene ending Vive l’Amour (1994) shows the protagonist crying endlessly in front of intense industrial construction. The skylines in the subsequent The River (1997) and What Time is it There? are far more developed than in the 1994 film, but not to the suffocating, ostentatious extent of the buildings in The Skywalk is Gone. The films are a record of the intense urbanisation of Taipei, and the unexpected final shot of nothing but blue sky at the closing of the short film is a shocking reminder of the downward spiral of infinite construction. As Chow puts it: with this rapid change, there’s not enough time to be nostalgic.
The use of a train station skywalk is particularly remarkable in the context of Taiwan. Like many Asian countries, Taiwan was once a rural nation and trains were a sign of industrialisation. In such films as Dust in the Wind (1987) and Goodbye South Goodbye (1996), Hou Hsiao-hsien uses trains as a dreamy, innocent symbol of earlier, simpler days in the development of Taiwanese society. In The Skywalk is Gone, the train system is figuratively eradicated by the demolition of the Taipei Train Station Skywalk in order to make way for more automobile traffic, the new direction of Taiwanese development. In fact, pedestrians are barely allowed to cross the street anymore, a point made, hilariously, by the police officer who catches Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang’s mother jaywalking. As the police officer explains to the jaywalkers, the skywalk has been replaced by the subway (which neither of them knows how to use). It goes without saying that in time, the subway will be replaced by newer, more commerce-friendly technologies and the cycle of nostalgia will continue.
The Skywalk is Gone is nostalgic for three kinds of film: the popular Mandarin Chinese films of the ’60s, the films of the Taiwan New Cinema of the ’80s and ’90s, and the films of Tsai Ming-liang himself. By longing for three major waves of Taiwanese film history, the film demonstrates the interminability of nostalgia for the cinema. From each passing epoch develops a new cinematic tradition to miss.
As in The Hole (1998), The Skywalk is Gone communicates with 1960s Chinese cinema through popular song. Famous outside of Asia for its martial arts films, 1960s Hong Kong cinema also saw a flourishing musical genre. Among its most popular stars were Lin Dai and Grace Chang, the latter’s songs appearing prominently in The Hole. Tsai has cited these early musical films as direct influences on his own filmmaking (4), and in his short film, this influence is evident in the 18th and final shot. This is the long take of the blue sky, surprising not only because of what came before it, but because it contains the first use of background music since Tsai’s first feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992). And like the musical numbers from The Hole, the song comes from an earlier era of Mandarin music extremely popular in Taiwan in the 1960s. Accompanying a shot that brings hope amidst the disillusionment of modern Taipei, it signifies an escape from the dull urban sounds of the city.
The song itself is much like the other songs from the period: a bouncy tune of young love. Set to a playful beat, the opening lyrics run “I rushed into the woods/Where there were numerous trees/I couldn’t find his trail/But saw the trees in the breeze,” a description of a lovesick young person finding solace in nature completely incongruous with the disconnected characters who travel by taxi and escalator. Heard in contemporary Taipei, this song is ridiculously out of date – as distant from cosmopolitan life as a Patti Page or Andrews Sisters tune in America – and is as campy as it is nostalgic. As the film’s closing title explains, the song, “Nanping Bell,” is a mingge, which literally translated means “people’s song”, a propagandistic genre meant to acculturate the Taiwanese public. In the 1960s, the Taiwanese government, in an attempt to nationalise its multi-cultural population, specified that Mandarin (instead of Hokkien and other local languages) was to be the only language used in public, and a song like “Nanping Bell” reflected this mandate (5). Although I do not know if “Nanping Bell” was from a 1960s movie, the mingge genre was closely associated with the popular cinema of the time, which had also fallen under the auspices of the same nationalist project of Mandarinising all media. Today, popular music in Taiwan is dominated by American pop music along with its Mandarin and Cantonese imitations, so this kind of embarrassingly unAmerican, propagandistic “people’s song” is wildly out of favour. Therefore, even for the Taiwanese audience, there is an extreme cultural distance between the spectator and the film which makes the scene absurd and too displaced to fit the rest of the film. Therefore, the nostalgia is combined with temporal and cultural alienation: effort must be made to transcend the song’s kitsch in order to appreciate the nostalgia that it incites.
There is a similar ambiguity to the film’s nostalgia for the “glory days” of Taiwanese art film, the Taiwan New Cinema movement of the ’80s and ’90s, which artistically and politically broke the traditions of the Healthy Realism of the ’60s and ’70s. As is well known, the Taiwan New Cinema movement employed long takes and long shots, focusing largely on rural Taiwan or the developing cities. These films, especially those by Hou and Yang, consistently won major prizes at international film festivals, introducing Taiwanese cinema to the world and causing the Taiwanese government to become enthusiastic about its cinema’s sudden fame and respectability.
The Skywalk is Gone employs many of the long takes characteristic of the Taiwan New Cinema movement. The extreme long takes evoke Hou’s films, and the fragmentation of urban space into squares of windows and buildings is reminiscent of Yang’s Taipei Story (1985) and Yi Yi (2000). However, as mentioned earlier, the takes are exaggeratedly long (a staple of Tsai’s cinema) and the fragmentations are ridiculous to the point that they become optical illusions that fool the viewer. This playful, self-mocking attitude towards the traditions of Taiwanese art film shows that the movement as we know it is dead. Of course, not all Taiwanese films are characterised by long takes and long shots, and these are not the only characteristics of the movement. However, Tsai is conscious that these are the stereotypes of Taiwanese film most familiar to Western audiences in film festivals and art houses. Since the New Cinema movement occurred at a moment of increased globalisation of art film around the world, it suffers from an essential impurity: the true nature of the Taiwan New Cinema depends on who and when you’re asking. Once again, there is an impossibility to this nostalgia: how can one be nostalgic for something that is elusive and ever changing? These techniques, so familiar and clichéd to audiences in 2002, have lost any original meanings and nostalgia is thus lost in a cyclone of post-colonial shifting.
