Bright Lights Film Journal

What Time Now? Catching Up Hours in Tsai Ming-liang

What is the best way of placing a body? The opening scenes of The River (1997) are spent trying to make a body move and work in a realistic way. A film crew is shooting a corpse in a river; using a dummy, they stage the scene again and again, striving to get the right degree of flow. The corpse needs to look as if it’s been caught in a drift, but the crew isn’t satisfied. They can’t get death right. The dummy moves awkwardly and seems to resist the tide; only a human body could seem totally passive and unresponsive, resigned to its own fate. So the protagonist, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), is roped in to do an inspired impersonation of a corpse. Floating face-down in the water, he looks helpless and tragic: just right.

However, for Hsiao-kang, playing dead onscreen is something that comes easily. Moments before, we’ve seen him standing idly on an escalator, distracted as a friend calls out to him. Later, he sits inert on a motorbike, oblivious to the breeze. Like most of Tsai‘s characters, Hsiao-kang may not know or care what his body does. Tsai films people seeming to do and think of nothing; the strangers who pass his camera are not attentive to themselves, or anything else. When gazing at their own reflections, they display only mild signs of recognition. Yet Tsai takes immense care with the positioning of these bodies. Even the most impassive form becomes the focus of our attention. A boy on a motorbike is the still centre of a racing field. An exhausted body, lying in bed, is a figure held in liquid suspension: contained by the layers of light, shadow and pattern that surround him. Tsai builds lovely compositions out of the cheapest textures available: fringed doors, mirrored sunglasses and laminex are pieced together as fragments which enclose and protect the body.

For the most part, the characters inhabit these fixed positions – as if reluctant or unable to shift. These are people who give little thought to their movements, except during physical pain, and the routines of self-maintenance: eating, sleeping, cleaning. Yet it’s during these rituals that an expressionless body comes to life – and finally seems invested in its own presence. In The River, the most revealing moments occur not during, say, the sequences of illicit sex or pornography, but in the scenes where we witness people going about their habits of self-care. Since they rarely speak, what defines these characters for us is the way they instinctively move – the time taken over meals and the easing of stress. For instance, we spend a significant amount of time watching each character eat – seeing them quietly and personally selecting morsels of food, darting their chopsticks between little covered bowls. Bathing is another routine which seems to totally absorb the characters. Bodies are as languid in cleansing as they are in sex: a soft light immerses people as they attentively clean themselves, sitting on plastic stools. Even the toilet and urination scenes have this formality – they’re slow and almost reflective. People seem to take pleasure in any form of relief, whether it’s submerging themselves in a spa, or staring at the ceiling – even the momentary clarity that comes from flushing or vomiting amounts to an epiphany. With this slow build-up of routine, we come to see that the camera’s attention is a daily attention: the lack of activity is in fact a constant process of fuss and maintenance. Despite the fact that little movement occurs, all the film’s spaces seem inhabited, and the soundtrack feels full without dialogue. Rooms are filled with the buzz of heating and cooling devices, and the whirring sounds of machinery, which we gradually take in, along with the calm, twittering conversation. What we sense are the numerous humming and living noises, expressive of people and their hesitations: their absent-minded shuffling, and their second thoughts in making the smallest of decisions – deciding when to leave the house, or smelling fruit and finding it good.

