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ESSAYS Mousse 73

An Incontinent and Percolating Substance Runs Through: Tsai Ming-liang

by Dora Budor

 

Tsai Ming-liang’s films depict the dead time that dominates so many lives under an economic order in which occasional and precarious labor, infrastructural failings, and wageless life are increasingly the norm. They are not about acting, making, or producing, but about enduring and sustaining—as Song Hwee Lim puts it, the “temporal aesthetics of drifting.”1 Slowness and cessation are the conditions under which Tsai incubates his protagonists, resulting in a deconstructed timeline and a trail of surplus images. Tsai is a director who compulsively returns to the same topics: pandemics and chronic illnesses, as in The Hole (1998), The River (1997), I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), and Days (2020); environmental violence and its consequences, as in The River and The Wayward Cloud (2005); and migrant laborers and the misfortunes of the houseless, as in Stray Dogs (2013) and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. All of the films are marked by the contemporary metropolis’ isolation and alienation, alongside with the strain it puts on one’s mental health. The collapse of order under global capitalism appears in a unique, unspectacular, localized, subjective way—a fitting example of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s minor cinema. Small yet insurgent, these films give a sense of monumentality to the precarious and the marginalized.

 

WAGELESS LIFE

It’s a worn truism by now that under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited. Since the beginnings of the wage-labor economy, wageless life is for those dispossessed of land, tools, and means of subsistence.2 Often, perhaps as a result of English not being my mother tongue, when I want to say “wageless,” I mispronounce it as “weightless.” These two terms embody a complex dialectic—on one hand the ethereal laxity to drift, a far separation from schedules or punch cards, and on the other an infinite encumbrance enabling this sensation. Weight- lessness, which occurs as a sensed or felt experience, is rendered by the absence of “contact forces” acting directly upon the body. This sensation runs through my mind when I think about the ways Tsai’s films act toward their protagonists and audiences alike, forcing these contact-absences onto their bodies while keeping them encumbered by the world.

Malaysian-born and Taiwanese by residence, Tsai has been making films touching on the wageless life since 1989. His minimal storylines orbit around his acteur fétiche, Lee Kang-sheng, whom he picked up fortuitously one day at a gaming arcade. We have witnessed Lee’s gradual aging and bodily ailments from the gentle time of Rebels of the Neon God (1992) through every one of Tsai’s pictures, ending with his latest movie, Days, which premiered at the 58th New York Film Festival (2020).

Acting as both the director’s surrogate and the center of his cinema-verse, Lee resurfaces in various films under the name Hsiao-kang—meaning “little wealth” or “well-being.”3 The nickname also serves as a cryptogram to his character, an irony of underlying and untenable aspiration. In Taiwan, this expression is used similarly to how Americans speak of becoming “middle class.” Contrary to his wishful name, Lee never achieves this, but perpetually reincarnates the bodies of surplus populations: outsider delinquent youth, migrant workers, the unemployed, undocumented immigrants, alcoholics, the homeless, and more. When he has a job, it is generally inconsistent, repetitive, temporary, low paid, and exhausting for his body and health. In Stray Dogs he appears in the heavy rain as a human signpost for luxury condos; in What Time Is It There? (2001) he is an itinerant black-market watch vendor; in The Wayward Cloud he fucks to exhaustion in different hardcore porn productions; in Vive L’Amour (1994) he is a suicidal squatter (who later reveals his temp job as an occasional salesman of cremation urns); and in The River he is a stand-in for a dead body floating in a polluted river, which will give him a severe ailment for the rest of the film.

Consider a succession of scenes in Stray Dogs where we watch Lee, a man without a house, holding a heavy signpost advertising luxury housing. Under the curb of the motorway, pummeled by adverse weather, he stands still, centered in the static wide shot. Between him and the camera, cars and mopeds dash right in front of our feet, synched with the city’s 24/7 rhythm. Everything propagates, circulates—the gushing wind and the heavy rain, speeding vehicles—rendering Lee paralyzed, as if in a different layer of reality. He holds the swaying sign, wrapped in a flimsy plastic raincoat. As the camera returns to the scene multiple times, the indifference of the accelerated environment becomes clearer. At some point, he throws the sign down and goes to the nearby overgrown field. He pisses—we watch. He smokes a cigarette—we keep on watching. Yet when he comes back to his post, the camera is now so close that we could almost touch his cheek. Tumid, baggy eyes dominate his swollen face, and the eyes bloom with redness. He starts to recite, and then sing, tunelessly, “Man Jiang Hong” (The River Runs Red), a famous lament by the Song dynasty general Yue Fei. As he repeats, the lyrics resonate: “When will the grief of the Empire’s subjects end?” Moisture forms in one eye, and snot drips from his nose— it could be the wind, but some sort of extreme (meta) physical pressure keeps building up in this body that resists and endures, more than it acts or produces. Indebted and replete with historical trauma, gestures of extreme endurance push interiority to the surface. Per Giorgio Agamben, this is precisely “means as such”—images fragmented into gestures, which place cinema in the realm of ethics and politics, and not simply that of aesthetics.4

