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Perhaps the Flood ...

Yvette Biro

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Perhaps the flood will destroy all,
Perhaps its absence



  It is widely known that the surge in and spectacular success of Asian film in the past decade is the most notable event in world cinema. Following in the wake of the classic Japanese masterpieces are independent auteur films from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Iran that reveal a new fin de siècle sensibility and its cultural shift with disarming originality.  




1. Danièle Rivière (ed.), Tsai Ming-liang (Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 1999), p.79.

  Over the past ten years, Taiwanese Tsai Ming-liang has made six exceptional, critically acclaimed films whose internal consistency, creating organically linked variations on a central theme, unmistakably reveal the director's fundamental experience and signature style. Similar to that of his Hong Kong contemporary, Wong Kar-wai, Tsai's work is marked by the fate of the emigrant. Tsai moved to Taipei from a small village in Malaysia at the age of twenty to discover an emerging generation mesmerised by Western values in the rush of a modern capital, in a rapidly developing society rife with contradictions. The clash between age-old Eastern traditions and that brash new civilisation has rarely been presented with such disturbing clarity. Without judgments and bombastic statements, Tsai reports from the scene with shocking and bold sensuality. ‘For me, tradition means all the little details of everyday life.’ (1)  



In Tsai's most recent cinema feature, Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) - he has since made a telemovie for children and a video short, Moonlight Over the Water (2004) - the story, as usual, is deliberately simple. It takes place in an abandoned movie theatre that is condemned to be shut down. Only half a dozen or so lonely souls are watching a famous old Hong Kong martial arts movie, King Hu's Dragon Inn (1967). Or, rather, they are just marking time, or looking for love. 'This theatre is haunted,' someone says, and it is - by these people and their desire to connect. They are solitary, mostly gay men, sitting in the dark, empty theatre, reviving their long-ago memories.

The sense of longing for past traditions, of silent, hesitant attempts at any kind of relationship, and of hopelessness fill the scenes. 'I am very moved by all this,' the director has stated. And the compression, the intensity of the emotions is rendered in the most minimalist way. It is nighttime in Taipei. We feel the infinite pouring of hard rain, the empty streets, and inside the movie theatre the same ambience: lives deprived of pleasure and connection, clinging to phantoms, unfathomable objects of desire.

Interestingly, Tsai’s best-known work, The Hole (1998), is given this English title even in the original Taiwanese. It seems that the concept is difficult to pin down and render in any another language. The French word trou, the German Loch or the Italian buco are all more limited in their connotations than the English hole. Perhaps because we simultaneously hear its homonym whole and sense the solid weight of fullness and satiety confronting an embarrassing gap that would reveals with sudden and unexpected force.



  Indeed, for Tsai, the hole is not a rupture, the accidental unravelling of spontaneous relations or the decay of organic tissue. While in the film's intentionally threadbare narrative there is actually a gaping hole connecting the two lead characters' apartments, this is just a starting point, a physically defined location serving as a bizarre tool for observation, communication and also the free flow of water. In Tsai's films, the hole stands for the immense void surrounding his protagonists, the bleak fulcrum of the aimless rat race that defines the entire urban landscape; the ruthless order of modern life, and the endured condition of existence. Here the hole represents emptiness and absence, that peculiar and elusive liberty that renders everything volatile and fugitive, bereft of any substance. Tsai evokes nothingness, an all-embracing void that envelops his characters and pins them under some kind of constant physical (metaphysical) pressure. The hole is a nebulous sphere of existence, an ambiance in which his characters go about their lives sentenced to serve out their time.  


  The hole, like an epidemic that is given physical form in some of his films, continues to spread relentlessly, while initially its threat is barely perceived. Despite the infinite monotony of time, the hole keeps expanding like the universe, to remind us of its pervasive presence and suggest the diffusion of some invisible disease.  


  The film starts with a blank screen and the voice-over of a radio broadcast announcing the breakout of a new infection: the Taiwan virus. It warns the population against drinking tap water and, in addition to ordering the immediate quarantine of the contaminated citizens, recommends that people leave all danger zones. When the first image lights up the screen, all we see is pouring rain and two people left in their adjoining apartments in an apparently abandoned housing project, a man and a woman who try to stem the tide of an infernal, interminable inundation.  


