Review: The Skywalk Is Gone (2002)

By Christopher Misch

Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Skywalk is Gone (here on referred to as Skywalk) is more than just a minimalist short feature bridging the gap between What Time is it There? and The Wayward Cloud; the first and the third films of Tsai’s urban alienation trilogy starring Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi. In fact, despite its length of a mere twenty-two minutes, Skywalk presents its own effective meditation on the consequences of a constantly expanding urban landscape and as seen through the eyes of two individuals both lost in a frequently shifting Taipei.

The title of Skywalk refers to the actual demolition of the Taipei Train Station Skywalk, which was torn down shortly after the filming of What Time is it There?, in an attempt by government officials to increase the number of lanes along a much travelled stretch of roadway (Hu, 2003). But, Tsai’s motif of the absent skywalk does not only represent the singular destruction of an urban entity, but rather it also symbolizes the unfortunate consequences of a constantly developing urban landscape. In What Time is it There?, the Taipei Train Station Skywalk was strongly linked to Hsiao-kang’s (Lee Kang-sheng) livelihood, as it was there where he was a young watch vendor just able to get by with the earning from what he sold. This was also the site where he first met Shiang-chyi, a beautiful woman on her way to Paris, and this is where his obsession with changing every clock he sees to Paris time began (Misch, 2007). But, now that the overpass has been torn down in an act of urban renewal, Hsiao-kang, much like many others in a constantly shifting urban environment is left without a job and in turn without a source of income. As Skywalk comes to a close, we discover that in his desperation, Hsiao-kang has turned to the underground world of Taipei pornography in an attempt to supplement the income he’d lost. And therefore, the innocent young man who used to sell watches on an overpass in Taipei has been resorted to selling himself as a result of the absent skywalk.

Though, it is not explicitly stated, Skywalk begins with Shiang-chyi’s return from Paris and from this initial scene Tsai presents the Taipei urban landscape as an impersonal consumerist enterprise. Before an image even appears on screen, the diegetic sounds of commercial advertising can be heard in the background. The film opens with a medium shot of Shiang-chyi; her eyes glued to an enormous video jumbotron built into a side of a skyscraper eliciting advertisements for local stores and cosmetic beauty products (Hu, 2003). Throughout the duration shot, she remains motionless as the faceless inhabitants of Taipei brush past her. The subsequent shots further add to Shiang-chyi’s feelings of disconnect as she is framed in a series of reflections and disjointed compositions. In her brief absence, the always-changing Taipei now feels like a distant land and no longer like the home she once remembers. It soon becomes apparent that she is searching for something or someone, and having seen What Time is it There?, it’s not hard to serminze that it is the skywalk and more specifically Hsiao-kang that she is in search of. And therefore much like a romantic Hollywood narrative, Skywalk unfolds as two characters in search of one another in their attempt to transcend their feelings of loneliness that often accompany the suffocating urban landscape. Are they soul mates? Will fate intervene and reunite our two characters? No they are not, and no it won’t because as the title of the film indicates, the skywalk is in fact gone and there will be no happy ending to this love story. There is even a moment in the film where their reunion feels almost certain, as heading in opposite directions along a dimly lit downtown stairway, Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang pass each other. There is even a moment of recognition in the body movement of Hsiao-king, as framed in a long static wide shot, he turns to her, but caught up in her own despair, Shiang-chyi continues down the steps as well as any hope of their reunion down with her. It is true that Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang do eventually find each other again as Tsai’s trilogy continues with The Wayward Cloud, but circumstances have changed and their reunion does not feel as significant as it otherwise may have been.

To those unfamiliar with Tsai’s filmography, the scene in which Shiang-chyi orders a cup of coffee in a downtown urban café may seem insignificant and even meaningless. However, for those who are indeed familiar with Tsai and his constant motif of water shortage, this is a scene embedded with nothing but sadness and despair. The sequence opens with a shot of an empty coffee table overlooking the bustling stretch of roadway where the absent Taipei Skywalk once stood. Entering from the left, Shiang-chyi takes her seat and when the waitress tends to her, she orders a simple cup of coffee, only to have the waitress inform her that as a result of water rationing, coffee is not available. Having a look at the menu, the waitress further points out that almost entire left side of menu is also not available. Now, whether it is the metaphor of the dirty water in The River (Schartz, 2003), the torrential downpours in Rebels of a Neon God, or the implausible water shortage in The Wayward Cloud, the symbolism of the scarcity of water has almost always remained an important component to Tsai’s films. In an interview commenting on the water symbolism, Tsai stated, “I always regard the characters in my films as plants which are short of water, which are almost dying from lack of water. Actually, water for me is love, that is what they lack” (Strictly Film School, 2005). Further reiterating Shiang-chyi’s ‘lack of love’ and despair, the scene concludes with a shot lasting a full twenty-six seconds in duration of her starring out blankly from the restaurant window upon the site of the missing skywalk.

In conclusion, Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Skywalk is Gone is more than just a short film connecting the dots between What Time is it There? and The Wayward Cloud. In fact, despite its short duration, it presents its own effective meditation on the consequences of a constantly expanding urban landscape, as seen through Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi; two individuals attempting to connect in a suffocating Taipei. Yet, despite the film’s bleak perspective, its ending signals a strange sense of optimism. This final sequence offers a moment of contemplation and reflection, as to the music of a soft Taiwanese folk song, the images of passing clouds are framed before us. As Brian Hu points out, in a constantly expanding urban landscape it is ‘the clouds and the radiant blue sky’ that remain untouched from urban skyscrapers and other forms of urban development (Hu, 2003). That in an era of constant demolition and construction, there are still places free from human interference, even if most of them are miles above us. In this sense, Tsai gives us hope. Maybe a false hope, but hope nonetheless. And a hope that is soon dashed away as Tsai’s urban alienation trilogy concludes with The Wayward Cloud.

Works Cited List

Hu, Brian. “Goodbye City, Goodbye Cinema: Nostalgia in Tsai Ming-liang’s The Skywalk is Gone”. Senses of Cinema. October 2003.

Misch, Christopher. “What Time Is It There?”. Next Projection: Vol. 1. Issue 2. 2008.

Schwartz, Dennis. The River. Ozus’ World Movie Reviews. March 2003.

Strictly Film Schoool. “The Wayward Cloud”. 2005.

85/100 - Despite its short duration, The Skywalk is Gone presents its own effective meditation on the consequences of a constantly expanding urban landscape.

Chief Executive Officer, Director of Theatrical Releases & Founder : I've always loved movies, but it wasn't until under the tutelage of Professor Garry Leonard at the University of Toronto that my passion for the industry became an understanding of an art form. With a specific fascination in both the western genre and Asian cinema in general, I am of the view that good movies are either enlightening or entertaining, and if you are truly lucky they are both.