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CR: The New Centennial Review 4.1 (2004) 123-142

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A Pain in the Neck, a Scene of "Incest," and Other Enigmas of an Allegorical Cinema

Tsai Ming-liang's The River

Brown University

This time, as he came upon his father on that fateful path, he did not kill him. He just made love with him.
—Chang Hsiao-hung

Once in a while, the encounter with a particular scene in a film is so challenging that it preempts one's relation to the entire film. I would like to write about one such scene in this essay. It is from Taiwan director Tsai Ming-liang's (Cai Mingliang) Heliu/The River (1997),1 a film in which a father and a son, not recognizing each other in the dark, engage in sex in a gay men's bathhouse (what in Taiwan is known as a san wennuan). Like much of Tsai's work, this scene is without musical accompaniment: the simple movements and gestures, the shadows cast by the dim light on the characters' flesh, and the occasional sounds they make constitute the totality of the diegesis of this astonishing event.

Why astonishing? The obvious answer, for some viewers, would be that this is a reprehensible depiction of incest. Yet this obviousness becomes questionable upon reflection. In a society where gay and lesbian sexual [End Page 123] relations remain on the margins of social propriety and permissibility, as is the case of contemporary Taiwan, it is difficult, if not impossible, to decide on the exact significance of this scene of two males engaged in sex. As Gayle Rubin, in her groundbreaking essay on the political economy of sex, writes: "Hunger is hunger, but what counts as food is culturally determined and obtained. . . . Sex is sex, but what counts as sex is equally culturally determined and obtained."2 Perhaps this is why, so as to avoid having to say what it really is, one critic simply describes the scene in these matter-of-fact terms: "In The River," he writes, "[Hsiao Kang, the son] winds up being anonymously jerked-off by and then fellating his dad in a darkened sauna room . . . until the old man switches on the light and slaps Junior across his girlish mouth."3

The enigma posed by this scene may be described as follows. In order to charge that what has taken place is incest, one must imply that one acknowledges the reality of same-sex sex (in this case, sex between two males); yet once that acknowledgment is made, the normativity accorded to patriarchal heterosexuality would by necessity have to become relativized, as would the purportedly nontransgressible boundary between man and woman, parent and child, mother and son, father and son that derives its status from such heterosexuality. The charge that this is a scene of incest would thus already contain within it the crucial recognition that both the categories of the kinship family (upon which the norm of heterosexual marriage rests with its set relations of filiation) and the categories of heterosexuality (upon which the norm of the kinship family rests with its set mechanisms of biological reproduction) are unstable cultural inventions.

Conversely, if same-sex sex is not recognized as "real" sex to begin with, what is same-sex incest? Would not the latter, like the former, be a simple contradiction in terms? As has been pointed out by scholars, the taboo against incest itself has primarily been based on a heterosexual conceptualization of sexual and family relations, and may at times become an instrument in the perpetuation of such conceptualization, thus helping to derealize gay and lesbian erotic and kin formations.4 As the classical story of Oedipus indicates, convention presumes that incestuous relations are sexual relations within the same family between members of the opposite sexes. [End Page 124] This presumption is confirmed in a leading definition offered by The American Heritage Dictionary, according to which incest refers to "sexual relations between persons...


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