Wageless life, as a lived experience of the redundant, the precarious, the expelled, or what writers have called “surplus populations,”5 exists in a free-fall through the cracks of contemporary neoliberal society and the free market. Michael Denning’s namesake text proposes a radical reversal, historically and conceptually: where unemployment precedes employment, and the informal economy precedes the formal.6 Under these conditions, the term “proletarian” also requires reconsideration, as in this line of thinking it is not a synonym for “waged laborer” but for dispossession, expropriation, and radical dependence on the market. To be proletarian, one doesn’t need a job: therefore, wageless life, not wage labor per se, becomes the starting point for understanding the free market.

Surprisingly, Tsai’s films aren’t too often considered by critics and scholars in terms of class representation of the precarious and the dispossessed. But I find this idea a structural key to comprehending a congruency of aesthetic, oneiric, and haptic qualities that dominates his expression, in which the unfolding of wageless life through endurance and exhaustion is his main telos. It also serves as a rationale for slowness and the presence of “dead time.” Here, rare moments of contact forces are inserted only to magnify alienation—they appear as “a fleeting stolen moment, a hallucinated figment, a soul-scalding collision.”7

 

ON DECELERATION

Tsai is regularly positioned as one of the main proxies of slow cinema, and many writings on his work delve into lists of influences from the Western modernist canon: Michelangelo Antonioni, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Robert Bresson, François Truffaut. Yet whenever he incorporates nods to Eurocentric cinephilia, it is always through a self-reflexive and distanced lens. Consistently, these imported images appear as ghostly intrusions, or meta-references: Nouvelle Vague’s legendary Jean-Pierre Léaud deus-ex-machina advent in the last scenes of the film What Time Is It There? as a sleazy, awkward, and slightly disheveled man hitting on a girl in a park, passing her a note to call him; a lone embracing couple at the end of Stray Dogs resembling the last scenes of L’avventura (1960); and multiplicity of screens and projections that illuminate his characters in the dark, whether alone or in a crowd, such as Truffault’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) playing in What Time Is it There? and the films projected in the cinema in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003). Through a post-colonial framework, I think it is necessary to disentangle Tsai’s own slow cinema from the Western legacy of slow cinema, and envision something more authentic for its formation, namely the years he passed traversing the streets, wasting time with and watching people and their ways of life in Kuala Lumpur and Taipei. These moments, which the director often recollects in interviews, function as “at once scavenged materials from the chance situations of the everyday and assembled as parts of a mesmerizing, artificial medium.”8 They serve as provenance of the actual lived and observed experience of the marginalized, not an imported international style. Consequentially, the local, unspectacular relations they depict imbue the precarious with a sense of significance. They contest the capital interests in their form and expression, speaking at the level of micro-politics.

On the other hand, the haunting of film traditions from elsewhere stimulates the sense of temporal divergence and dissonance. The structure of the filmic flesh of Tsai’s stories often coils around and between, recognizing that there is not one space, as per Doreen Massey, but multiple.9 This recurs in all of his films: stretched-out time spent with characters on different sides of the city, and sometimes different sides of the world, leading their lives, threads coming together at times, and at other times untangling on their own. Time wasted, spent with, heterogeneity and many stories flowing alongside one another characterizes the way the films are (un)structured. Conversely, capital’s production of space forms a universal surface and a universal time. It insists that everyone and everything exists within an omnipresent “now,” in which the trajectories of other cultures are denied their space-times, their calendars, their stories-so-far. What Time Is It There? serves as a manifesto of the absurdity of that nonreciprocal pressure. “There is a moment,” Tsai says about the film, “when we need cruel reminders of the realities that disturb any premature fantasies of oneness.”10 In Tsai’s films there is no now; uncanny manifestations of the past brim within the present, the haunting of other stories seeps through the screen. Time lags and time extensions flow over and into each other so as to completely abolish the idea of universality. Rey Chow describes this open temporality as “ruins in the aftermath of a missing past, [where] images are at the same time runes to be deciphered and speculated on for an as-yet-unknown future.”11 The coalescing contradictions of conditions of production, surplus populations, and dead time enforce this un-structuring.

In Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (2009), Nicole Shukin analyzes a material genealogy of animal traces that link what she calls “three early time-motion economies: animal disassembly, automotive assembly and moving picture production.”12 In their linear progression and direction, the industrialization of both slaughter and commercial cinema follow uncannily parallel lines.13 The mechanical movements designed to disassemble living beings into meat provisions, leather materials, and other by-products (one of which is the gelatin used to fix and distribute film itself) could be read as the genesis of cutting and splicing, the origins of montage. Montage is designed to condense space, time, and information, which necessitates getting rid of the surplus by cutting the fat out. Images that work against the speed of the military-industrial cinema, against the movement-image— by slowness, cessation, stoppage—are rooted in staying with the excess.

Tsai has repeatedly stressed the importance of deceleration, once stating in an interview that “slowness is the best way to express my revolt.”14 He speaks about the literal form of temporal realism that he employs, in which real time collapses and pressures into reel time: “So, for instance, in some films, to show that the hero has been waiting for quite a time you’ll be shown five cigarette stubs in the ashtray. Normally, for a scene like that I will film the character for as long as it takes him to smoke five cigarettes. That’s real-time, but it’s very difficult to handle because the audience will get bored.”15

When time slows down, it also accumulates, and it possesses, detains, and paralyzes: this is time as a form of capture. Tsai likes to hold his audience hostage in order to sensitize them to the most minute twitches and trembles (my favorite way of watching his films during the lockdown has been past midnight, immobilized in bed, when exhaustion and disorientation produce a specific mid-state of hypersensitivity and groggy daze). The world he depicts is one in which mobility leaves us not liberated but precarious, vulnerable to the kind of boredom that sets in when trying to scrape together work off the clock. A world in which unemployment is the “satellite of inertia, a mass that is loaded not even with negative electricity but rather with static electricity [. . .] bearing witness to the increasing inertia in all spheres behind the acceleration of circular flows and exchange.”16 This increasing inertia resonates with this year of enforced pause and quarantine.

 

THE ECOLOGY OF ILLNESS

In one of the first scenes of The River, protagonist Hsiao Kang floats on the surface of the polluted Tamsui river as a stand-in corpse for an outdoor filming sequence, after being referred for the role by a female friend. After the shoot, he showers in a hotel room, but as he finishes, the dirt from the river seems to be sticking to the body. His friend brings him something to eat; then they have sex. The next day he is stricken with an agonizing pain in his neck and shoulders. His father fights an intense rain leak in his room, as the room collapses into itself under pressure. The rest of the film depicts his alienated parents taking him to doctors and temples to seek treatment, a kind of oracle to cure his pain, but the cause or diagnosis of his malaise is neither explained nor rationalized.

Clearly there is a distrust in scientific reason, Western and Eastern medicine, and official and government policies that claim to protect. In real life, Tamsui, the river in the film, has witnessed Taiwan’s development and economic miracle, which also brought about devastating environmental degradation. The shores used to be central to the Chinese immigrant settlements, brimming with human activity and food stalls, but the last four decades have rendered them an open sewer.17 Starting in the 1980s, this sentiment has widely seeped into Taiwanese popular music lyrics, edging out references to nature and romanticism, and shaping the arena of so-called “toxic consciousness” in which Tsai’s films also operate.18

There is a visible absence of luxury apartment neighborhoods, upscale restaurants, or high-end stores in the films. The protagonists drift through semi-demolished buildings, infested and dreary cinemas, and decrepit homes plagued with overflowing leaks, substandard plumbing, moldy bathrooms, and garbage bags flying off the balconies. An incontinent and percolating substance runs through every film, symbolizing the impossibility of containing environmental violence and its seeping toxic effects. Even between the derelict environments and the characters, the boundaries are porous: “When I document a city, it is similar to filming a human being,” Tsai says. “This idea is close to Buddhist thinking where the human body (as well as the environment) is perceived as transitory [. . .] and this holds for buildings and apartments alike.”19

The Hole, shot entirely in a semi-vacant property, which in real life houses low-income people, is maybe the prime exemplar of this idea. Situated in a rain-deluged fin-de-siècle Taipei, a man and a woman are trapped in the midst of an epidemic caused by an unexplained “Taiwan virus,” due to which the whole island is being sealed off. Between their apartment floors, a gaping hole has been left open by an unfinished repair. Hydraulics of the staging are extra sensual, as water circulates but also resounds from everywhere; it leaks from the ceiling into the apartment, rushes out of the taps, steams from instant noodles, gurgles in mouths and bodies, rambles in the pipes, and expels down the toilet. All very loudly.

