Off the Map of Deliberation
Love rarely dares to speak its name in Tsai Ming-liang's work, but this is less because characters are shy than that Tsai's films treasure silence. We need to think not that Tsai's characters are retiring or inarticulate (though they often may be), but that hovering over the work is a metaphysics of quietude. Interestingly Tsai suggests this isn't only aesthetic it is also autobiographical: as a boy he moved from one school to another and in the new school nobody would talk to him. He said he was silent for the best part of a year. This of course isn't to suggest we have traced the source of Tsai's sense of quiet and thus resolved the mystery; no it is more that a childhood 'trauma' can set in motion an aesthetic choice. We find our purpose in an awareness of resources lost on most because they have never felt the need to access them. Tsai, aware of silence out of necessity, puts it at the heart of his work.
Let us start with Tsai's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. The central character played by Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng has been semi-adopted by a group of immigrant workers when they come across him on the street after he's been badly beaten. One of them clearly falls in love with the young man; but we know this not in anything the immigrant worker says, but in his gestures: in the fastidious way he nurses Lee's character back to health, in the way he insists to another immigrant worker he creates space for Lee on the mattress, where near the end of the film he threatens to slice open Lee's neck with an open can, and then, at the very end, lies with Lee and his new lover on the mattress as it floats through the surreal waters that have risen in the disused building that provides Tsai with his main location.
Here what we have is cinematic articulation meeting human inarticulacy, as Tsai searches out not what people say but, to paraphrase Eric Rohmer, what they do when they don't say anything. Another example comes at the end of The Wayward Cloud, where Lee is the porn actor who endlessly pounds away at various leading ladies to make a living. Lee's recent lover witnesses one of these porn scenes, and as Lee hammers into the half-conscious Japanese porn actress he's serviced sporadically throughout the film, he sees his lover looking on. As she starts to groan, so Lee does also, and the Japanese woman is merely an intermediary in the lovemaking between Lee and his lover. As he comes, in a moment that is half disturbed, partly absurd and strangely touching, Lee rushes over to the glassless window from whence the lover's been watching, and comes in her mouth.
Dialogue, to put it mildly, could not do justice to this scene, and it is partly that Tsai's characters aren't especially articulate, but even more that Tsai creates situations where language can't possibly provide the answer to the churned up and complex feelings his characters possess. This combination of complex emotions and simple grasp of language lend his films a humour and mystery which generates nothing less than longing in Tsai's work, longing in the sense so described by Aquinas when he says: "action comes from the efficient cause; longing and desire from the final cause". Aquinas is invoking God, here, but Tsai himself insists that central to his work is the spiritual, evident when he says that he wants his film to be ambiguous not because reality is ambiguous, but because God is. Now obviously Tsai's God is not Aquinas's; Tsai's is closer to a sense of spirit that permeates than a God who omnisciently knows, but Aquinas's comment captures well the general absence of conventionally self-motivated event in Tsai's work, and the need for making sense of feelings over purposeful actions.
So with neither much dialogue nor purposeful action, how do Tsai's films move forward, how do they generate a sense of narrative? Certainly Tsai echoes Wim Wenders' dictum about an interest in images over stories when he says he is interested in film not in story, but the differentiation between action and longing might be more useful than film and story to explore how Tsai generates if not quite narrative, then certainly chronological epistemology: a fanciful term for narrative perhaps, but also more encompassing.
We may notice this chronological epistemology at work in What Time is it There?, with Lee once again the lead; this time playing a watch seller in Taipei who sells a young woman (Shiang Chyi-chen) a watch that tells duel time: she's going to Paris and presumably wants a watch that will tell her the time in both Paris and Taipei. Lee says he doesn't have any spare ones, but gives her his number and asks her to phone him later. Shortly before meeting her, Lee's father has apparently passed away, and his mother obsessively mourns his absence, suggesting at one moment that he might have been reincarnated as a cockroach, at others cooking for two hoping that he may in some form show up. While his mother mourns the father, however, Lee seems to have transposed his longing onto the young woman who bought the watch, and he starts watching French films (namely 400 Blows) and setting any watch and clock that he finds to Paris time. In each instance this is not purposeful action, but closer to hopeful superstition: a subjective response to the world that may not affect 'reality', but helps immensely one's interior state: it creates interior well-being.
