The Editions Dis Voir publication, Tsaï Ming Liang, consists of two sections: a compilation of critical essays that examine key elements of Tsai’s intensely personal cinema, Bringing in the Rain by Jean-Pierre Rehm and Corporal Interference by Olivier Joyard, and an extended interview with Tsaï Ming-liang entitled Scouting by Danièle Revière that discusses his influences, themes, and work.
In Bringing in the Rain, Rehm illustrates the pervasive elements of Tsaï’s cinema: the absence of narrative, the unoccupied and malleable characters (especially as portrayed by Lee Kang-sheng), the exclusive use of natural and ambient sounds, indeterminate time and place of reference, and sequential shots.
Citing Tsaï’s recurrent imagery of elevators – the phantom stopping of the elevator in Rebels of the Neon God, the mother’s monotonous occupation in The River, the linking setting between dreams (Grace Chang musical interlude) and reality (an inebriated Hsiao-kang impeding the closing of the elevator doors) in The Hole, Rehm illustrates Tsaï’s seemingly existentialist themes of stasis and spiritual stagnation:
But this is only a misleading illusion, like in The Hole: the elevator never really goes up, it only opens and closes. A comparably minimalist technique can be found in the elevator where the mother works in The River: floors pass, people enter and exit, but it really goes nowhere. The escalator at the beginning of the same film is a mere interchange. No justification for mysticism can be found in Tsaï Ming-liang’s films, not even a physical one: there is no mystery, no revelation; no descent into Hell, no redemption.
In Corporal Interference, Joyard examines the role of hollow spaces: the physical body as a transient vessel of the soul, and the impersonal, vacant interiors as a reflection of emptiness. Joyard discusses Tsaï’s concept of the impermanence of the human body, and its role as a vehicle for commuting the joys, sorrows, fears, and desires experienced by the soul. This observation is further validated through Tsaï’s remarks on the role of the city as a character: “When I film a city it’s as if I were filming a character. Because I think that everything has its place, its own life. It’s an idea very close to Chinese Buddhism, which regards the human body as a place of ‘passage’.”
Joyard further discusses the appearance of rain and water in Tsaï’s films as an external, atmospheric barometer for the level of societal turmoil and personal anguish: “Water forms an inescapable structure, another way of showing what goes on inside our bodies and heads, bringing the internal circuits, veins and organs to light, pointing out the leaks.”
Tsaï further expounds on the ubiquitous presence water in his films in the 1999 interview transcribed in the section entitled Scouting. Tsaï’s concise and simple explanation of the mother’s ritualistic actions in The River, encapsulates the emotional honesty and innate compassion of Tsaï’s profoundly humanist cinema:
The first thing she does on returning home is to pour herself a glass of water and drink it. We also see her drinking before she goes out. Because I always regard the characters in my films as plants which are short of water, which are almost on the point of dying from lack of water. Actually, water for me is love, that’s what they lack. What I’m trying to show is very symbolic, it’s their need for love.
Acquarello, 2002 [reprinted]