More convincing though is the nostalgia for the Taiwan New Cinema that occurs at the sight of the kinds of visual production that have supplanted art cinema as among the most prevalent in Taiwan today. Outside of television programs, among the two most widespread uses of film and video in current Taiwan are commercials and pornography. It’s widely known that local cinema as a cultural and economic force in Taiwan is non-existent. Hollywood has essentially devoured the entire movie scene and local films have fallen out of the favor of the moviegoing public. Although The Skywalk is Gone was the first short film to get a theatrical commercial run in Taiwan, it only played in one theatre. And while What Time is it There? was a moderate success by Taiwanese cinema standards, it happened largely because the famous director and lead actress accompanied the film on a nation-wide lecture tour of theatres and college campuses (6). Despite these attempts at popularising the local cinema, either through film festivals or free screenings, Taiwan’s presence in exhibited cinema is virtually non-existent. On the other hand, there are plenty of new spaces for video commercials, and with the popularisation of the internet in Taiwan, there’s a rejuvenated market for pornographic material as well. The Skywalk is Gone opens on a peculiar image of Taipei: a huge video screen spread across a skyscraper which looms over the city’s pedestrians. Shiang-chyi, just back from France, clearly has not seen this odd device before. The camera is fixed for 118 seconds as we watch Shiang-chyi stare at the jumbotron while commercials for beauty products and local stores spew fiercely into the city streets. Drowning out the sounds of cars and footsteps are the voices and ditties from the commercials (“Family Mart is ‘your’ mart”), droning on and on in the subconscious of everyone who walks past. The shot is typical Tsai: the take is way too long and we wait for an event to happen between the screen and Shiang-chyi, but of course nothing does. The exaggeratedly slow editing is as ridiculous as the jumbotron itself. After a while, the audience realises that the commercials on the video screen are looped and we’re left with the essence of commercials: the montage on the screen is quick and lively and the images are enormous, but they’re always monotonously so. We notice that the wasteful abundance of commercial energy is shallow in comparison to the leisurely, mystical long takes of the Taiwan New Cinema and the beautiful precision of Tsai’s compositions. Pornography too is castigated as the sad legacy of the local film movement. At the end of the short film, Shiao-kang auditions for the part of a doctor in a pornographic video – the only thriving form of independent cinema existing in Taiwan.
Finally, the film consciously “misses” the characters and situations of Tsai’s previous films. Most obvious is the film’s references to What Time is it There?, which The Skywalk is Gone is a coda to. That said, What Time is it There? also uses the same characters and locations as The River, which itself is a continuation of Rebels of the Neon God. Likewise, there’s little doubt that the characters of The Skywalk is Gone will find new situations in Tsai’s future films. The pleasure of the short film derives from revisiting the characters of What Time is it There? and the hope that Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang will reunite after their torturous days apart. The audience is already “missing” the previous film. The disappearance of the skywalk of course prevents this reunion from happening, so the object of this nostalgia is unattainable and ever in flux as a result of the urban massacre of the lonely characters’ meeting place. We see them almost cross paths as Shiang-chyi goes down an escalator while Hsiao-kang goes up the other side in a location playfully stolen from The River. Thus even in scenes of nostalgia for the preceding film, Tsai mixes it with nostalgia for an even earlier work. In order to attain equilibrium, the film constantly seeks out earlier films in hopes of finding a resolution. And of course, there is no resolution, for whether Tsai is reaching back fondly to his own films, the films of the New Taiwan Cinema movement, or the 1960s Mandarin Hong Kong cinema, the object of desire is forever out of grasp.
Thus The Skywalk is Gone is a hodge-podge of nostalgias, a culmination of desires for the cinema and the city that never find their objects of yearning. The state of Taiwanese cinema today, trapped between the economic realities of local exhibition and the legacies of its critical success, keeps seeking refuge in the state of the city and the cinema even though they are ever-changing and intangible, existing only in memory. Tsai’s latest film, Goodbye Dragon Inn, takes place at an old movie theatre a day before it is set to close. The last screening in the theatre is of King Hu’s 1966 classic Dragon Inn, and Tsai’s minimalist film details these final hours. It’s clear from this synopsis that Tsai is still concerned with the endless destruction of both city and cinema as we know it. In his films, change is the enemy of memory – the motions of history make it harder to remember what we’re remembering, leaving the characters and the audience forever lost amidst the traces of modernity.
- The most comprehensive study is Fran Martin, “The European Undead”, Senses of Cinema 27, July-August 2003.
- Rey Chow, “A Souvenir of Love”, Modern Chinese Literature 7:2, 1993, p.61.
- Chow, 61.
- Shelly Kraicer, “Interview with Cai Mingliang”, Positions 8, 2, Fall 2000, pp 580-581.
- Yueh-yu Yeh, A National Score: Popular Music and Taiwanese Cinema, dissertation, University of Southern California, 1995, 47.
- Yu Sen-lun, “Taiwan’s brightest film stars struggle to shine”, Taipei Times, 31 March 2002