However one of the ways in which Tsai generates a low-key narrative possibility out of this interior well-being is by keeping open the possibility that the characters' interior reality might coincide with external events. So while Tsai wouldn't especially be interested in characters generating narrative, he does seem interested in his characters' pursuit of well-being coinciding with an event, even to the point of the event happening to the 'wrong' person, or the longing gesture interpreted by the 'wrong' individual. For example, while it is Lee's character who watches 400 Blows in Taiwan, it is Shiang Chyi-chen's character who finds the ageing Jean-Pierre Leaud, the film's lead actor, one afternoon sitting on a park bench. He offers her his phone number, while she is perhaps looking for Lee's, and she of course has no idea that this is the man who was once the young boy in Truffaut's film, a film she presumably hasn't seen but that is at the same time, on the other side of the world, fascinating Lee.
The misinterpreted gesture of longing is here played mainly for humour, as Lee sets all the clocks in a shop to Paris time while a chubby young man looks on. When Lee goes to the cinema, the young man joins him, sits next to him, and, when Lee moves away, steals the clock Lee has with him and runs off. Lee finds him in the gents, and watches as the young man stands in the cubicle, with the clock covering his spare parts while he stands with his trousers down. Lee closes the cubicle door on him and walks away.
In each instance - in the park bench coincidence, and the possible assignation in the cinema toilets - Tsai offers epistemological possibilities without determined narrative events. What the viewer does is, in Aquinas's parlance, follow the longing and desire rather than cause and effect actions. This gives much space to Tsai's attenuated narratives, to stories that don't so much build as echo, and many critics point out the motif aspect in Tsai's work. Chris Darke commenting on The River in Light Readings, talks of Tsai's "carefully elaborated symbolism", while Jared Rapfogel in Senses of Cinema talks about "central metaphors".
What we're proposing however is slightly different from the metaphorical and the symbolic; the motif in Tsai's work is something else perhaps, something that runs through his work not as meaning but as reverberation. This isn't to contradict Darke - who for example suggests that though Tsai's "symbolism may appear trite and contrived - Tsai knits it into the locations and everyday activities of his characters so that it becomes telling, forceful and satisfying" but to sidestep his angle slightly and replace the words telling, forceful and satisfying, with yearning, tentative and indeterminate. That is, the symbolism may appear trite if it is telling, forceful and satisfying because it becomes the abstract equivalent of narrative certitude. However, we're proposing that just as Tsai eschews the sort of connections that would wrap up his film's story, so equally he avoids allowing his motifs to become symbols. They are perhaps closer to refrains, to recurring moments throughout each film and then from film to film. There is of course for example the presence of water flooding interior spaces in Rebels of the Neon Gods, The River, The Hole and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, characters selling items on the street in Vive l'amour, What Time is it There? and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, the presence of Lee in all Tsai's features, and the yearning need for images be they cinematic or pornographic in The River, What Time is It There?, Goodbye Dragon Inn and The Wayward Cloud. In The Wayward Cloud we even have one character saying to the other (played by the two leading actors from What Time is it There?) whether the Lee character is still selling watches.
This is not a symbolic cinema, then, but more a self-referential mode practised by many great auteurs. The director doesn't so much create symbols that echo back through symbolic history, but ricochet through their own work. This may take the form of an actor or actress fetiche (Antonioni's use of Vitti; Godard's of Anna Karina, Ford's of John Wayne), a particular land or cityscape (Ford's Monument Valley, Fellini's Rimini, Angelopoulos's wintry northern Greece), a particular visual or thematic style (Bresson's trapped souls, Ozu's domestic sadness, Bergman's acerbic self-haters, all reflected in specific visual form). Tsai is very much a director in this tradition, a filmmaker who wants not his visual world to reflect an abstract symbolic system, but more a world that he can make his own: 'Tsailand'.
Thus if we disagree with Darke it rests on this point. It is important that water doesn't mean anything abstractly, but that it contributes to the weaving of a vision directly. We need to see what it means in the context of each Tsai film, and then more broadly in the context of Tsai's world. In Rebels of the Neon God, Tsai shows us a flat that inexplicably keeps flooding, and no matter what the characters do to alleviate the problem it keeps recurring. A wag might say someone should call a plumber, just as when the roof leaks in The River someone should call a roofer, but we should recall what we've said earlier about Tsai - the idea that his characters wish rather than will; hope rather than act. In both films characters essentially hope that the problem will go away. Certainly the character living in the flat tries to block the plug with cloth, just as the father in The River tries to put a sheet of plastic over the hole in the roof, but these are more gestures than actions. It is a vague attempt to resolve a problem, rather than an active resolution of it. What we have is neither quite the action nor the symbol. By half-heartedly acting, the characters often suggest the symptomatic by virtue of the lack of an action. They shore up a problem rather than resolve it, as if they wish the problem to go away instead of making the problem go away. This obviously tells us something about the characters, but this isn't an abstract delineation through the symbolic, as Darke proposes when commenting on "carefully elaborated symbolism", but through characters who don't quite respond to the immediacy of situation.