These are the working conditions of everyday life – the sounds which cause our bodies to shrink or expand in different directions. Soon after the filming, Hsiao-kang develops a severe pain in his neck, which displaces all of his movements: his walk is slightly skewed, his head tilts to one side, and he rides his bike in a series of distorted curves. Something in his environment, it appears, is causing a repeated irritation in one area. Is it the stress that arises from impersonating a corpse – or is it some kind of aversion, since the neck appears to be straining itself away from something? The pain lends itself to many readings: again the question is of how a body should be placed – within a house, city or family. The fact that physical neglect may be a source of pain is ironic, since Tsai’s characters are often thinking about how to maneuver objects: working out the best way to stop a leak, adjust a table, catch the falling rain in a bucket – or make a corpse flow realistically. Several films feature workmen inspecting houses, trying to solve a mysterious symptom or problem – they have to examine the whole structure before making a diagnosis. In The River, Tsai has an almost chiropractic view of the body – the head jerks away from sudden noise, and the repeated nudging aside of stress manifests itself as pain. Life is a matter of constant small adjustments, and the daily wear that occurs as a result of these movements. Yet it is only pain that forces these characters to sit down and monitor their actions. After his injury, Hsiao-kang becomes very fidgety – he keeps wriggling around and trying to re-feel his pain, as if to explore it and know it from every angle. A person in chronic pain is always asking themselves the same question: How do I feel now? With each move, Hsiao-kang seems to be asking: Should I do that? Do I feel more or less than I did a moment ago? Pain creates an acute self-consciousness, so that one is continually watching oneself act. One starts to consider each gesture – what it indicates and how much space or energy it demands. There is the also the issue of what to feel during pain – or rather, what else to feel besides pain. Hsiao-kang alternates between testing his neck, diverting his mind, and submitting to comfort and attention from others. Due to this unaccountable ailment, the body becomes once more a focus of contemplation, rather than just a listless object toted around. We’re mesmerized by this luminous, suffering figure – seeing it stretch and rest between sheets. Everything takes on the appearance of repose: the pale walls have an eggshell texture – a quiet look despite the endless background noise. Hsiao-kang is cared for by his father (Tien Miao), who holds his neck steadily for him. His body is analyzed and treated: a therapist forcefully hits the pressure areas, as the flesh is pinched and the skin turns red. An electronic massager buzzes during the hot evenings. Two acupuncture needles are placed in one finger, exposing the hand as a grid of sensitive points. At night, the body is cast in shadows – it breathes with a deep sigh, and the soft belly, rising and falling, seems to exert a mysterious force.

However, as Hsiao-kang gets used to the pain, it makes fewer inroads into his life. While the ache is substantial, it’s not enough to disturb or alert his consciousness of his surroundings. Hsiao-kang is generally content to step around disruptions – to work around pain as a given, rather than make any structural changes. The scenes in which he walks around Taipei with a distorted neck merely provide us with an unusual angle on the city – almost a comic angle, as neon billboards and deserted bridges are all seen from his oblique perspective. It’s a combination of absorption and neglect which marks virtually all of Tsai’s characters. In Tsai, people rarely look stimulated – yet for him, apathy is a state worth exploring. He stops to inspect people’s expressions during window-shopping – thoughtful but not very animated – and their glazed reactions to television. What these indifferent looks suggest is a rising city which bodies struggle to accommodate, without the engagement of their minds. People tend to unquestioningly accept any setting, even as it twists their bodies and compresses their movements. The characteristic Tsai shot, in which a face is set against a freeway or cityscape, is less about arty framing than an investigation of the gaze. Most characters seem to be giving nondescript attention to their surroundings: blankly or distractedly examining space. Are they really lifeless – or just inscrutable?

