Space Odyssey
Nicolas Rapold on Vive L’Amour

Vive L’Amour played April 10, 2015, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of the retrospective Tsai Ming-liang, presented with support from Taipei Cultural Center of TECO in New York.

With Vive L’Amour, the films of Tsai Ming-liang forever became stories of space as much as of people: the siamese flats joined together in The Hole, the anonymous steam rooms of The River, the amniotically lit family apartment of What Time Is It There?, the movie theater and hallways of Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Compared to these later works, the orbits of Rebels of the Neon God are less constrained, the terrain more incidental, and even the globetrotting What Time Is It There? is threaded tight with a telephonic-chronographic linkup. The nexus of Vive L’Amour is an uninhabited duplex, and the realtor's term feels appropriate given the professions of two of the main characters: one a realtor named May Lin (Yang Kuei-mei), and the other a broker for the equally crowded afterlife, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), an employee of a columbarium concern. Both are products of the obsession with square footage that seizes a rapidly developing island metropolis. The third is a street seller of imports, Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung), who migrates between Taiwan and the mainland and is also split as the object of attention for both of the other characters.

Critics frequently describe Tsai as a poet of urban loneliness, a limiting stereotype originating in the eager plotting of a line traced by the recognizable aimless teenagers in Rebels to the empty real estate of Vive. Yet no one would use The River's wrenching text to extract a lesson about urban living, and both Goodbye, Dragon Inn and The Wayward Cloud, which involves both musical interludes and the porn industry, confirm the dangers of packaging Tsai. The description belies a reflexive discomfort with the private moment and ignores the spatially integrated structure for various human relationships that the director constructs and calibrates. It's not so much that the people in a Tsai film are alone or unable to connect as that their relationships are mediated, oblique, constrained by space—a space that Tsai is constantly adjusting.

Fittingly, a key hanging in a lock opens Vive, filmed with sensual clarity in a startling close-up that leaves Hsiao-kang a blur in the background. In swiping the key, Hsiao-kang indulges the playful fantasy some of us have when passing an empty vacation home or Manhattan pied-à-terre, but this apartment is an even blanker plane of projection, unsold and uninhabited. It is a free space to let psychosexual fantasy roam, space as pure potential, and the transgressions, better phrased in this social vacuum as expressions, are many: cross-dressing, a street pick-up, a suicide attempt, even the less exotic playing with food and the rather more recherché cross-dressed calisthenics.

Squatting in an apartment between renters, Hsiao-kang and Ah-jung effectively live in the interstices of other people's lives, a precarious state somewhere between public and private as May Lin comes and goes during her day of showings. One morning Hsiao-kang putters about before realizing (in a silent-movie freeze take) that May Lin is downstairs eating noodles, and Tsai connects the two with a mischievously inquisitive tilt up from the balcony. And so Hsiao-kang and Ah-jung inhabit the negative space of others (and initially each other's), in a liminal passing-through akin to Goodbye's movie house or the enabling steam rooms of The River. In this roundabout world, it takes the two young men's mutual avoidance of May Lin for them to strike up an acquaintance, after a Duck Soup–like bumping of noses, naturally produced by the farcical setup as they sneak out. They have met once before, but Ah-jung's subsequent attempt to play the bullying guard doesn't stick, for in this no man's land, Hsiao-kang senses tacitly and undramatically that Ah-jung's authority is not only faked but inconsequential.

Ah-jung's attempt to master space is doomed, and one senses that something about Tsai's technique of framing demands this failure. Part of Tsai's repertoire is his infamous medium close-ups, often head-on, but an equally crucial portion is comprised of a spectrum from medium to long shots through which Tsai alternatingly frames the expanse of a whole room, threads through doorways and hallways, or shows two characters seated alone together. The camera takes its cues as much from the space as from the character, a jarring approach in the motivation-driven grammar of conventional narrative. His strategy is less described as following motivation than as capturing a character against a projected context, particularly a spare screen-like locale—he creates, in other words, an intimate psychological dialectic between framing and character behavior. Individually, people tuck themselves/are tucked into spaces: Hsiao-kang or Ah-jung in a bedroom shot through the slit of a doorway, or May Lin crouching in the corner of the frame to make a phone call in a loft. The expanses of these interior shots can eloquently draw out a character's approach to and comfort within the world, akin to the democratic idiosyncrasy of Jacques Tati’s more heavily populated panoramas.