We see this not just in the way the characters act ineffectively to crisis situations, but also in relation to the jobs they do. Whether it is the estate agent in Vive l'amour, the street seller in What Time is it There? or the central character in I Don't Want to Sleep Aloneselling luminous decorations on the street, once again there is a stronger sense of hope than intention. In Vive l'amour one particular flat becomes less the desirable property that needs to be sold, than the contingent space in which one character plays and baths, and where the estate agent has sex with a casual lover. In What Time is It There? we have no idea how successful the character is at selling watches, and his profession seems merely a precursor for standing on the street and watching the world go by. Even Lee's porn star in The Wayward Cloud appears barely present in the act - as he pounds away his mind seems very much elsewhere - or nowhere.
Tsailand is really a world of longing, and so action and ambition have little place because they cannot incorporate an aspect bigger than the action, and Tsai's work is fascinated by a sort of metaphysical surplus in the deed. When for example he says that in shooting a film he's not telling a story, he adds "that God is giving us a means to create deeper purpose." It is almost by keeping the causal connections slack that the spiritual can find a place. By keeping his characters removed from notions of drive, he creates speculative spaces around them, a sense of speculation absolutely consistent with his style. One critic referred to his generally fixed frame approach as "like a paralysed man looking into a room as people come and go". We could ask by what is the camera paralysed, and Tsai might answer that moving the camera would suggest an agency he not only avoids giving to his characters, but also to his own direction. The fixed frame possesses something of the internal stillness that belongs to most of his characters.
Now in Confucius's Analects, the master says "I use my ears widely and follow what is good in what I have heard; I use my eye widely and retain what I have seen in my mind", and it could serve almost as a motto for Tsai's aesthetic. Tsai forces the maximum amount of visual and auditory possibilities out of the image by restricting the camera's movement. When he holds an image we're left not only thinking about its informational content but also its meditative aspect. When Tsai insists that with cinema "God is giving us a means to create deeper purpose", this resides partly in the film rejecting cognitive immediacy for residual attentiveness. Just as when he says he is interested in film rather than stories, so Tsai wants us less to be processing information than to be inquiring into it. If we think about the extreme long shot in What Time is it There? as Lee changes the time on a huge clock in the centre of Tapei, we find ourselves scrutinizing the image to see exactly what he is using to change the clock's time, and also wondering who might be looking on. A cognitive as opposed to a meditative approach to the situation would be to show Lee in medium close up and make absolutely clear the dangerous aspect of his mission - camera angles showing the possibility of falling off the tall building he leans over to adjust the clock; ground shots of on-lookers; cut-aways to nearby cops who might just catch sight of his mad gesture. Obviously Tsai ignores all these possibilities, and instead leads us to meditate on the nature of the action, not the drama of the action. We exercise our visual and auditory faculties not our anticipatory expectations. In the dramatic scenario we've proposed Tsai could have used, we would have the anticipatory expectation: the great height, the crowds' fears, the possible cops' arrival. Here we would have a 'story'; in Tsai we have instead a 'film'.
One recalls sitting in the cinema watching Vive l'amour and a couple of members of the audience muttering to each other that in the lengthy closing shot of the film Tsai was now wasting time. It was offered like a comment someone makes of a footballer whose team is one nil up with thirty seconds of the game left and keeps possession over by the corner flag. They obviously wanted a story, and Tsai's several minute take of a woman crying on a bench offered instead the double internalisation that is central to his work and that makes it cinematic, by his definition, rather than story lead. As the woman cries on the bench Tsai leads us to wonder what makes these tears flow. We've been privy to her frustrations over the previous hundred minutes, but we're still expected it seems to interpret her state by offering something of our own interpretation: it is an empathic hermeneutic those constantly looking for the identificatory demands of the story are going to ignore. It's as though we must meet Tsai's work in the liminal land of mutual appreciation of a character's state and fate. Like the ending of The River, the conclusion to Vive l'amourasks us to muse over a situation rather than assume the conclusion of a story. Why is she crying and what is this saying about the decisions she may choose to make in her life? What might we feel in her predicament? At the end of The River the central character has tried numerous remedies from acupuncture to physiotherapy to get rid of an awkward neck pain, and at the end of the film as he goes out onto the balcony of his hotel room we may wonder what options are left to him, just as we might muse over the options available to the central character in Vive l'amour. This is the double internalisation we're talking about. The character works with their own thoughts and the viewer does likewise. Perhaps the woman in Vive l'amour will change her life; perhaps she won't. We in the audience may react one way, but who knows if it would be the way the character would respond to the situation. Tsai creates ambiguity that can lead to a co-feeling. He creates a sense of equivocalness one can find deeply moving as one can access the pity of interpretive empathy, or, at the other extreme, feel one is wasting one's time.
