Tianqiao bu jianle
Taiwan / France, 2002
Review by Andrew Schenker
Posted on 24 April 2008
Source Fox Lorber DVD (bonus feature on Goodbye, Dragon Inn)
While Tsai Ming-Liang’s 2002 short The Skywalk is Gone provides a succinct narrative bridge between his previous feature What Time Is It There? and his most radical work, 2005’s The Wayward Cloud, it also represents somewhat of a thematic and aesthetic holding pattern. But if Tsai seems chiefly concerned with moving his characters into proper position for his next feature while deferring any further artistic explorations, he nonetheless presents his signature concerns with a compelling economy, reproducing earlier triumphs – both through repetitions of established aesthetic strategies and direct allusion – and neatly summing up his cinematic achievement to date.
In What Time is it There?, a Taipei street vendor sells a dual-time watch to an attractive young woman who’s about to leave for Paris and wants simultaneous access to the time in both places. The romantic possibility established by their brief encounter is interrupted by the woman’s departure, and the vendor occupies himself throughout the film by changing all the clocks he encounters in Taipei to Paris time, thus bridging the temporal, if not the spatial, gap between the two. In The Skywalk is Gone, the woman returns from Paris, and revisits the scene of their meeting, a busy overpass in a commercial district of Taipei, only to discover that the overpass has been removed and that the watch seller cannot be located.
If Tsai’s signature concern is the cinematic presentation of urban alienation and, more specifically sexual alienation, he’s developed a corresponding aesthetic of long, wordless takes, fixed wide-angle framings and oblique glimpses of unsatisfying carnal encounters to give visual expression to this lack of meaningful human interaction. In The Skywalk is Gone, this alienation finds its principal expression in the woman’s confused wanderings through the bewildering landscape of a modern commercial center. From the start, Tsai emphasizes her disassociation through his framing, filming her, in the opening scene, from the back as she watches an advertisement on an outdoor television screen. Dozens of people cross the plaza, but her sole interaction remains with the inanimate screen. As she continues her wanderings around the busy city landscape, she is continually reflected in windows and store fronts, reflections which often represent her sole presence on the screen and further suggest the displacement of identity in the midst of a disorienting urban milieu.
After learning of the demolition of the skywalk, the woman proceeds to a cafe, where urban disassociation gives way to another of Tsai’s perpetual concerns, environmental disaster. She tries to buy coffee, but the waitress informs her that, due to a water shortage, the only thing available is fried rice, which she reluctantly orders. In Tsai’s previous work, water represents a significant presence in the filmic landscape, often registering in a destructive capacity. Thus the polluted Tansui of The River causes debilitating neck pain and the continual rains of The Hole bring with them new forms of disease. Here, the situation seems initially more innocuous, but Tsai nonetheless suggests ominous implications, since the water shortage has already prevented cafes from serving anything but rice. In his follow up film, The Wayward Cloud, Tsai would expand this shortage into a worldwide epidemic, the reverse of the apocalyptic rains in The Hole, but an event equally rich in suggestive possibility.
The Skywalk is Gone further references Tsai’s oeuvre-to-date by introducing two brief scenes that reprise the famous opening shot of The River, but denying his characters the rewards of romantic consummation they enjoyed in the earlier film. In the older movie, a fixed long shot frames an escalator in front of a department store. A man ascends the escalator while a woman descends. The woman recognizes the man and when she gets to the bottom of the escalator re-ascends and meets him at the top. (Significantly, the two characters are portrayed by the same actors, Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi, as in the later film.) In The Skywalk is Gone, Tsai stages a shot of the same escalator in front of the same department store, but glimpsed from a slightly different angle, shot from a vantage point further to the right of the escalator, suggesting a small variation in the director’s cinematic world in which the details are slightly skewed and romantic possibility become even less likely. The woman descends as before, but the man does not appear. Three shots later, however, the two are finally granted, however briefly, their shared moment of screen time, as they pass each other on a staircase. Reversing the encounter in The River, it is Lee who spots Chen, but, after a brief moment of hesitation, lets her pass without engaging her attention. The object of her quest subverted at the potential moment of realization, the woman is free to pass back into the anonymous crowd where she began the film.
The final section of the film follows the man as he auditions for a role in a pornographic film. If meaningless sexual encounters provide a dominant undercurrent throughout Tsai’s work, then pornography would seem to embody the ultimate form of meaningless sex, the pinnacle of sexual alienation. In The Wayward Cloud, Tsai would go on to dissect in minute detail the clinical process of filming pornography in a series of disturbing sequences that are as far from erotic as possible. Here, the audition sequence, filmed in a single fixed shot – the longest in the work – prepares the viewer for the foregrounding of the mechanics of the sex act that Tsai accomplishes in the next film, as the on-screen director, separated from the man by a glass partition, asks him to strip and masturbate, equating sexuality with businesslike performance. The man’s initiation into the world of pornography, the necessity of which is established in the previous film, What Time Is It There? when his watch case (and thus his means of livelihood) was stolen by a prostitute following an unsatisfying tryst, finds Tsai pushing his hero further down the rabbit hole of degrading sexuality. If The Wayward Cloud represents the culmination of this particular line of inquiry, then Skywalk’s final sequence provides an aesthetic summation of Tsai’s treatment of sexuality to date – boldly imagined, but visually restrained – before giving way to the explicitly detailed, insistently displeasing presentation of the filmmaker’s remarkable follow-up.