Vive L’Amour (1994) looks at the way people commit to space – how they occupy and adapt to new surroundings, regarding them as temporary or inevitable. Three people have access to a large apartment, displayed by real estate agent Mei (Yang Kuei-mei). Gradually, they become aware of each other’s presence, although their faces show little interest in this – or in the apartment itself. The place is far from user-friendly: it’s an elaborate attempt at classiness, with imitation marble and frosted glass. There are a few half-hearted stabs at minimalism – the black-and-white grids of the bathrooms – although the rest is textured paint and fake enamel. This is an impersonal “show” space – presumably one of many identical high-rises around town, but the characters react to it as if it’s a timeless, unchanging setting. They move around the jutting fixtures with remarkably poised expressions; the absurdity of the place doesn’t intrude on their thoughts. They make no attempt to personalize the apartment – they only live in it, they don’t perceive it – and are willing to adapt completely to its structural quirks. Bodies shape themselves without hesitation around the most unlikely objects: bending themselves around the heavy and ugly steel features, and coupling on the large, intricate bed. At times, these scenes are comic: a character observed against a grid of black tiles has to bathe in an atmosphere of forced abstraction. Yet this is Tsai’s vision of the modern: a city where people serenely inhabit disposable design – packing their bodies into tight spaces, and constricting themselves according to the idiosyncrasies of mass production. A similar approach to space is seen in the crematorium, where Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) works. Here, people pore over sample drawers, deciding where they’d like to live in the afterlife. Like the apartment, this place has a tackily “sophisticated” design: a blend of chinoiserie and European style. (In Tsai, Asians who come across these bland versions of orientalism seem to accept them as a modern form of glamour.) While the scene lends itself to mockery, the film’s enquiry into death seems to be made with real curiosity. Like Mei, Hsiao-kang is a kind of realtor: someone who loans space to house the dead. His customers have a genuine interest in how they will be stored – they seem to be renting a space for future use like any other. Initially, their choices may seem impulsive – based on the latest trends and colors – yet compared to the protagonists, their decisions on how to spend time are fairly considered. For Mei and Hsiao-kang, most of the day seems to consist of “empty” time segments – waiting for receipts to print, lifts to travel, or machines to load. Both of them tend to be distracted, so that even a short walk generates unnecessary noise and clutter. Typically, movement involves an act of consumption: disposing of an endless stream of bottles and Styrofoam containers.

What will it take to pierce the awareness of these people? Humor doesn’t seem to be the answer, since the characters are rarely afraid of being ridiculous. People who are sad do the most incongruous things: they drink green cocktails while maintaining a sorrowful expression, or immerse themselves in a luxurious spa, unaware that this might be seen to cheapen their emotions. Mei is a rather fussily attired woman, with stiff hair but an intelligent and flexible expression. During the day she scuffles along the main road, and places notices for apartments around the city. However, while hanging up these public signs, she wears a wistful face that demands to be left alone. She seems completely oblivious to any external eye – and to her framing by the camera. American indies don’t tend to forgive people for being this sloppy: Jarmusch, for instance, is scathing of people when irony escapes them. However, in Tsai, people are not required to notice the contradictions they inhabit – they can remain indifferent to a composition which potentially mocks them. A character is allowed to enjoy time in a regular café which looks “nice”, without being pegged as a simple-minded consumer. Adults can get pleasure out of a game which appears to be a combination of Twister and musical chairs, with people clasping and re-clasping hands. Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung) is an opportunistic young man who pursues Mei for his own reasons – yet we see his excitement at the prospect of their sharing food together. The camera remains uncritical of bodies, with their soft unshaped limbs, and the everyday betrayals of movement and speech. Part of this is due to the duration and intensity of attention. We watch Mei for so long that one moment of contradiction doesn’t sum her up: we see the bright expression she assumes for phone-talk, before resuming her normal look of apathy. These scenes don’t dismiss her character; we observe that a sensitive person can talk in jargon and platitudes, before returning to her usual “self.” Awkwardness and self-consciousness are forgiven – mere blips in a long emotional take.

Tsai gives his characters room to surprise us, even in the most unlikely scenes. In The River, Hsiao-kang’s mother (Lu Yi-ching) watches porn with a mixture of emotions. She looks at the screen with interest, impatience, and maybe even bemusement: on a fuchsia blanket, or with a drink in hand. For Tsai, porn is not really tawdry – it tends to be flicked through carelessly, in the same way that cartons of food and drink are constantly purchased and disposed of between meetings. What these actions provide is relief: an approximation of pleasure. The senses are turned on and off unthinkingly: it’s similar to the way that people operate machines in this film. The mother travels in a lift where the door opens at every floor; each time, the passenger absent-mindedly looks up before retouching the button – there’s an automatic impulse to keep the machine in order.