It returns us once again to Aquinas's comment about action and longing; can we in accepting the absence of action share in the sense of longing? If the estate agent at the end of Vive l'amour changes her life then what she might still desire? If Lee's character at the end of The River has run out of possible cures, what will he do? The question is not so much whether we anticipate their next move, but whether we can feel for their present predicament. Any hypothetical dimension - whilst valid - is still secondary to sharing something of their pain, be it physical or mental. It makes us think not just of Aquinas's comment, but also Tsai's own when he talks of distance in style whilst suggesting a certain closeness of the emotions. Here that very distance demands a closeness - an empathy over an identification. He creates the space for its possibility, but this is not the same as generating it: as identificatory cinema demands.
This closeness through distance also seems relevant to the humour in Tsai's work. Often the full effect of the gag resides in the absence of the close-up to punctuate it, and of the sense of contingency in the situation. Tsai claims for example that when Lee slips on the floor in the apartment in Vive l'amour this was an accident that he kept in, and we might assume the same of the moment in Rebels of the Neon Gods when Lee's character bangs his head on the ceiling after ecstatically feeling he's got one over on another character. But this would leave us in the realm of anecdote, where we really need to think of it as a formal issue, and look at the way Tsai avoids the comedic exclamation marks that would make his comedy mechanical. Whether it is the scenes mentioned above, the moment when we see in extreme long shot Lee changing the city clock in What Time is it There?, the scene with the live crabs in The Wayward Cloud, or the moment where the young man covers his genitals with the clock in What Time is it There?, Tsai's humour resides in the way the humour is observed; not telegraphed. Like Jacques Tati, Elia (Divine Intervention) Suleiman, or Aki Kaurismaki, Tsai wants the humour not just to come out of the situation, but also for the situation to contain the humour so that you feel the scene isn't offered for the gag, but that the gag comes out of the scene. The gag becomes incidental so that the scene has a purpose beyond the joke, but the joke is all the funnier because of its incidental aspect. So when Lee bangs his head in Rebels of the Neon God, or the characters try to throw the crabs into pots in The Wayward Cloud, the purpose doesn't lie in revealing the gag, in creating a mechanics for the humour, but in the happenstance of humour coming out of a situation. When Ben Stiller gets his tackle caught in his zip in There's Something About Mary, or an egg splats on a dignitary's head in Life is Beautiful, we follow the comiclogic. The way in which in Life is Beautiful Benigni will lean out of the window so that a plant pot will fall and hit the dignitary on the head, and then Benigni will try to make amends but in the process of doing so ends up accidentally placing an egg he has been carrying around with him in the man's hat after he takes it off to pat his sore head. When he puts the hat back on the egg of course splatters and runs down his face. This is a comic set-piece, and the humour is central not incidental. Most of the humour in Tsai's work comes from not making the humorous moment central but casually incorporative, which makes sense of how the accidental could so readily be utilised.
This is then another element that goes into Tsai's world- into Tsailand. What links the elements together though is a sort of aesthetic gentleness, as though Tsai has taken Renoir's endlessly quoted dictum that everybody has their reasons and worked with it not socially but atomistically. Pauline Kael, in Projections 13, suggested Renoir's characters "were theatrical, and we love them for that; they saw themselves as theatrical figures, and he understood that we all have that bit of theatre in us." Tsai's characters on the other hand are locked in on their own worlds, and the director's achievement is to give us the key without the character knowing diegetically they're being opened up. If in many films the characters open up to each other, and understand the process of that self-revelation, Tsai better than almost anybody keeps this mystery intact. At the end of Vive l'amour we will probably have at least as clear a sense of the character's reasons for her unhappiness as the character herself, just as we will have as clear a sense of the lovelorn character's despair near the end of I Don't Want to Sleep Alone when he looks like he is going to cut Lee's throat with an open can. In each instance the characters remain ambiguous to us because they remain unenlightening to themselves, and Tsai's achievement is twofold here. Firstly, he visualizes his characters inarticulacy, finds a form with which to express their emotional state.
