When I wrote about reading books that are mean to be series, in a random order, I started to wonder how it applied to films. Not the kind of films that are, in fact, series—like Star Wars or Kill Bill, or Lethal Weapon—but the kind of films that would constitute a director’s ouvre.
With Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Wong Kar-wai or Buñuel, there might be something to be gained by seeing their films in the order in which they were made. Directors’ Retrospectives attempt to reach exactly this kind of an understanding. But while it might be useful, it is not necessary. You’d lose nothing because you saw 2046 before you saw Fallen Angels.
Many directors essentially make the same film again and again. They approach their central concerns from different perspectives and though there are continuities in style, form and approach, a chronological viewing is not absolutely required.
The exception, in my view, is Taiwanese director, Tsai Ming-liang.
Two years ago, at Trivandrum, there was a retrospective of his films. And in the way one does, I randomly circled all Tsai Ming-liang’s films on my schedule, but did not really pay attention to chronology. A friend very strongly recommended that I see the films in order, and I went along with the idea in a casual sort of way. When I started watching the films, I realised that he was right and they would not otherwise make sense.
Ming-liang’s films have three main characters: the Father, the Mother and the Son (the characters are played by the same actors in film after film). In later films there’s a girl; but their stories are a progression, with some very strong elements of style carrying each story forward. All Ming-liang’s films have long, static shots. In a talkative film, there will be a grand total of four sentences spoken. There is no background music – the exceptions are The Hole and Wayward Cloud, which are really musicals – and bathrooms play a crucial role.
And yet, though so many things appear to be repeated from one film to another, there really would be no way of understanding Wayward Cloud without having seen What Time Is It There, The Skywalk Has Gone (a short film) and The Hole.
Tsai Ming-liang is not easy to watch; watch his films out of order and there is almost nothing to keep you in the theatre unless you’re a film fanatic or have the patience of a saint. In Trivandrum, people made a special effort to come to the screenings just so they could hoot and make a noisy exit.
But if you decide to stay with it, there is no filmmaker whose work is more rewarding to watch. Ming-liang’s films are deeply compassionate and often hilarious. And even as you are laughing, you are aware of an undertow of sadness. But watch the films – as far as possible—chronologically.