by Iyesha Geeth Abbas, July 2011.
Some Environmental Concerns in the Cinema of Tsai Ming Liang is an attempt to understand how objects like a funeral urn, a watch, an apartment, orient themselves in the landscape of Tsai’s films.We find ourselves in a hyper-neon lit Taipei and a grainy Kuala Lumpur, cities suffering from endemics of the air and water. Objects take over from human bodies to interpret or, at least, survive the sensory confusion that surrounds them.
Some Environmental Concerns in the Films of Tsai Ming Liang
In Kafka's Description of a Struggle, the narrator wills up a tree to sleep under to release him from the monotony of the daily struggle of waking up, interacting with neighbours, meeting strangers at parties, working, sleeping. In return for the distance this dreamed up world provided from the words and graceful movements one requires and acquires during this struggle, he would have to systematically praise the trees, sun, moon and mountains that form this surreal landscape.
'Yes, mountain, you are beautiful and the forests on your western slope delight me. --With you, flower, I am also pleased, and your pink gladdens my soul. -- You, grass of the meadows, are already high and strong and refreshing. -- And you, exotic bushes, you prick so unexpectedly that our thoughts start leaping. -- But with you, river, I am so delighted that I will let myself be carried through your supple water.'
These objects are not benevolent healers in the story- far from it. They carry traces of the terrifying edge that the court officials carry in The Trial or the neighbours have in America. But there is the brief conception of an exchange - an exchange that is almost like a ritual - where the responsibility of struggling is handed over to the environment.
In the films of Tsai Ming Liang, a similar transfer happens but less insidiously so. The environment the omnipresent Hsiao Kang inhabits is often as vulnerable as he is (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:00:00.000,00:02:01.000). So, no defined, symmetrical displacement of the struggle occurs but the environment helps in articulating boredom, distress, desire or impotence when the human body is exhausted. In the early films, the body is used liberally to bear scars, collective and individual. Hsiao Kang's breakdown in the hospital in The River is one such instance. In his later films, a gradual constriction of the body is seen and objects and spaces become more significantly present, free to expand, stretch, and loosen themselves. This quality is important to bear in mind as objects have often been used by film-makers and writers in illustrative and metaphorical capacities. In Charlie Chaplin's 1 AM, the environment is cheeky, tripping him and laughing at him.In Tsai's films, each object exhibits a variety of personalities- surly to fragile.
Tsai's manipulation of objects in his films can be seen as going through a three stage process. In his early films, objects and spaces can be seen as fulfilling a functional role. The gaming parlour is necessary for setting the ethos in The Rebels of A Neon God
, a film that is most influenced stylistically by the work of Edward Yang (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:39:47.680,00:40:55.240
) . Here like Yang, Tsai chronicles life among young adults in Taiwan of the nineties. In his later films, outgrowing the limitations of the chronicler and of the drawn out theme of urban solitude, he adopts a more flamboyant approach. Symptoms of urban malaise are anatomised and sexed-up, a luxury chroniclers don't have or don't often exploit (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:19:06.000,00:24:06.000
). Like Bunuel explores the surrealistic dimension of terrorism or Antonioni sketches out the utter sensuality of boredom, Tsai works to colour symptoms such as sanitisation and sensory disorientation in the city. In The River
, the function of the river as pathogen becomes clear when the two- minute encounter Hsiao Kang has with it as a floating dead body gives him a debilitating illness (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:05:45.000,00:05:45.000
) . Similarly, the empty apartment in Vive L'Amour
functions as a meeting place for the three characters. It is a space that is kind enough to allow them to play out, if not comprehend, the paranoias and toys they pick up during their meanderings in the city. It is the actions of the characters inhabiting this space that are fore grounded. A suicide attempt, failed efforts towards intimacy and multiple sexual encounters unfold in this apartment which, unlike his other objects and spaces is oddly self-contained (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:02:02.000,00:05:44.000
The second stage Tsai's objects travel through is that of the metaphor. The earliest used metaphor and one which has been developed by Tsai into a signature through sustained use is that of the flooded room. In The Rebels of A Neon God
, the flooding of an apartment that is always threatening to get flooded coincides with an epiphanous moment when the two young lovers decide to get away from the city. This awkward usage of the metaphor is continued into The River
and The Hole
when the rooms of Hsiao Kang's father and neighbour, respectively, are brutally subjected to leakage. Water appears alongside disease in both cases and even takes on dimensions of a disease in its eerie persistence (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:07:35.520,00:15:46.040
) . As Tsai's spaces are usually hollowed out ones with straight shapes and solitary objects, the optical rupture that a flooding room can cause is severe. There is an attempt to 'plug' this leakage through other objects, such as the pyramid of forlorn tissue boxes in The Hole
or the empty bottles of water in What Time Is It There?
and The Wayward Cloud
. The metaphor evolves from one where water has the capacity to plague through flood and disease to one of over-sanitisation, a tendency that has penetrated its way from the city into the individual's space. Next, the flooding room travels to Paris in Visage,
violently breaking through the walls and running into the streets.