In The Rebels of the Neon God what are Lee's character's feelings towards the boy whose motorbike he destroys? He seems simultaneously attracted and repelled, and probably by the end of the film the viewer might feel more privy to Lee's motivations than Lee himself. As Tsai generates a mise-en-scene of intense scrutiny, we have the privilege of comprehending the characters in space, a comprehension the characters themselves are not privy to because they don't observe the space - they occupy it. It is the audience who observes. Now in many films the motivations reside within the characters and the narrative reveals through back story or through external action, or a combination of both. In Ingmar Bergman's work, for example, so much of the story is psychoanalytically revealed, as family histories rise to the surface. In Through a Glass Darkly, the daughter's mental illness is increasingly exposed but so also is the father's long history of selfishness; in Autumn Sonata the story resides in the past tensions between mother and daughter. Space is important to Bergman, but he usually collapses it into the problem of time past, and the mise-en-scene is expressive and psychological as it reveals aspects of a character's need simultaneously to be alone and yet not isolated, often captured in the tight two-shot close- up. Mainstream cinema, meanwhile, will create plausible motivation to move the character through a usually present tense narrative: in How to Build a Great Screenplay, David Howard reckons there are three levels of motivation: "they can want something in a scene; they can want something over a longer term, over the course of a significant part or even the whole story; and they can have a life dream." What is usually clear though is that they are aware of their own motivations, and this drives the film. But what if a character isn't aware of his needs and desires, and they remain vague and unacted upon? Again we might think of Aquinas, and his differentiation between purposeful and non-purposeful actions. "Actions without attention [for example], as when we scratch an itch, come from sudden sensations or from natural principles; their purpose lie off the map of deliberation." So much of Tsai's characters activities in various ways 'lie off the map of deliberation' and this is why the characters remain all but unknown to themselves, and only partially and suggestively known to us. What Tsai then does is create a cinematic space that will allow for the characters' partial revelation. If we think of the endings of The River, where Lee wakes up in a hotel room late in the day and wonders out onto the balcony and hears the street noises, or Vive l'amour, where the estate agent walks through the park and then sits down and cries on a bench, we sense that their unhappiness isn't unlinked to their environment. Lee seemed to pick up his injury at the same time he lay in the polluted waters of the titular Tapei river, and the only reason he has escaped the pollution of the city is to search out a quack doctor in another large town. In Vive l'amourthe park might seem part of the problem rather than the solution as it offers a landscaped, impersonal environment that leaves the character exposed to the elements rather than protected by nature. We might believe in each instance that the best thing for the characters would be to go out into a more natural environment. Such is Tsai's mise-en-scene, and so often does he register cacophonous noise, city pollution, poor plumbing and emotional atomisation that some sort of escapes seems essential. But have the characters yet registered this need for a life elsewhere, and can we even be sure that it is what they should be seeking?
This leads into the second point about Tsai's vision: the idea that though he wants the viewer to be more cognizant than the character of the character's existence, this shouldn't lead to condescension on our part. To see ourselves in the spaces we occupy is pretty close to an ontological impossibility: sure we can film ourselves in space and watch it retrospectively, or catch ourselves in mirrors, but the sense of constantly perceiving ourselves in the spaces in which we exist is not only impossible, but even the attempt would appear thoroughly neurotic. Tsai would appear to want us to accept the ontological impossibility, and it is this impossibility which undermines the condescension and arrives at the opposite: empathic feeling.
Now when Whisky Galore director Alexander Mackendrick discusses dramatic irony he quotes Hitchcock's example of a bomb under a table and nothing happens and then suddenly the bomb goes off. "The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now let us take a suspensesituation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it...In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene." In On Film-Making, Mackendrick reckons this is a good example of Hitchcock using dramatic irony for the purposes of suspense: the audience knows something the characters don't. But frequently of course dramatic irony is used as a form of audience one-upmanship, where the viewer laughs at the character's ignorance while enjoying his own sense of superiority. Examples are international: the Australian comedy The Castle, has a character suggest the family house is now worth almost as much now as when they first bought it; or an overweight character in The Full Monty wraps his waist in cellophane as he sits eating a Mars bar oblivious to the fact that you actually have to exercise wearing the cellophane if you want to lose weight. Or we might think of Sideways, and the seriousness with which the central character take his magnum opus nouveau roman, while we're clearly meant to see it as a massive tome we should run a mile from.
