Tsai Ming-Liang’s Tian qiao bu jian le (The Skywalk is Gone, 2002; Skywalk from here on) is a short film bridging his previous and subsequent features, Ni na bian ji dian (What Time is it There?, 2001) and Tian bian yi duo yun (The Wayward Cloud, 2005). Skywalk finds Chen (Chen Shiang-Chyi) – having returned from Paris after her visit there in What Time is it There? – navigating the increasingly urbanised cityscape of Taipei whose skywalk (pedestrian overpass) in front of the New Railway Station has disappeared. Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng), previously a watch seller operating out of his suitcase on top of the skywalk, and who fell in love with Chen, is now seen drifting through the city, seeking work as a porn star. Skywalk speaks to the volatility of the urban landscape and the isolation it causes. Nostalgia, omnipresent in all of Tsai’s films, marks the skywalk’s disappearance as the characters grapple with the depressing daily reality of modernity.

To understand Tsai’s cinema, it is important to recognise the indelible influence that the post-war French cinema had upon it. During his time studying theatre in Taiwan, where he arrived from Malaysia in 1977, Tsai began watching, amongst others, the films of the nouvelle vague, Robert Bresson, and, most pointedly, Jacques Tati1 Tati’s films unambiguously but playfully critique the changes wrought in post-war France, “particularly suburbanisation, mechanisation, the widespread adoption of architectural modernism and the burgeoning car and consumer cultures”2. Reflecting on this, Tsai’s films grapple with the loss of urban spaces and their landmarks, as seen in Skywalk where the titular bridge disappears. This deprivation, which modernity brings along with its emphasis on alienation and individualism, manifests itself as a cultural clash for Tsai. These are also important themes in Tati’s highly influential 1967 film Play Time

The opening shot of Play Time initially evokes unbridled freedom as fluffy white clouds are shown on a backdrop of blue sky (the very same composition haunts the end of Skywalk). However, the equivalent shot in Skywalk is accompanied by a dulcet toned voice singing “Nanping Evening Bell”, and evoking a nostalgia for the 1960s when Mandarin songs were popularised in Taiwan in an effort by the government to unify and nationalise the language3. Play Time features a befuddled M. Hulot, a recurring character in Tati’s films, and Barbara, an American tourist as the two characters who intermittently bump into each other. Tati’s comical scenarios critique modernity and the birth of contemporary consumerism, whereas Tsai’s films are created in an era in which capitalism has perhaps reached its final phase. Tsai’s characters and narratives are conscious of this failed utopia, and they are grappling with the precarious experience of living in the time of “late capitalism”.

Fredric Jameson proposed that postmodernity was the inevitable outcome of late capitalism. Ernest Mendel saw capitalism advancing in three stages: “[the] [m]achine production of steam-driven motors since 1848; machine production of electric and combustion motors since the 90s of the 19th century; machine production of electronic and nuclear-powered apparatuses since the 40s of the 20th century.” Jameson extends Mendel’s argument stating that, “we may speak of our own as the Third (or even Fourth) Machine age”4. Jameson’s central argument is that the logic of the market has now come to dictate artistic forms and practices. The division between high art and low art has imploded, leading to confusion amongst consumers. This practice extends from advertisements featuring surrealist art to, even, Tsai’s incorporation of 1960s Mandarin pop music in Skywalk. Tsai’s characters are grappling with a world of rapid change and confusion in which public space is manipulated and quick cash is earned from the confines of suitcases or the nefariously destabilised economy of porn.

Architecture, urban renewal, and redevelopment are of central concern to Jameson’s argument. He uses the Westin Bonaventure, a 33-storey hotel in Los Angeles constructed between 1974 and 1976, as a key example of the processes he is describing. Jameson argues that the Westin Bonaventure Hotel is where “the ‘new world space of multinational capital’ finds its ‘impossible’ representation in the mirror-glass and steel ‘hyperspaces’ of Los Angeles”5. The Bonaventure itself was part of a wider urban regeneration and redevelopment, a concerted effort to thwart off the ghettoization occurring in other parts of Los Angeles. 