The virus seems to affect not only people’s physical health, but also their mental state, causing them to deteriorate into crawling creatures. The ones who get infected slowly lose their sense of self, burrowing themselves into piles of stuff. They cease to respond to external inputs and increasingly cannot communicate. The woman’s story resembles the experience of Clarice Lispector’s novels, but interrupted with daydreams of Grace Chang lip-synched musical numbers. Apparently we are in a science fiction story, but it looks the same as now. The man and the woman progress through animosity into a strange symbiosis, in the end developing compassion, even love of some strange, new kind.

In some of the scenes—evoking the recent pandemic—masked government workers come out to the contaminated areas to spread a disinfectant that seems more endangering than the disease itself. The media issues conflicting information, as when the host of a local television show repeatedly reminds her viewers to boil water for more than ten minutes in order to kill all the germs, followed by an announcement that the virus cannot be destroyed even after several hours of boiling. In interviews conducted around the time of the film’s release, the director linked the rise of new diseases such as AIDS and bird flu to capitalist growth. His remarks foreshadowed the slew of scientific and political voices today arguing that transnational commerce, zoonotic transfer, travel, and development have exposed humans to new pathogens that spread at rapid rates, which we have experienced yet again this year with COVID-19.

In Taiwan, where Tsai has been living since the 1980s, dissatisfaction has been growing regarding the serious pollution of the island’s air, water, and land resulting from three decades of unregulated economic growth and development. The pollution has expanded to food and pharmaceuticals. Tofu tainted with banned and cancer-causing dye, 645 tons of oil from grease traps, waste from tanneries and diseased animal carcasses (alarmingly referred to as “corpse oil” and “gutter oil”), toxic starch in bubble-tea pearls, hundreds of beverage and health supplement products tainted with the industrial plasticizer DEHP, banned coloring agent, or copper chlorophyllin—the more than 160 food scandals that have shaken the country in recent years is alarming. Taiwan is listed in tenth place on The Economist’s latest index of “crony capitalism,” a perversely deformed system of political and economic exchange driven by rent seekers.20 The country, one of four “EastAsianTigers,” enjoys what is primarily a first-world standard of living, but the failures of governance, politicians’ covering for lax safety standards by construction companies, lacking infrastructural maintenance, and evasion of safety and health production protocols are a continuous problem, and these all more or less insidiously find their way into Tsai’s films.

From a wider perspective, there is the overwhelming feeling that the spheres of “three ecologies”—social relations, human subjectivity, and environmental conditions—are becoming corroded and entangled in a transversal way.21 The compromised relationship between subjectivity and its exteriority (whether social, animal, or cosmic) is palpable in the lack of solidarity and communality, and one of its most visible manifestations is the depletion of language. To the silence and alienation that charges most of Tsai’s films (the last one, Days, has only a few lines of dialogue, which are intentionally not translated into English), the following words speak well: “It is not only species that are becoming extinct but also the words, phrases and gestures of human solidarity.”22 The fragmentation of communication, replaced by gestural tics, leads to the regression and slow decomposition of language. Without ecosophical thinking and doing, we might be nearing something we might not even have words to describe.

