For a world-renowned auteur, it’s surprisingly difficult to find information about Tsai Ming-liang’s early television work. It’s not clear if this is due to general indifference or a lack of availability here in the U.S., but based on the 1991 film Give Me a Home, it can’t be for a lack of quality. According to Lee Daw-Ming’s Historical Dictionary of Taiwan Cinema, Give Me a Home was one of several ideas pitched by Tsai for an anthology television series called ‘The Sky of Ordinary People’. Tsai wound up directing four out of 13 episodes, each of them a stand-alone narrative. At this point in his career, Tsai hadn’t quite figured out his peculiar, highly idiosyncratic visual grammar yet. But Give Me a Home, which runs just 55 minutes, is a worthwhile experience of its own, and also contains some embryonic flashes of what would eventually become his mature style.
At this point in his career, Tsai hadn’t quite figured out his peculiar, highly idiosyncratic visual grammar yet.
The film follows the Chen family, migrant workers who have come to Taipei as part of a construction crew. Father Lang is a worker, while mother Jia Zhao takes care of their three children and cooks for the crew. The entire family lives underground, beneath the construction site, in what looks to be a partially finished basement. The two spaces — above ground and below ground — are connected only by a hatch, which Tsai uses throughout the film to demarcate between light and darkness. Above ground is all business, almost a documentary of the men at work, with Jia seen shopping for food, counting pennies, and haggling with vendors. Below, all is shrouded in darkness, the family and workers eating, sleeping, and congregating in perpetual night. While the above ground scenes are fairly conventional, with traditional continuity editing, some handheld camera work, and standard insert shots, Tsai seems invigorated by the underground sequences. Here we see glimpses of the more familiar Tsai style, with long takes of food preparation, static master shots with multiple figures in the frame, and expressionistic lighting. Give Me a Home is deeply empathetic: Tsai details the family’s daily tribulations and increasingly fraught attempts to get paid for their labor. Jia is desperate to get a home, but the family cannot afford to buy or rent in the city. They eventually find a place that they can afford, but only because it was built without a permit. Despite knowing that it could be torn down at any moment, they decide to take the risk and make the purchase. The film ends on a deeply ambivalent note; despite getting their dream home, Jia has nightmares about it being demolished. For the underpaid, undervalued workers of the world, not much has changed in the last 30 years. Their comfort and safety will always be tenuous.