  In a curious paradox, this symbolic hole is invariably represented in Tsai's films by cascading water, torrential and relentless rain, as well as the riot of running faucets and leaking pipes. Water bubbling, pelting, swirling in the background or in full view eventually inundates everything and there is nothing to block its course. There is only the gaping hole that makes painfully palpable the unfathomable, the curse visited upon us by unknown powers to unexplained ends. The water raining from above and surging up from sinks and floor drains is the pathogenic substance of the human condition spreading disease in its path. The hole (unexpectedly materialised vulnerability and nakedness) is a metaphor for today's and tomorrow's metropolis, an all-encompassing symbol of the future.  


  What does this constant clash between the forces of nature and civilisation, punishing storms and man-made dwellings, express? As events unfold, civilisation proves to be increasingly frail. The blows afflicting man appear to be mightier and more persistent than any human resistance. By all measures, physical or psychological, man's home is far too fragile in a world of hard facts.  


  Tsai insists - as Goodbye, Dragon Inn once again shows - on returning over and over to themes of rain and flooding waters to contemplate their import from different angles. In his first feature film, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), rain floods the young couple's bedroom by accident; they splash around in the kitchen and hallway with apparent indifference and nonchalance, watching the crazy dance of shoes and slippers. In Vive l'amour (1994), coursing water may cause less havoc; here gurgling showers in the bathrooms of brand new unrented (or unrentable) luxury apartments afford stolen pleasures to hapless squatters. But water continues to cascade and crash into toilets and bathtubs, through vapours rising from huge tea kettles, exuding a singular, shivering experience.  


  In The River (1997), the third piece of this loose trilogy, water gains yet another distinct and immediate meaning. This time a shallow and putrid river is the carrier of a mysterious disease that dispenses its poisonous effect throughout the two painful hours of the film, suddenly making the plague palpable. While initially the cursed water attacks only the main character's body, it later breaks into the kitchen and bedroom as well. Finally, in The Hole, water as the carrier of apocalyptic devastation is elevated to absurd metaphoric levels. It is gradually revealed how unstoppable the flood of water and the attendant epidemic have become. Whether one can or not, one must live with this deluge, more unyielding than the biblical flood which comes to dominate all other aspects of life, bringing forth a new, all-pervasive form of existence.  


  While in the earlier films the curse was presented only as a diabolic monstrosity, albeit often trivialised and allowing for the most practical counter-measures (a variety of buckets, nylon curtains or plastic sheeting lifted from construction sites to provide relief), here Tsai introduces new layers of sarcasm. The good old musical comedy songs are meant to suggest the starkest contrast, leaving (if it were ever possible) this dingy dive of our existence behind. It demolishes the surrounding wall (or rather ceiling!) of a terrifying void with charming swagger and strident visual phrasing, lays bare the world of imagination with its trite, extravagant and efficient tricks of day-dreaming; and with delirious energy presents a panoply of stage sets in endless variations. Surrounded by piles of toilet paper, in the shadow of caved-in walls, peeling and rotting wallpaper, in a setting of opening and closing elevator doors, various cables and befouled hallways, our frail and constantly soaked heroine at times bursts into song and, dressed in lacy, sequined gowns, sways her hips, kicks up her legs, flirts with men and women alike to have some fun (in her imagination?/dreams?/desires?). However, all this splendid performance remains in the realm of make-believe, for in reality she must hold a green plastic bowl over her head when peeing and dry her body drenched in the generous downpour with toilet paper.  


  Ordinary Vegetal Existence  


  Under the ceaseless assault of the implacable rainstorm, only the primeval animal or vegetal instincts may work for survival. And in the opinion of Tsai, the urge to stay alive is far from desperate; rather, it is casually continuous, content to satisfy the most elemental needs of existence: eat, drink, get drunk and have fun, vomit or masturbate; appease sexual desire in one way or another, half or all the way, on the run or at leisure, by the most common or unusual means. Getting horny on seedy porn clips, repressing or giving free rein to desire, are as much part of natural human behaviour as riding on a motorbike, getting sucked in by the fast-paced energy of video games, robbing coin boxes in phone booths or, in a fit of rage, demolishing someone's moped or taxi cab. All portrayed as part of everyday life – a quickie in bed or a devoured (as it appears to our eyes) bowl of rice or noodles – in the flow of daily routine, these acts have equal weight. Just as the pace of aimless existence is slow, that of the so-called dramatic moment is over in a sudden flash, be it copulation (strictly without consequences), a chance or even promising encounter. Urinating, brushing teeth, pouring tea, serving rice from a rice cooker, going up and down in an elevator, consume more time than any other interaction between people. Not to mention long walks, shuffling down endless corridors without destination, and speeding down empty highways. Humans are creatures on the move: they go to work, return home, and even when sitting in tired idleness, they continue to function: light a cigarette, gaze into the void or fall into heavy, dreamless sleep. ‘Keep moving, poor souls sentenced to life ...’ is the suggestion these images seem to be making.  