All examples, then, of dramatic irony, but where does Tsai fit into all this? Tsai's work after all is full of dramatically ironic scenes, full of moments where the audience knows more than the characters. We would know for example that Lee's character is hiding under the bed in Vive l'amour while the estate agent and her lover obliviously have sex on the bed. We know that the number the young Taiwanese woman in What Time is it There? is looking for is Lee's, and that the man she has just met as she is looking for it is none other than the ageing actor, Jean-Pierre Leaud, whom Lee has been watching in 400 Blows back in Taiwan. Or we might be fully aware in I Don't Want to Sleep Alone that the Bangladeshi worker, Rawang, clearly loves the central character, though the central character's entirely surprised when Rawang threatens him with the open can. But Tsai doesn't want dramatic irony as either the suspenseful or the condescending, but instead as an extension of the yearning he works with between his characters and that he wants to extend to the viewer. It is consistent less with the conventions of dramatic irony, than with the diegetic problem of longing his work addresses extended to the very viewing experience. This is closer to non-diegetic yearning, an emotional reaction to his work that is in keeping with the refusal of the close-up in his film. If the close-up is often consistent with dramatic irony and condescension in the sense that both give the viewer a sense of privilege (be that perceptual in the close-up or more broadly secure in the utilising of forms of dramatic irony), then Tsai wants a reserve that nevertheless does not deny feeling, but accentuates it through a distance that makes us want to get closer to it. It is not presented to us; we seek it out. At the end of What Time is it There? Lee's apparently late father turns up in Paris, and fishes out a suitcase from the lake in Jardin du Luxembourg. Whether he is alive or dead seems of less importance than that he's present, and that we might wish to wake the sleeping Chen Shiang-chyi so that she can phone Lee and tell him that his father is still in this world in some capacity or other. But, and this taps into the sense of longing Tsai's work generates, where would she start? If he were awake could she even physically see the father if he's a ghost, and though she may have found Lee's number, if that was the number she was looking for, she would of course be unaware that the man is Lee's father, that he is supposed to be dead and the mother has spent months trying to conjure him up.
What Tsai generates here is not plot logic and dramatic irony, but longing as a certain form of faith. Tsai is as we've noted happy to acknowledge his work as spiritual, evident in his claim that his films, but equally to see it as ineffable. "like God, it shouldn't be understandable." If Hitchcock is clearly grounded in reason, and so many films of condescension grounded in social superiority, Tsai's works are less grounded than slightly ethereal attempts to give film in form and content a hint of possibilities that cannot be reduced to cause and effect. It is as though Tsai doesn't want us to think of the mechanics of narrative but the metaphysics of coincidence - but then never quite allows these coincidences to cohere. When for example in The Wayward Cloud Chen watches the sleeping Lee in a park, and then when he wakes asks if he is still selling watches, this would seem to be a reference to What Time is it There? - that the characters are reunited. But if that is the case then Lee's mother has become a porn actress whom we see him having sex with in a shower sex scene that the porn crew are recording. Perhaps this is not entirely outlandish if we think of the perversity of Lee's work (the father fondling his son in The River; the mother's porn lover in the same film, the sex with the watermelon in The Wayward Cloud). But just as Tsai wants to reject the symbolic for the motif, just as he wants to reject cause and effect for the spiritual permeation, so Tsai seems happy for his characters to echo their previous incarnations in other films. The connections may hint at sequel status, but if we look closely at the work we realize that they should be seen as no more than haunting allusions.
Tsai's is a major body of work because though he formally resembles other Asian filmmakers of, very loosely, his generation (namely Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Jia- zhangke, Hong Sang-soo and Hirokazu kore-eda) his thematic is very much his own. David Bordwell might suggest in Figures Traced in Light that such filmmakers "seemed to compete in creating unmoving single shot scenes lasting many minutes", but this tells us too little about each director's originality. What we've proposed, in this instance, is how the static long-take form is intricately tied to Tsai's thematic. Yearning runs through his work the way loss runs perhaps runs through Kore-eda's; a certain sense of determined fate in Hou's. There is much in Tsai's work we haven't discussed (the musical numbers for example in The Hole and The Wayward Cloud, where the camera tends to be more mobile) but these elements would seem to confirm rather than contradict those we have managed to discuss. Tsai-land is aptly a world of many possibilities; all we've attempted is a way into a few of them.
© Tony McKibbin