[1]  Song Hwee Lim, Tsai Ming-liang and a Cinema of Slowness (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014), 111. 
[2]  Michael Denning, “Wageless Life,” New Left Review, no. 66 (November– December 2010):  https://newleftreview.org/issues/II66/articles/michael-denning-wageless-life.
[3]  Moira Weigel, “Slow Wars,” n+1, no. 25 (Spring 2016): https://nplusonemag.com/issue-25/essays/slow-wars/ 
[4]  “What characterizes gesture is that in it nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported. The gesture, in other words, opens the sphere of ethos as the more proper sphere of that which is human. But in what way is an action endured and supported?” Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture,” in Means without End: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 57.
[5]  Karl Marx, Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), 1:762–872.
[6]  Denning, “Wageless Life.”
[7]  Dennis Lim, “Tsai Ming-liang Opens the Floodgates,” Village Voice, June 25, 2001, http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0126/lim.php.
[8]  Rey Chow, “A Pain in the Neck, a Scene of ‘Incest,’ and Other Enigmas of an Allegorical Cinema: Tsai Ming-liang’s The River,” New Centennial Review 4, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 127.
[9]  Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2005), 9.
[10]  Jonathan Rosenbaum, “We Are All the Same in the Dark,” The Guardian, June 15, 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2002/jun/15/books. featuresreviews.
[11]  Chow, “A Pain in the Neck, a Scene of ‘Incest,’ and Other Enigmas of an Allegorical Cinema,” 137.
[12]  Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 90.
[13]  In describing tours of slaughterhouses, Noëlie Vialles remarks that “seeing round an abattoir in the opposite direction would be like watching a film backwards.” Noëlie Vialles, Animal to Edible, (Cam- bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 53.
[14]  David End, “Slowness as an Act of Rebellion: On Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker,” Entropy, May 22, 2014,  https://entropymag.org/slowness-as-an-act-of-rebellion-on-tsai-ming-liangs-walker/
[15]  Danièle Rivière, “Scouting: An Interview with Tsai Ming-liang,” in Tsai Ming-liang (Paris: Dis Voir, 1999), 79.
[16]  Jean Baudrillard, “The Anorexic Ruins,” in Looking Back on the End of the World (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1989), 29–48.
[17]  The study from 1999 reported that about two-thirds of Taiwan’s rivers were moderately or seriously polluted by domestic (primarily human waste), industrial and agricultural waste. Nancy Guy: “Flowing Down Taiwan’s Tamsui River: Towards an Ecomusicology of the Environmental Imagination,” Ethnomusicology 53, no. 2 (Spring–Summer 2009): 218–48.
[18]  ‘Toxic consciousness’ is defined as expressed anxiety arising from perceived threat of environmental hazard due to chemical modification.” Lawrence Buell, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and the Environment in the US and Beyond (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001), 30.
[19]  Yvette Biro, “Perhaps the Flood: The Fiery Torrent of Tsai Ming- liang’s Films,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol. 26, no. 3 (September 2004), 7.
[20]  “Taiwan 10th in Crony Capitalism Ranking,” Financial Tribune, May 8, 2016, https://financialtribune.com/articles/world-economy/41058/ taiwan-10th-in-crony-capitalism-ranking.
[21]  The reference is to Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies (New York: Continuum, 2000).
[22]  Guattari, The Three Ecologies, 44.

Tsai Ming-liang (b. 1957, Kuching) is one of the most prominent film directors of the new cinema movement in Taiwan, where he moved to study theater at the age of twenty. The city was gradually opening up after a long period of martial law, which ended in 1987, and in this new political climate Tsai established himself with films dealing with queer themes, personal space, social taboos, and unspoken desires. In 1994, his film Vive L’amour was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, establishing his place in the world of international film. In 2009, Face became the first film ever acquired by the Louvre, Paris. His works have been well received in Venice, Shanghai, and Nagoya. Since 2012 he has been working on a long project to film Lee Kang-sheng’s slow walk, cooperating with various cities and organizations. His latest movie, Days (2020), premiered at the 58th New York Film Festival. His films, along with a selection of shorts, will be featured in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2021.

 

Dora Budor is a Croatian artist and writer based in New York. She has had recent solo exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel (2019); 80WSE, New York (2018); and the Swiss Institute, New York (2015). Her work has been included in group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; David Roberts Art Foundation, London; Swiss Institute, New York; Kunst- haus Biel; La Panacée, Montpellier; Fridericianum, Kassel; Halle für Kunst und Medien, Graz; and K11 Art Foundation, Hong Kong; as well as the 9th Berlin Bien- nale, 2016; the Vienna Biennale, 2017; Art Encounters Timișoara, 2017; the 13th Baltic Triennial, 2018; the 16th Istanbul Biennial, 2019; the 2nd Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art, 2020; and the Geneva Biennale, 2020. She was a recipient of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant in 2014, a Pollock Krasner Foundation grant in 2018, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019. In 2022 Kunsthaus Bregenz, will present her largest solo exhibition to date.

 

Originally published in Mousse 73

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