In 1989, following the success of a prime-time Chinese Television System soap called Endless Love, which he worked on as a writer, Tsai Ming-liang directed All the Corners of the World, a miniseries episode about a dysfunctional family in contemporary Taipei. The project offered about as much freedom as a young director could hope for within a mainstream television system — which is to say, more in terms of subject than in style. First introduced helping his mother scalp tickets at a local movie theater, a schoolboy named Ah-tong, the film’s central character, is pegged immediately as a casual delinquent, soon observed sneaking into a movie with a group of friends and playing a prank on a teenaged couple. Indeed, the film as a whole serves as a catalogue of youthful delinquency, its casual incorporation of theft, vandalism, violence, and even prostitution not just offering a stark look at urban cosmopolitan life (centered around the city’s red-light district), but also presenting a jaundiced view of traditional family structures. In particular, the storyline involving Ah-tong’s older sister Michelle, which ends with her being taken off by police for manslaughter, with not even her family believing that she acted in self-defense, is as bleak an endpoint as any in Tsai’s oeuvre.
Despite a few admirable scenes of eerie calm and nocturnal repose, to call All the Corners of the World a seedy, sordid family melodrama would not be inaccurate; it’s difficult to detect a distinct sensibility in either the performances or the overall découpage.
At this point in his career, the 32-year-old Tsai doesn’t yet show much interest in defusing the sensationalism of his scripted story. Despite a few admirable scenes of eerie calm and nocturnal repose, to call All the Corners of the World a seedy, sordid family melodrama would not be inaccurate; it’s difficult to detect a distinct sensibility in either the performances or the overall découpage. Tsai’s background in experimental theater notwithstanding, it would be a few more years before his now-trademark style — particularly his near-abstract plays with composition and framing — would make its mark. Still, the film remains a fertile repository for Tsai’s imagination: a roller-rink scene set to Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” finds an echo in Rebels of the Neon God; the sight of a corpse floating in the water recurs even more threateningly in The River; and its overall sense of familial anguish and alienation serves as a constant undertow in many of the films that followed. At the time of the movie’s release, film critic Tony Rayns called it the best TV program of the year — a superlative that now seems both less supportable and more prescient. Appropriately enough given its title, All the Corners of the World practically maps out the subjects and themes Tsai’s career would take up with vigor, quite literally opening on a construction site next to a movie theater. Though not a great film in itself, it laid the groundwork for greatness to come.