Malaysian-Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang has become a fan favorite director throughout his decades-long filmmaking career, even if he has not broken into the mainstream consciousness of the Western movie world. He is considered one of the biggest directors to come out of Taiwan’s Second New Wave, which began in the 1990s. Tsai made his debut in 1989, largely in telefilms, and, five years later, rose to prominence when he took home the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival for Vive L’Amour. Tsai, who was born in Malaysia but moved to Taipei, Taiwan as a young man, was educated in film and theater at the Chinese Cultural University in Taiwan. He would return to his country of birth, or Southeast Asia, in his films often.
Rebels of the Neon God was Tsai’s directorial debut as a feature film. Released in 1992, it immediately established him as a filmmaker to keep an eye on in the future. And he proved that right quite quickly, as his follow-up movie, Vive L’Amour, made his most notable stylistic decisions validated on a global scale. He would continue to put out movies that were successful at international film festivals and domestically, marking him as one of the most successful directors in the world. The Guardian, in 2003, named him number 18 out of 40 of their best directors. With 11 films now under his belt, Tsai’s work has continued to captivate throughout the years. These are his best movies.
6/6 Goodbye, Dragon Inn
Goodbye, Dragon Inn is not a movie for everyone. It is slow, and, at first glance, there is not a lot going on in the movie itself. Some say that the best art replicates reality, and that is precisely what Goodbye, Dragon Inn is channeling during its run time. A Taiwanese wuxia film from the 1960s is being shown at a cinema on the brink of closing, while the woman who gives out tickets is trying to find the projectionist to gift him some food. One of the film’s actors is in the audience, then meets one of his co-stars by chance while leaving. At the same time, a tourist to Taiwan, coming from Japan, is in search of a gay experience while abroad.
5/6 The Hole
Tsai released The Hole in 1998, which is fitting considering its subject. Before 2000 hits and everyone is ready to celebrate the new century, a pandemic occurs in Taiwan. Somehow, it causes the infected to crawl on the floor and purposely seek out dark spaces to be in. As it spreads further, evacuation orders begin to go out throughout the country, but one apartment building’s tenants decide that they are not going to leave any time soon. When one man, named Hsiao Kang, has a hole drilled into his floor, he begins to form a connection with the woman downstairs.
4/6 The River
The winner of the Silver Lion at the Berlin International Film Festival, The River is said to be one of Tsai Ming-Liang’s masterpieces. A young man in Taipei happens to run into a former girlfriend by chance while in an elevator, then is cast as an actor briefly in a movie she is working on. On the way home, he falls off his motorcycle and begins to have neck pain. It continues to worsen, and his mother and father do their best to try and alleviate the pain, but nothing can be done. The family’s problems weave into this, creating a complicated web spun by Tsai.
3/6 Stray Dogs
Released in 2013, Stray Dogs stars frequent Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng as a father to a boy and a girl. He works as a man who holds signs for a business while at a busy intersection, leaving his two children to fend for themselves during the daytime. There is a twist with this movie, though: all three are homeless. However, he has mental health problems, including depression, due to how he acts toward other people and his children’s belongings. When a woman watches over the family’s antics one day, she ultimately decides to join them and help take care of the children. Although it is a movie about misery, Stray Dogs is mesmerizing and visually alluring.
2/6 Rebels of the Neon God
Rebels of the Neon God was Tsai’s feature film debut back in 1992, and it holds up to the test of time. It also marks the beginning of decades of collaboration between its star, Lee Kang-sheng, and Tsai Ming-Liang. A young man who lives at home finds himself crossing paths with two thieves and a woman. After one of the thieves breaks a mirror on the young man’s father’s taxi, their stories collide, showing how youths decide to pursue different paths, even if they are less honest, if circumstances will come to it.
1/6 Vive L’Amour
In Vive L’Amour, three different people are in an apartment and have no idea other people live there. One of them is a suicidal salesman who found the key to the apartment in its lock, and he decides to stay there. The other is a man lured in by a real estate agent with sex. The man steals a key from her, then moves into the apartment and discovers the salesman living there illegally. At the same time, the agent continuously is trying to sell the apartment. All three represent a new society where people do not know each other but instead rely on transactional relationships to get what they want.