  Consequently, in this world the human voice is all but incidental. Indeed, instead of speaking in full sentences, characters in these films exchange no more than a few words. Absolutely necessary information is carried by fragments of speech and then only as a last resort. People pass each other unaffected, impassioned, at times locked in apartments, at others communicating only by phone, always maintaining a distance in a world of contingencies. In Goodbye, Dragon Inn there are almost no words uttered. Only timid, hesitant gestures, approaches and separations. Encounters cannot happen. When at times we recognise some forlorn sections of Taipei and the same coterie of amateur actors Tsai bravely insists on working with, we understand that the director strives for and cherishes the authenticity of documentary. Searching for the essence of human gesture and behaviour, he looks for genuine intimacy behind masks and especially social pretences. He explores the core underlying action and motivation of past appearances and social conventions. In this context private, unusual intimacy and sexual desire (or more precisely sexual practices devoid of emotions and love) gain particular relevance.  


  Could the recurrence of aquariums in his films be a mere accident? Locked in their illuminated glass prisons, fish of various types and sizes continue to swim by in silence and without apparent purpose. They are neither attractive nor repulsive; they avoid each other and stay their course. Their vegetative state is never disturbed by storms or entanglements, they change direction effortlessly with inexplicable ease: simply breathing and living like fish used to do in water. Apparently, they enjoy life and exist undisturbed in their universe. Whether the aquarium is large or small, it always occupies the same ignored spot in the apartment like the permanently turned-on yet never watched television set blinking in some corner. Two odd, complementary vessels framing motion, the indispensable yet neglected fixtures of every household. Having been placed there, they exist in a void with no essential function to perform. Instead, they are added objects of an eerie uniformity, tools of levelling. Their uniqueness is absorbed and underlined by the same emptiness, the void, and the ubiquitous hole that shapes the choreography of the main characters.  


  In this light, it is obvious why bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms look all the same in one film after another; similarly, the movements, comings and goings of residents are all but interchangeable. In the settings of these films there is nothing to indicate misery or poverty. In fact, everything is vast and sparse. Major arteries and overpasses throbbing with restless traffic turn into empty secondary roads, pink corridors in malls, neon-lit McDonald’s – and that is all. One senses the smooth traffic of teeming life inside, where all is almost of good quality, our characters surrounded by functional objects and spaces. The food, rice, containers, the products of mass culture are equally useful, ready to be consumed and discarded.  



The Faceless Metropolis



  The scene, Taipei, is a faceless, impersonal city, trivial and distant and all so ephemeral. This may be due to the recognition of how readily a well-functioning and almost affluent environment mixes with what is already decayed and doomed to destruction or just emerging from a welter of cement blocks and construction barracks sunken into the mud.  

2. Rivière, p. 103.
  ‘When I film a city it’s as if I were filming a character. Because I think that everything has its place, its own life. It’s an idea very close to Chinese Buddhism, which regards the human body as a place of "passage". (…) And for me, with a home, a building, it’s the same thing’. (2) And just like the observed human body, the city reveals its own life functions and tedious habits in images that are simultaneously matter-of-fact and sensual. It rises and falls; by its very nature, it is expansive and fugitive all at once. Its existence is marked by time.  


  This is how a recognised and familiar order, the automatic recurrence of objects and events, gains special importance. Undeniably, all detail is designed carefully with function in mind – restaurants, streets, makeshift markets, excellent cars and motorbikes, the colourful elevators, decorated apartment doors, the tight corners of stairways – however, they are all scenes of soulless solitude. Similarly, the well-appointed, dimly-lit cubicles of male saunas are so many shelters for shared solitude. Inside, silence reigns; even the tapping of feet cannot be heard. (Of course, according to tradition, shoes are removed before entering a house.) Outside, the crashing noise of the metropolis merges into a single chaotic din.  



