The Skywalk is Gone (2002)

Dir. by Tsai Ming-Liang

When I wrote an overview of Tsai’s career two years ago, I hadn’t yet had an opportunity to see The Skywalk is Gone. So I cheated. I stole a great line from Chuck Stephens’s review and turned it into my conclusion. Here’s what I wrote then:

If Tsai’s most recent work is any indication, it is safe to assume that he will continue to poke and prod into the bodies and souls of his loyal collaborators for some time. Along with his choreographic adaptation of a play by Brecht, The Good Woman of Sezuan (1998), and a short film about religious ritual, A Conversation with God (2001), Tsai has also written and directed a 25-minute film, The Skywalk Is Gone (2002), that picks up where What Time Is It There? left off. The short film’s title refers to the actual location, now demolished, where Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi first meet. Noting that the short concludes with a long shot of bright blue skies, Chuck Stephens writes that the skywalk is “gone but not forgotten, even if, in its absence, heaven seems a little bit easier to see.” (11) Those blue skies—along with the rumors that Tsai will continue this story in his next feature—suggest that grace, once only a whisper in Tsai’s world, might yet take shape and become as excruciatingly real as the pain it is meant to relieve.

That last line is a bit too precious, and “grace,” in particular, seems too lazy a word to describe the workings of Tsai’s world, but those blue skies do have a peculiarly joyful effect. That there are blue skies at all in Tsai’s Taiwan is, of course, a major development. Skywalk pokes fun at Tsai’s trademark mise-en-scene (water-logged streets and apartments) by replacing it with a draught, and the director gets some nice gags out of the premise: Hsiao-kang trying to wash his hands, Shiang-chyi trying to order a cup of coffee.

Such change, it seems to me, is the central concern of Skywalk. In the film’s opening image, Shiang-chyi stares up at the spot where the overpass once hung; Tsai floods the soundtrack with the drone of jumbotron advertising and passing crowds. The tilt of her head says it all. “Progress” is a mixed bag, improving our lives at times but also destroying old bonds and reshaping our memories in the process. Those of us who have seen What Time Is It There? know this location, but it’s suddenly unrecognizable, and like Shiang-chyi, we are forced to recontextualize the scene. Doing so demands some work of the viewer, and Tsai allows us plenty of time to do it, leaving his camera fixed for several minutes at a time.

The Skywalk is Gone is like a little gift to all of us who have followed Tsai’s career, and I’m thrilled that Wellspring included it on the DVD release of Goodbye, Dragon Inn. (Unfortunately, Wellspring has unloaded on us a couple more horrible transfers.) I especially enjoyed the escalator scene, which alludes directly to The River, and, by doing so, sets up our expectations for an encounter that isn’t resolved until later in the film. Great stuff. More on Goodbye, Dragon Inn in the coming days.