The Night is another minutiae-oriented short from Tsai, meaning found in the details of its mini symphony of Hong Kong.
Following up, as it must, his excellent mini-feature Days is Tsai Ming-liang’s short film The Night. Eschewing actors, characters, and dialogue, the film is a portrait of a few streets around Causeway Bay in Hong Kong. The approach is familiar for those who know Tsai’s work, both narrative and non-narrative: very long static shots of quotidian images, scenes which accrue meaning along with their duration. In other words, the longer you stare, the more you see.
What we initially see here is a close-up of a wall, one of those city surfaces that has been plastered and re-plastered with posters and flyers, but with all the old images torn away, leaving nothing but bits of paper and glue and dirt — lichen on a shipwreck. In this first image remains a bit of some kind of a slogan, torn in half: “Look at situations fro-/and you will become m-“. A tantalizing nothing, like a fragment of Sappho. Google says this is likely from a saying attributed to the Dalai Lama, “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” Twitter says Mercedes-Benz used this quote in an ad in 2018, which lead to their apologizing for offending the People’s Republic of China. Tsai filmed this fragment in November of 2019, after five months of protests in Hong Kong, which had also offended the People’s Republic of China.
The next shot is of people waiting at a bus stop. A bus never comes, but many taxis drive by. A pair of women try hailing one, and when one eventually does stop, it immediately drives away after hearing where they want to go. There appear to be words written all along the length of the bus shelter walls, but they have been blacked out and erased. Someone doesn’t want us to know where they were going either.
The next shot is a straight-ahead composition, a restaurant seen from across the street. It’s almost entirely made up of rectangles. The street, the sidewalk, the building, itself subdivided into many more rectangles — floors, doorways, windows. A rectangular sign hangs crookedly by the door, a failure to form the right angle it seems. This is followed by another shot of a different bus stop. Many more people are waiting, lined up neatly in a rectangular row, but no help arrives.
The final half of the film involves a pedestrian walkway. We see it from the outside, a long rectangular snake, lit up in white-grey against the blue and yellow and red lights of the Hong Kong night. From this angle we can just see the red sign of the Outback Steakhouse peaking out on the corner of a building. Tsai cuts to a new angle, and we can see the steakhouse better, an American chain selling a fantasy of Australian fast casual dining to the people of Hong Kong. The walkway bypasses it, for its own safety and ours, instead growing a third leg and spanning another street.
Finally, Tsai brings us into the walkway, where we find another wall like the one we started with. It’s around this point that the hum we’ve been hearing all through the movie, not the hum of traffic and conversation and the electricity of a city at night, but a literal hum, a person humming along to themselves a tune we can’t quite make out (we assume it’s Tsai himself, credited as the film’s sole cinematographer), drops away and after a few minutes a song begins. It’s an old song, and we hear the crackle of age in its static, preserved with digital clarity. A woman sings about a good night, and how it can’t last. Shazam says the song is “良夜不能留,” which Google Translate says means “Good Night Can’t Stay.” Shazam also points to Apple Music, where it appears as the last track on the compilation “Shanghai Lounge Divas: Original 1930s Sessions Remixed for Today”. We’re here told the singer is someone named “Penny,” but I don’t know anything about her and the name is vague enough that any attempt at Googling comes up empty. But still, it’s a beautiful song. It has lasted. Hong Kong probably will too.
You can currently stream Tsai Ming-liang’s The Night on Mubi.