The dialectic becomes electric in his two shots, such as the confrontation between Hsiao-kang and Ah-jung. Standing outside the bedroom, Ah-jung looks to be making his scolds to an empty doorway, but Tsai holds the shot and the space, the background unusually bare and lighting indistinct. Into this flattened composition, emerging in every sense, Hsiao-kang, shyly, with an imperceptible step, materializes, unable to remain absorbed by the background. Tsai develops the shot later by reversing the inquiring gaze, when Hsiao-kang and Ah-jung have dinner together, with Hsiao-kang's satisfaction expressed in his furtive look at the oblivious Ah-jung: Tsai's camera circles the table, the pot sizzling along with Hsiao-kang's tension, and the shifting relations render subtle adjustments of subjectivity that recall images by Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Tsai can and does turn exterior spaces into shifting psychological landscapes of framing and being framed. In a flirtatious counterpoint to Hsiao-kang's yearning away in the background, Tsai presents the streetside hide-and-seek of the initial Ah-jung/May Lin courtship, and the choreography of both their blocking and the camerawork around columns and storefronts even bears a faint musical ring. But the outdoor climax of Vive occurs with May Lin's exodus the morning after a hungry recoupling with Hsiao-kang (and some car trouble). Tsai opens the sequence with another psychologically fraught shot of emergence: May Lin worms her way into visibility within an urban tableau of a construction site and skyscrapers, from a street deep in the background, a bracing but gradual journey into the light of consciousness. The most shocking part of the whole sequence is arguably not May Lin's six-minute crying jag but the liberation of the tracking shots and the endless pan that follow, lose, and recapture her in the park—the pan a reprise of the 180-degree-rule-breaking pan that just precedes Antoine’s run on the beach in The 400 Blows.

May Lin's emergence occurs in a take that seems longer than it is, partly because we don't usually see a shot beginning that “early” in the character's progress across a screen. And it is easy to forget such instructive little confusions on the first viewing, because they remind us how deeply intertwined spatial relations are with narrative expectations—and how Tsai does not flout but rather obliquely approaches these and other expectations in configuring his spaces. As Vive switches between character trajectories, Tsai often sidesteps traditional continuity in ways that reflect the spatial-psychological integration of the characters. One example of this lies in the frequent disorientation we feel within the apartment, a space seemingly resistant to familiarity, like the toggling viewpoints on Playtime's glass building that only exchange equivalent confusions. Significantly, the disorientation arises especially as Hsiao-kang and Ah-jung are vying for the same unfamiliar territory, boxing with shadows. Another tension arises from Tsai's ambiguous opening shots, anchored in the corner of the room or from outside a doorway, which can resemble establishing shots; sometimes his trick is to linger but cut away (and other times they actually remain the principal view). When May Lin upends her purse at the apartment door while looking for the missing key, for example, Tsai cuts to a shot of the empty apartment, playing on a continuity expectation that May Lin did find the key and is about to enter. Instead, the next shot is a surprising close-up of Hsiao-kang's bandaged hand. Likewise, scenes of May Lin at her apartment showings are shot at a tense middle distance that Tsai sometimes does, sometimes does not relieve; he seems unwilling to divorce the character from the landscape of bare walls that surround her.

Indeed, the dynamic between character and space finds its thematic cousins in the Tsai movements between dualities: the mundane and the fraught, solitude and loneliness. This actually brings us to Tsai's better-known, dominant mode of framing: the single-character studies, often shot head-on and boxed-in, the character absorbed in a highly private behavior. The relation between space and character in these closer-shot studies remains as intertwined as other modes, for they are at once personal and leveling, right near the character's surface and yet a reminder of the impassable depth of private experience. The leveling can be profoundly unsettling: Tsai confronts us suddenly with Hsiao-kang sitting alone on a bed, trying to cut his wrists, as if the removed-but-present medium close-up finally affords the nowhere space needed for such self-nullification, away from the anxiety-ridden world of human interaction. Outside of another movement to the eternal (prayer), one cannot imagine a more private experience than suicide, and Tsai trumps himself by then interrupting with Ah-jung and May Lin arriving for sex: union and isolation, newly neighbors.

Far from an exercise in miserabilism, the leveling encases the extraordinary scene, filmed like others at a slight tilt, in what might be called a community of solitary experiences—a gallery of living portraits: May Lin bleary in the morning, Ah-jung settling in for a wank, Hsiao-kang making out with a melon. Tsai's behavioral eye takes them all in, with a respectful distance that avoids either wallowing in or clinicizing his subjects. And Tsai is unafraid to rework the distance by deflating the air of absorption, as witnessed in May Lin's superb mosquito hunt scene. Hsiao-kang's close-up shows May Lin's face deep in some form of concentration, and it seems we could not get closer to her thoughts—and then her quick clap at the bug reveals the mundane origin of her trance. Through her subsequent dance with an invisible enemy—the artistic apotheosis of the comic riff about what a man dodging a bee looks like from across the street—the behavior becomes almost a representation of a resistance to interpretation and access, another moving figure in a bare landscape. And in her heightened awareness, she joins the community of Tsai characters who are constantly listening, usually to their fellow human beings through the walls, the congenial paranoia of an unseen neighbor's sonic presence in their heads.

This community of solitary beings poke about the spaces of Tsaiville, driven by secret needs and not-so-secret ones like desire. And viewed through Tsai's eye for behavior, the mute, uncensored, unself-conscious actions of the characters of Vive L'Amour and others can have the air of animals under benign observation, our fellow beasts. There is something about the quiet respect, untainted by a fetishizing sentimentalized affection, with which Tsai approaches his creations that makes the human animal label stick: people in all their habits and behaviors and expressed desires—and, above all, in their spaces. For these are spaces as solitary beasts might use them—a usage bestially sensible and safe, like the absent owl who takes up in a disused attic, or the squirrel with a nest in a car on blocks. They are spaces as ever-shifting homes, in the organic animal mode more than the razing human: spaces with new purposes, that shape as much as they are shaped, brought into being under Tsai's patient eye.

This article was originally published in December 2004.