Home Arts & Culture Monks, Modernity and Water Melons: Watching Tsai Ming Liang Movies

Monks, Modernity and Water Melons: Watching Tsai Ming Liang Movies

Almost every cinema of Tsai stands as a discontinuity with the modernity’s imagination of time. These cinemas are scattered legends of human lives and relations which seek the meaning and essence of existence in between the rapid reification and alienation.


Water Melons, For Tsai Ming Liang, are like cars for Abbas Kiarostami. Tsai is a Taiwanese guy. He makes movies occasionally. His films are quite famous in some festival circuits. Lee Kang Sheng also grows along with Tsai’s movies. Lee is an actor. Lee is along with Tsai from the 1992 film ‘The Rebels of The Neon God’ to the recently released ‘Days’.

Lee is not a professionally trained actor. In Tsai’ words, Lee ‘didn’t receive formal acting training’. Tsai found him on the street. ‘He didn’t have any acting concept. He just acts himself’ Tsai goes on. ‘Without this face, I don’t want to make films any more’, says Tsai. After Lee, it would be watermelons which have had the most appearances in Tsai’s cinema. Water Melons act as the metaphors of distance and detachment caused by the rampant globalization and the socio-political atmosphere created by the global market. Tsai’s cinemas, which comes under the definition of ‘slow cinema’, are distinct for its slow takes.

The main accusations against slow cinema are that the length of shots and the slowness obstruct the experience of watching cinema. But when we think within the geo-political borders of Tsai Ming Liang, we can understand that his decision to make slow cinema is not merely coincidental.

Moreover, Tsai’s slow cinema acquire an ethical terrain in the urban lives which have reached the epitome of alienation. What is the ethical position of (slow) Tsai cinema? It is the temporal imagination which comes first when we think about ethical cinema. Henri Bergson’s ‘durée’ helps us as a resort to formulate ideas about cinematic time. Bergson creates distinctions in the different image perceptions as subjective idealism and material realism. Through this, he reaches an assumption that the relationship between subject and object is more temporal than spatial.

These ideas of Bergson have later helped scholars like Deleuze to construct his conceptualizations such as movement image. On the other hand, scholars like Mary Ann Duane view Rationalization and ephemerality as two contesting tendencies in the cosmology of modernity. She observes that ‘from Georg Simmel to Walter Benjamin, modernity is conceptualized as an increase in speed and increase in stimuli’. There is ‘too much’ and it is ‘too fast’.

As the society was more industrialized, the requirement to divide time as rational, quantifiable units arose abundantly. As the ‘assault and acceleration’ of modernity increased, the idea of time as quantifiable, measured units gained more sense and acceptance. But it is important to provide the experience of freedom to humans from the increasing rationalizations and structurizations of time. Even when the unlimited experience of freedom is dangerous, Doane observes that this idea of freedom and the idea of coincidental time has played a major role in the growth of creative cinema.

We have to understand Tsai cinemas from the specific geopolitical sphere of Taiwan. Tsai cinema whispers to the urban masses of Taiwan who run along with the speed of colonial modernity and rampant globalization that to ‘rest and to understand things slowly’. Almost every cinema of Tsai stands as a discontinuity with the modernity’s imagination of time.

These cinemas are scattered legends of human lives and relations which seek the meaning and essence of existence in between the rapid reification and alienation. The urban spaces where mutual relations are essentially commodified and walls are filled with commercials, the organic and complete articulations of humaneness and thought-emotions becomes very rare. We can see that in the places where these articulations are lost, the importance and relevance of conversations become low and the distracted, short conversations replace long and meaningful conversations.

The latest cinema of Tsai, ‘Days’, which was released in 2020, was released without subtitles. Tsai says that it was to make the spectators concentrate on visuals and to make them understand that they don’t lose anything even when they miss the ‘textual’. Another important part of Tsai cinema is the everyday activities and their repetitions. Even in this repetition, we can see that there is an evident influence of modernity or a structure of order which was formed through the spread of modernity.

If we consider Tsai’s ‘Walker’, which was released in 2012, as an example all these becomes more evident. Lee Kang Sheng in a Buddhist monk attire is the only character in this film. In the narrative, we can see an individual who cannot reach with the speed of the urban spaces and places and the humans who live in it in the backdrop of busy nights and days of cities. The slowness of that Buddhist monk asks us to control the speed of our thought-process and the tendency to perceive things rapidly. The slowness of the character, who walks slowly by staying away from the rapidness of the streets, shopping malls, food joints, over bridges and public transports, all ideal images of modern cities, creates a strange feeling in urban people. Walker, in this way, instabilizes the conventional, modern understandings of time.

Asbjørn Grønstad, in his ‘Film and Ethical Imagination’, thinks about the possible relations of ethics and the idea of temporality in slow cinema. He observes how spatial forms and methods are related to make possible an ethical experience. Sukhdev Santhu observes slow cinema as a cultural resistance. He adds that slow cinema, in the age of omnipresent print-visual media and unlimited visuals, acts as a kind of cultural discardment.

When we connect Tsai’s ‘Walker’ along with these observations, we can understand new imaginations about the various duties fulfilled by this cinema. We can witness a new terrain of cultural criticism emerging through walker, which discontinues and disconnects itself from the chain of market in neo-liberal urban spaces and the everyday evolving consumer tendencies and styles.

The incomprehensibility of cinema is another major accusation toward Tsai’s cinemas. But when we re-imagine these ‘pre-assumed’ incomprehensibilities within the limits of social, political and cultural terrains of Tsai, we can easily understand the cultural-artistic logic working behind it. But this conscious act of incomprehensibility can be observed as an act of ‘resistance’ in a Jamesonian way. Frederic Jameson, is normally viewed as a difficult writer given his obscure and ornate prose style. Jameson defends this accusation by suggesting two ideas; ‘resistance’ and ‘pleasure’.

“There is the private matter of my own pleasure in writing these texts: it is a pleasure tied up in the peculiarities of my ‘difficult’ style (if that’s what it is). I wouldn’t write them unless there were some minimal gratifications in it for myself, and I hope we are not too alienated or instrumentalised to reserve some small place for what used to be called handicraft satisfaction.”

Jameson adds that at most of the times, the ideas like ‘clarity’ and ‘fluidity’ might act as distracting elements.

Jameson, in this conversation, hopes that the human beings are ‘not too alienated or instrumentalised to reserve some space’ for complete human articulations. In the neo-liberal world where the rapid alienation which tries to keep humans away from their labour and its value, the attempts to resist and to absorb the human labour and creative articulations in its totality is mostly put away as ‘incomprehensible’ acts, texts and works.

When we contextualize this imagination within the post-globalized historical condition of Taiwan, we can understand Tsai’s attempts and efforts in a completely new way. By exposing the ways and methods in which this existing economic-social order scatters human condition and by using the very forms and possibilities which constantly instabilizes this order, Tsai cinemas perform and important political act too