However, when people want to attract others, they use a blend of mechanical and self-conscious movement. In Vive L’Amour, when a man picks up Hsiao-kang’s father, he makes a series of little motions around his target. He looks to be ambling but is also posing – his walk looks directionless overall. This is how pick-ups occur in Tsai – characters quietly step towards each other, revealing every degree of indecision in their movement. Hesitation gives way to a sudden purposeful stride, or an announcement of intent that is later retracted, for no particular reason. What Time Is It There? (2001) provides a lesson in how bodies get close. The flirtation between Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) and a Hong Kong girl (Cecilia Yip) is more graceful than most affairs in Tsai. (The typical Tsai embrace involves a range of synthetic surfaces: neon on fake marble, or a mirror with a thick plastic rim.) This is a pretty and elegant blue composition – like a sequence out of Bertolucci. However, the girls’ scenes show that the road to intimacy is far from effortless. Contact occurs after a series of “careless” reaches and small decisive shifts which result in eyes and hands meeting. There are a few awkward breaks and interludes – attempts at gesturing with cigarettes or collars that don’t quite work, but get the message across.

Since closeness is so difficult to achieve, most of the characters prefer to fill time with some kind of low-key activity instead – whether it’s placidly watching porn, or the noise of cooling cycles in the background. A motif in several films is the appearance of pet fish, which keep retracing parallel lines alongside the characters. These glowing objects, with round floating eyes, appear incongruously exotic – especially given the plain surroundings and ordinary actions they witness. Like the characters, they are governed by unknowable patterns of movement – suddenly triggered by fears, or compelled to rush across space. At times, they seem as sentimental as human beings: they cluster on impulse and adhere to the glass, as if retaining the memory of touch or movement.

From the start, watching a Tsai film is about adjusting to inexplicable behavior. Most of the time, his characters are doing things that look odd to us: either because they’re absurdly intricate – Hsiao-kang’s antics with a melon in Vive L’Amour – or because they correspond to a fantasy we don’t have access to. Being alone seems to give a person permission to be blank, or to complete tasks with unwitting grace. Watching how people act when they’re alone lets us see the absent-mindedness that surrounds compulsion. When Ah-jung repeatedly calls a girl, he does so urgently but with no specific impulse in mind – and then settles back into impassivity. In Vive L’Amour, each character seems to drift before suddenly being driven to action. In the apartment foyer, Mei adopts a reflective expression while cracking nuts and spitting out the shells. Then, in a moment, she rouses, and has to scurry and pick up the shells rather inelegantly. She makes a couple of moves to depart, then gets up and leaves abruptly. Action has no through-line: movement consists of little shifts in different directions. During a night alone, Hsiao-kang starts kissing a melon – this doesn’t particularly concern us, although we do feel alarmed when he drills two holes in it. Yet it turns out that all he wants is an edible bowling ball; he subsequently smashes it and makes a victory gesture before smearing and eating the fruit. After spending most of his time doing nothing, Hsiao-kang comes up with a gesture which combines eating, passion and fun: a mix of impulses we never knew he had. However, action that springs out of neglect is never totally dynamic: one has to sheepishly put away the parts scattered in a moment of energy. For these characters, a typical scene involves being absorbed in a task, then being jolted and looking back on what one did with surprise: it’s as if time created an identity one never planned on inhabiting. The loss of time means that people are constantly playing catch-up. They spend hours in reflexive time-killing: cutting themselves, or gazing at a blank surface. To make up for this, they have sudden impulses towards efficiency and multitasking. If the mood strikes, Hsiao-kang strides for several steps before resuming his normal dawdling walk. After wasting most of her day, Mei attempts to “save” time by applying make-up while urinating, or jaywalking while inspecting her reflection (jaywalking is a theme in Tsai – an accidental crossing of boundaries.) However, these “efficient” gestures tend to be followed by hours of staring at the ceiling or lying in bed. What distinguishes each character is their particular way of packing time: their sudden attempts to tidy up or resolve long passages of neglect. Mei compresses energy into a few seconds, while not knowing what to do with entire days. These are lives that are barely managed, and the smallest actions reveal time-killing and thoughtlessness. Most people seem content to orbit one another, wearing the same strained expression. Do they have screens attached to their eyes? Are memories of another person being played?