Uninhabitable Time



  When space stands for the immeasurable, it is no longer perceived on a human scale, and in this context time suggests the same dimension. According to Maurice Blanchot, empty time is the time of expectation, it is uninhabitable and only admits nervous attention; so, it is not only open-ended, suffused with desire, but also ineluctable and incomprehensible. If time persists, if it moves nonetheless, it always follows a different rhythm. Instead of just one ‘time’, there are billions of times.  


  Initially, Tsai planned to give the title Time Zone to the film where he tries to illustrate the incompatibility, the disparity of time zones. Eventually he came up with a more playful wording: What Time Is It There? (2001), which is what his protagonist, a street vendor of wrist-watches, asks as he constantly tries to visualise one of his customers over there, a pretty young woman who travels to France after their chance encounter. The young man plays with time and watches, sets the hands back and forth without ever managing to fix the existence of the other at any minute or any place. Thus two lonely figures face each other, obviously without the chance of any contact or relationship developing between them. Their diverging qualities form distinct wholes and exist in separate worlds, without the hope of ever merging. Distance becomes temporal as well.  


  Being discrete moments, different time zones may only be represented in an imaginative, phantom-like landscape, can only be patched like holes. But isolated time crystals may not be transferred to the same spot. The physical fact of division, the reality of distant sunrises and sunsets is unyielding, and this informs both desire and imagination. The playfully invoked existence of the other is present and absent at the same time: all gestures are subject to specific rules of time, allowing no opportunity to control what takes place at a distance, in a different time and space.  


  Man lives in closed time zones and, besides measured time, he is shaped by an internal time as well and has to stumble and grope around, suspended between the two. Tsai is well aware of these facts. He maintains the singular sustained rhythm and tense calm of his films with the constant undermining threat of the unpredictable. Just as gushing rain blankets the city, so do rippling, constantly shifting feelings and situations capture and confine the human body; at times completely paralysing it, at others plunging it into sudden wild action. Let us recall The River where excruciating, uncontrollable pain is portrayed as a ‘barbaric’ metaphor (as Pier Paolo Pasolini once described the language of cinema). The young protagonist, the victim of an unidentified disease, squirms under pungent pain and suffers in the prison of his disorder. But in less dramatic situations as well: old age, death, mourning, homosexual or incestuous desires that seize his characters – all are manifestations of the endless stream of human agony. When there is no release (film narrative's redemptive closure) absence rules and the void devours body and soul alike. The vacuum is filled with frustration, the need for repletion and sex. The fact that Tsai's characters appear to be in control, as if unaware of the emptiness and oppression of time, does not change the aura of his films. The characters never know how much longer the pressure may last, so they come and go, eat non-stop and rush about. And this is why he holds for so long on their movement in full detail, focusing on a lot of trivial actions: sitting next to the kitchen table, urinating in the bathroom, lying in bed waiting for self-gratifying orgasm.  


  Tsai's terrestrial captives of the hole are lonely by nature. Their attention, their attachment to things or other persons appears to be resolute yet all but dispassionate, devoid of the desire to make contact. Instead of being active participants, they function more like voyeurs. One may, as in Vive l'amour, surreptitiously participate in the lovemaking of others by hiding under a bed, eavesdropping and getting worked up by the sounds and commotion above, and thus seek self-satisfaction. Or, after a bungled suicide attempt, one may timidly lean over a sleeping man, snuggle up to him making sure not to wake him. In Rebels of the Neon God Lee Kang-sheng, the hero of all his films, spends his time shadowing two delinquent kids with inexplicable resolve, leaving school and family behind, to watch them in game parlours for instance, to substitute his life with theirs and share his loneliness with the two strangers. Again in The Hole, the same character watches the routine comings and goings of the woman living one floor below in a leaking apartment. Later, sticking one leg through a widening hole in the floor, he signals his desire to communicate. And in The River, Tsai confronts one of the toughest taboos and manages to portray the incestuous, desperately painful encounter between father and son in a dim sauna as if it had never happened. The chilly and silent scene is built with sparse objectivity. The struggle of bodies and the casual use of the carefully placed toilet paper (here there is no water or shower!) shapes the action. A tense, convulsive embrace, ejaculation and relaxation thereafter are the most natural life functions, and the sudden slap on the face the boy receives from the father is simply a mandatory reminder of the taboo and not meant as punishment. Tsai's tact and precision is all the more notable as he spares the viewer any dramatic and aesthetic hyperbole.  