The third stage the object enters in Tsai's films is a playfully liberated one ( http://pad.ma/ABR/00:16:53.120,00:18:24.000
). Here, the form presents the object in a manner that foregrounds it, breaking it loose from any commitment to a sequence of events/ images or even relationships with other objects. The Ferris wheel and the cups of coffee in What Time are it There?
and the spaces of the cinema hall and the public toilets inWhat time is it there?
and Goodbye Dragon Inn,
are examples of these free-floating objects. In both these films, these two spaces are placed consecutively and they provide an interlude to objects from the responsibility of the metaphor or the gravity of ethos (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:27:41.000,00:38:45.280
). In I Don't Want to Sleep Alone
, a shop-television becomes a provisional cinema hall where roaming passers-by (here migrant workers) gather to watch (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:38:45.320,00:39:47.520
).In the sequences above, cinemas, toilets and their visitors perform, pirouette languorously, taking a detour from stories, lessons, action.
The flooding room, fish tank, the rice cooker or the bed in I Don't Want to Sleep Alone
play out narratives when Tsai introduces them, makes them participate in a conflict, gently tracing the way the objects respond to these conflicts. On the other hand, Ferris wheel, the toilet, the sequined dress of Salome at the end of Visage
or the songs that play on the radio in I Don't want to Sleep Alone
make brief appearances that appear to be mundane and disconnected (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:18:24.040,00:19:05.800
). In this manner, like the Deleuzian pure image they are brutally revelatory (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:40:55.280,00:44:41.640
In I Dont Want to Sleep Alone
, Tsai takes the structure of an abandoned building (one that has the actual, dubious history of having been abandoned during the Asian financial crisis because of the deficit of migrant workers). The building that was until then loaded with the histories and inarticulations of a group of migrant workers becomes a space for the surreal enactment of the ambiguous desires of Hsiao Kang and Norman Atun's character. Tsai achieves this temporal disconnectedness through the physical interaction between the building and the actors.There is a sexy merging of the walls and floor of the building with the bodies of the wandering characters. If we pay close attention, the objects and spaces Tsai utilises in his films have imbibed in physical character the fracturedness of the characters themselves. Physically, the cinema hall (half empty in one, about to be demolished in another), the abandoned building, the holes (in The Hole and, then, the one made by Jean-Pierre Leaud in the Louvre in Visage
) , and the flooding rooms are all radically open in the way they allow for free floating bodies to enter, defy logics and rules of performance and leave (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:19:06.000,00:24:06.000
Devolution of Speech
As mentioned earlier, in the first few films of Tsai Ming Liang, speech is used relatively liberally. With the announcement of the despair of the teenaged couple in The Rebels of the Neon God and the wailing Hsiao Kang in The River or the final scene of the crying real estate agent in Vive L'Amour, speech moving towards sound has, mostly, served a cathartic function (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:15:46.080,00:16:52.800). Moreover, we can suggest that there is a marked devolution of speech in his films. Setting aside the scattered use of background music in Rebels of a Neon God and the form of the musical in The Wayward Cloud, The Hole and Visage, Tsai Ming Liang can be seen moving towards the use of independent sounds in his films (http://pad.ma/ABR/00:44:41.680,00:45:41.819). The disavowal, almost, of the use of background music after Rebels of the Neon God provides the silence necessary to foreground these sounds. The sound of the projector whirring in Goodbye Dragon Inn, or the clicking of heels in an empty underground subway, the sounds being produced by the city, the sounds of food being cooked, food being eaten, the sound of sex or the song on the radio (mentioned earlier). Their place in the constructed sparse eco-system of Tsai's films, like that of the objects, is concrete and deliberate. Like the yellow socks that would call out for your retinal attention in a Frank Zappa concert, these sounds are crucial to the sensory networks of his films.