Time has always been a source of confusion in Tsai – and not just for the travelers and actors of What Time Is It There? For viewers, there’s a struggle to locate time, particularly during moments of solitude. During everyday scenes, we tend to wonder: how much time has elapsed? When a character does nothing for minutes, we feel disoriented, since it looks as if the frame has seized up, or been frozen. Has time stopped – or is there merely no movement? When the film halts – as it seems – we become conscious of the beats which make up each character’s awareness. Although he looks inert, the protagonist of What Time Is It There? lives by his own secret schedule: after he meets a girl who is traveling to France, he sets every clock to Paris time. In a sense, all of Tsai’s characters inhabit different time zones – they often look at each other from distant parts of the frame, while performing separate tasks. Tsai likes to show people operating in different time periods, especially during the viewing of films. In What Time, the lead character watches The 400 Blows (1959) to get an insight into Paris – but he looks pretty languorous doing it. Maybe he’s bored – or else he has the familiar feeling of “tolerating” a masterpiece. In Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), a number of loners drift into a theater to watch King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1966). The scenes from Hu’s epic have a splendor which is not seen in the surrounding film. A cinema classic may be “eternal”, but Tsai is just as interested in the impatient or imperfect viewer, whose actions occur in real time. During a tranquil river scene, a sliver of the audience is cut into the frame – a row of indifferent-looking heads, in stiff regulation seating. Hu’s majestic scenes of arrival take place amidst a background of snacking sounds and slow water drips. A door is left ajar to the side of the screen; it seems to create an opening in the film – a place for the audience to insert themselves. Having an ongoing film creates an omnipresent gaze: a light which shines on viewers, and which they reflect back, to different degrees. All of the characters become a combined audience, whose expressions we scan for passivity or arousal. Trying to read this crowd is difficult: does a fierce expression equal intensity? Not necessarily, since it’s possible to look like one isn’t doing anything while thinking. Maybe these characters are immersed in the film – or maybe they’re just using it to project their own memories.

It’s the ambiguity which draws us in. Tsai’s loners are not sparse figures of alienation – they are less formally composed than, say, Antonioni’s. In Vive L’Amour, Yang Kuei-mei is a more convincing image of despair than Monica Vitti, since her appearance is never stylized or consistent. Every aspect of her presence shows dislocation: her clunky step, and the unfixed resolution of her movements. Mei tries to maintain a dignified repose, but this is constantly disturbed: she irritatedly catches insects, and her attempts to smoke in a jaded manner are unsuccessful. Yang’s performance captures the hints of self-consciousness in tragedy; her long weeping sequence at the end is totally riveting. Yang shows us the various moods and stages reached in crying: the initial burst of emotion, then the exhaustion as despair reaches a plateau, and then the point where bad thoughts kick in again, and the whole cycle re-starts. The sounds she makes range from willful and assertive, to little whimpers, to a series of awkward notes which escape from her throat. Her sadness may be impenetrable, but Mei is more than just an abstract figure.

In fact, Tsai’s images are rarely austere – even a vacant room or a deserted street doesn’t look stark. Why does his space always seem full? Occasionally, it’s because the atmosphere is inherently rich – for instance, the haunted apartment of What Time Is It There? However, more often, Tsai films ordinary, bland environments. In Goodbye Dragon Inn, the cinema is filled with sticky and tacky textures – plastic chairs and laminex flooring – which somehow manage to contain the grandeur of King Hu’s film. The characters can’t help but seem odd here: moving around what looks like a giant warehouse, under the harsh light. In this rapidly growing city, there is no code for body placement: new buildings and features are constantly being thrust into one’s space. Yet the most commonplace objects are vividly conveyed to the camera. In What Time Is It There?, the rows of electronic goods, and the dusty surface of a car, look glowing and appealing. Even a row of dull-eyed commuters swings past in a compelling way; a pool of tepid water looks full and deep. The still camera implies a passive but softened gaze: an empty space seems fully peopled and invested.

