- Tsai Ming-liang and the Lost Emotions of the Flesh
The cinematic universe of Tsai Ming-liang1 provides a matrix of representations of sentiments, erotica, and politics, and their interaction in the biopolitics of emotions.2 The work of the Malaysian-born Chinese filmmaker develops a gaze that is both internal and external, passionate and dispassionate, objective and subjective, and consequently extremely valuable for our analysis of the expression of emotion in a Chinese-speaking context.3 Tsai’s films focus principally on repressed emotions and desires, and their relation to moral norms, political representation, and the entire complex of Taiwanese society. In the following essay, I will offer some reflections on the complex interactions between the expression of emotion, a new and original cinematic vision, and a stringent social critique.
Tsai’s films enable us to conceive a sort of archaeology of emotions, creating idealized yet grotesque images of “pure” emotions. For Tsai, “emotions” [End Page 389] (ganqing) equals “love” (ai), in the broadest possible sense, encompassing: romantic love (lianai); passionate love (xingai); desire (yuwang); filial piety (xiaoshun); friendship (youyi); compassion (tongqing); and even the Confucian concept of benevolence (ren). Consider, for example, the provocative title Vive l’amour (Aiqing wansui, 1994), which seems to urge the Taiwanese spectator to embrace love (aiqing). But at the same time, in refusing the exclamation point that should end such a powerful claim, he stresses the formulaic nature, and ultimate banality, of contemporary discourse about love as found everywhere, from the popular press to TV shows and endless love-centered pop songs. Besides, love is presented as a confusing, meddling emotion that eludes all boundaries, socially, rationally and even naturally. Indeed, in his early films, the emotions are represented as repressed forces that disturb the social order, threatening to explode the boundaries of the moral and political establishment. In The River (Heliu, 1997), love transgresses every order and limitation, especially in the representation of the father-son incest but also in the continual shifting of signs and symbols related to (the lack of) passion, for example the mother lending her son her dildo to massage his hurt neck. Emotions are there, but their boundaries are blurred and indistinct; the protagonists have the urge to feel emotions, but do not know how, or in which direction, so they take detours, distorting the meaning of objects and breaking family and social ties. But breaking ties often means creating new ones. Emotion, in the mixed sense of desire and sexual excitation, a need for caring and being taken care of, and even familial love between parents and sons, becomes a counterdiscourse in which can be discerned the possibility of a new, different declination of love, something in between a Buddhist universal love and compassion (da’ai) and a revolutionary claim for a different, open, trans/homo/plurisexual family.
Tsai’s movies may be read as exploring the postmodern condition, as postulating that spontaneous, rich, and unmediated emotional experience is no longer possible, and that emotion has become retrievable only in displaced, mediated, or ironic form; but still the spectator can perceive that the flesh feels not only physical urges to be fulfilled, but also some kind of emotion that demands to be taken care of: emotion that needs to be experienced, expressed, shared.
The controversial The Wayward Cloud (Tianbian yi duo yun, 2005) presents [End Page 390] the most intense representations of the parallel development (a kind of schizophrenia) of emotional needs and consumer society. Through an accelerated cinematic speed and a highly sarcastic and darkly humorous style, the film reveals a society on the edge of collapse, a society completely devoted to consumerism and fetishisation of the body, where emotions no longer exist, never mind expressed. Maybe the very last person still representing some feelings is the unnamed girl, but even she ends up becoming no more than an object.
Through an analysis of the representation of emotion in The Wayward Cloud, I will discuss how emotions are formulated and shaped by society and mechanized in a world of hypermodern consumption under the lens of Tsai’s camera.4 In a unique porno-humorous vein, emotions are banished to the...