The effort to revitalise Los Angeles and privatise space has an earlier counterpart in the redevelopment of Paris under Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-19th century; public spaces were stripped and boulevards erected to limit crime and poverty, or at least to shift it elsewhere. In Tsai’s response to this kind of urban cleansing in Taiwan, the audience is privy to a myriad of shots which establish the city as an isolating place. For example, in the pivotal long shot of the underpass where we see Chen and Hsiao-Kang bypass one another without knowing it. The dank and dark shadows incur from outside the frame. 

This collision between urban regeneration, late capitalism, and nostalgia is where Skywalk becomes most pointed. It’s illustrated from the very beginning as we are introduced to Chen. The confusion of the city space is illustrated in the opening shot, which shows Chen’s character standing in a medium closeup in a busy public square gazing up at a screen monotonously declaring a free holiday and promoting FamilyMart. Chen’s back faces the audience, stationary while a sea of people passes by her in the busy square. This character appears familiar, but it’s too difficult to say why exactly as her physical details are obscured. Already this opening shot establishes the central conflict of Tsai’s cinema. Chen’s static body, amidst a wave of people moving frantically, illustrates the recurring state of isolation which Tsai’s characters face. The dichotomy between slow and fast, stop and start, is also suggested by this shot. Tsai’s work is consistently included within the category of slow cinema, itself a reaction against the hyper-consumerism of late capitalism. Nevertheless, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, writing in the liner notes of the recently released Blu-ray of Bu san (Goodbye, Dragon Inn, 2003) comments that “‘slow cinema’ films work on a more conceptual or intellectual level… [where] with Tsai’s work [he] feels very connect[ed]”, illustrating the political implications of “slow” cinema6.

Soon after the opening shot, in which Chen is drowned out by the voice of a robotic sounding advertisement, we cut to an exterior medium-long shot peering into the windows of an arcade. The blaring light is reflected in the glass windows and the busy streets and denizens of Taipei, including a disoriented Chen refracted in a mirror. Soon after we cut to what could be either an interior or exterior shot of a mall as people’s reflections are shown from a multitude of angles. These opening shots nail the consensus of Tsai’s films as the facades of glass can be said to symbolise modernity. The refracted images of people whose expressions can barely be read emphasises the uncertainty that exists in a late capitalist society for characters like Chen and Hsiao-Kang.

Tian qiao bu jian le/The Skywalk is Gone (2002 Taiwan/France 25 mins)

Prod Co: Homegreen Films//Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains Dir, Scr: Tsai Ming-Liang Ed: Chen Sheng-Chang Phot: Liao Pen-Jung

Cast: Lee Kang-Sheng, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Lu Yi-Ching


  1. Daniel Eagan, “How Taiwan’s Art-House Film Icon Tsai Ming-liang Has Evolved Over 30 Years, As New York Retrospective Takes Deep Dive Into His Work”, South China Morning Post (26 October 2022):  https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/entertainment/article/3197157/how-taiwans-art-house-film-icon-tsai-ming-liang-has-evolved-over-30-years-new-york-retrospective.
  2. Malcolm Turvey, “Tati, Suburbia and Modernity”, Screening the Paris Suburbs: From the Silent Era to the 1990s, ed. Philippe Met and Derek Schilling, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2018, 101.
  3. Brian Hu, “Goodbye City, Goodbye Cinema: Nostalgia in Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Skywalk is Gone”, Senses of Cinema, 29 (December 2003): http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2003/feature-articles/skywalk_is_gone/.
  4. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, New Left Review, 146 (1984): 78.
  5. Mike Davis, “Urban Renaissance and the Spirit of Postmodernism”, New Left Review, 151 (May 1985): 106
  6. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Reflections on Goodbye, Dragon Inn”, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Blu-ray, Booklet, Second Run, 2021, 13.

About The Author

Digby is a film critic, filmmaker and screenwriter from Melbourne. He is interested in the intersection between history and film and completed his Honours thesis on late 1970s Australian cinema in 2022. He is also co-editor and co-creator of KinoTopia and his writing can be found here.

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