A bare environment can be filled with the surprising – and irritating – things that other people do. In Goodbye Dragon Inn, fans of Hu’s film are frequently distracted by the actions of other audience members: rummaging and snacking sounds, which take them out of the narrative. Initially, they react to the noise as if it’s an onset of pain: Can I live with that? We see them consciously tolerating the disturbance: deciding whether they can still “receive” the film despite the annoyance. The drone of electric light and the crinkling of snack packets are sounds we must work to incorporate – yet this is part of what makes a living landscape. Tsai’s films are a soft blur of sounds and objects that co-exist; the smallest noise helps to holds off starkness. Characters learn to live with, or around, each other – over time they come to rely on the routines of strangers. Even the light chatter of a shopping mall provides a soothingly trivial buzz – after all, these are people who spend most of their days with objects for company. As a result, household items in Tsai tend to have an unusual integrity and presence. In The River, Hsiao-kang’s father goes off to deal with some workmen, leaving us with the fridge for company. The object seems to quietly await further use; its patience is rewarded when the father returns and opens it, taking out two melon slices to give to the men. A soft glow enriches all of the objects used by people: they give off a charge which fills solitude.

Despite their loneliness, Tsai’s characters often appear to be living in relation to someone else: a stranger who hovers around them. In What Time, several characters believe they are being observed, whether by a ghost or a long-distance traveler. Tsai looks at how people are restricted in space; his characters have twisted walks and neck cricks which they must adapt to a rigid structure – one kink that dislocates an entire pattern of movement. Yet each person’s distinctive way of moving becomes absorbed by everyone else. In Goodbye Dragon Inn, a woman with a bad leg taps along the stairs of the cinema: her walk is one beat off, yet it becomes a familiar rhythm internalized by others. It’s a sound that staves off emptiness; although the characters don’t speak, another person’s presence seems to hold off total absence. When the cinema finally closes, we can hear each little noise being switched off: the cubicles being individually checked, and each sound signing off for the last time. People grow and work around a live background of sounds: they take in the noise from adjoining rooms. We adjust ourselves to some hidden schedule: time speeds up or slows according to our sense of where other people are placed, whether it’s in the same house or across the world. For instance, our suspicion that a particular presence lies to our left may cause us to expand or compress; identity is shaped by a specific sense of geography.

Tsai films silent people – strangers or neglected family members – who maintain one another in a common space. People are engrossed in their own tasks, yet somehow “supported” by the actions of others – for instance, a neighbor at the end of the hall. The characters may be deadpan, but we see the degree of comfort or inhibition they get from each other. Tsai shows people engaged in different activities within the same space: movement in a cross-section of rooms, or sex observed from a door ajar by an ailing man (Vive L’Amour). Most characters prefer to stay in their own cells; however, occasionally they can be tempted out by the prospect of something new. This attitude to people – intrigued but distanced – means that all behavior is easily naturalized. Whether it’s cross-dressing or making out with a melon, the camera never registers that anything odd is occurring. Part of this is because the action is so slow: movement occurs in such small steps that we don’t believe it can add up to anything irreversible. We take our cue from the characters, and their impassive reactions to strangeness. In Vive L’Amour, three people step around each other in a dance. Two of them have sex, but little acknowledgement takes place. On the other hand, a weird act is tolerated without comment. Is this indifference or acceptance? The former leads to constant crying – but the latter remains a possibility. Beneath the blank gaze, there’s a curiosity about what’s happening across the way.