  In What Time Is It There? one notices a lighter air. Again, the breezy story is populated by lonely characters. No matter how bizarre, unexpected, unhappy or shocking the situation they run into, there is no chance for a genuine encounter to take place, although his protagonists are spared a tragic denouement this time.  



Naked Metaphors



  Tsai was born in 1957 in the small town of Kuching, Malaysia. As he relates it, the environment was devoid of culture, a place where nothing ever happened except secretly watching American B movies on smuggled video cassettes. His imagination and mesmerising, minimalist style were shaped by the sense of alienation shared by emigrants and the rumbling world of large urban centres rushing headlong toward uniformity. He is blessed with a gaze of infinitely patient precision, with intimate, visceral sensibility that, through complete identification with the functioning of the breathing body, gives form to the unnameable. Tsai's metaphors are less barbaric than natural/physical in a more immediate sense. Drizzling or pouring rain, naked bodies under the shower, fancy mopeds promising delight, the jumbled space-time of fast food restaurants and all-male saunas form a network of telling, expressive tools. Lee Kang-sheng is capable of developing a deceptively complex relationship with a watermelon: smelling it, caressing it with passion, listening to its mysterious inner humming, then, like some kind of bowling ball, rolling it at some distance only to watch it smash against the wall with a loud splash ... While each detail stands on its own, it also points beyond itself: it signifies the bleak burden of urban existence, the symptoms displayed by injured beings condemned to loneliness. The narrative is of no consequence; the director firmly rejects narrative as the foundation of his films. Instead, he is drawn to the tangle of palpable phenomena, simple incidents of the day and the endless recurrence of habitual behaviour; the touch of objects, perception at the primary level, the nonchalant use of appliances, not unlike the fleeting, practical and aimless encounters of his characters. A young man with a woman or another man, an old woman with a faith healer, or fuelled by desire in the embrace of a soft pillow ...  


  Alas, copulation between family members or acquaintances, performed at home or in a hotel operated for this purpose, does not make a community. An infinite variety of human realities exist side by side, arranged in odd order; impulses and instincts guided by nature are stronger than the conscious mind. Consequently, the aggressive, intrusive assault of the external world (embodied in the threat of disease) and the serenity of an unassumed, ongoing, everyday life do not contradict each other. In fact, in the world depicted by Tsai, these appear to form a strange equilibrium and lend unexpected enlightenment, transparent and geometric beauty to his visual compositions and overarching rhythms. Silent and patient, the barren environment serving as the background for all action is simultaneously liveable, and yet (seen through the logic of its own nature) perfectly uninhabitable. Tsai's films are characterised by reserve and devoid of dramatic presentation. There is only one instance where he allows the heroine (at the end of Vive l'amour) to burst into unprovoked and uncontrolled sobbing. She has no idea why or for whom she cries, but her tears continue to flow without end, not unlike the unfailing monsoon rains. Does she pity herself, the world, or the chaos of endless construction that swirls around her with unrelenting fury? Rather she is physically relieved as she rids herself of an amorphous pressure through the visceral reaction of her body, simply preparing for the next day's routine at the real estate agency with its endless telephone calls, solicitous and mock-enthusiastic pep-talks among forever empty walls ...  


  Despite all its palpable emptiness, Tsai Ming-liang’s world is never chilling. His sensibility, his suggestively graphic vision weaves a vibrant texture with a dynamic force ever ready for change. How could subconscious, silent pain and the absence of love ever leave us cold? Tsai's generous tolerance not only dedramatises everyday life, but his restrained sense of irony tending to the grotesque renders the rich fabric of his work lush and exuberant. In Tsai's films plenitude and scarcity, the inundation of the flood and the void of nothingness, resonate and coalesce in a single naked metaphor. In his calligraphy, convex expressionism and concave minimalism join seamlessly.  

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© Yvette Biro and Rouge 2004. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.
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