Bodies of Silence

By John Bradburn

wayward-cloud-tsai-ming-liang.jpgThe Wayward Cloud, 2005

"Beautiful ones. Ugly ones. Smooth skinned ones. Wrinkled ones. Precious ones. Cheap ones. Ones that can be raped. Ones that can be sold. If the body were a container? What could possibly fill it up? Water, food, love, money, sex and every other human desire. Why does the human body roam and wander endlessly? Why doesn't it stop? Is anyone able to pause for someone for just one moment? One body. Many desires. penetrating or being penetrated by another body. Like two clouds meeting, then falling as rain, moisturising the earth." – Bodies by Tsai Ming Liang

Tsai Ming Liang’s films are near wordless meditations on the propositions of survival in the modern metropolis. Tsai shoots bodies as others would conversations. When characters occasionally speak they reveal little or nothing. Their dialogue is functional like the labour of the body. Characters exist as a proposition of their physicality. The pornographic actors within The Wayward Cloud or the mysterious nameless man in a coma in I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. It is the body that defines us. What they body does or cannot do. Within this physical world of action these characters seem desperate for the pause Tsai finds for them. That moment of silence where the body falls away and the spirit can be free.

hole-tsai-ming-liang-2.jpgThe Hole, 1998

From the opening image of two teenagers breaking open a pay phone to score small change all the way through to the seemingly meaningless labour of Rawang in the large unfinished office building in the middle of Taipei. Tsai shoots events, routines, objects and people all under the watchful gaze of time. Few directors could truly be considered as existential in the truest sense of the word but what Tsai confronts us with is the labour of existence. The pornographic actors within The Wayward Cloud seem to have no purpose to their intercourse. The sex scenes never progress but exist in a state of stasis. New couplings are returned to but even the most purposeful of acts is here reduced to the labour of the body.

The Hole, Tsai's earlier film about the dysfunctional relationship between a high rise couple brought together through a hole in one's floor and the others ceiling is set in a time of quarantine and evacuation. A virus has ravaged the city. The body is at risk. Tsai's film observes the movements (or lack of) of these condemned bodies. They wander through the large dilapidated apartment building avoiding each other or interacting tangentially through large holes in the structure. Again Tsai uses the voice as functional rather than poetic. The opening to The Hole has a series of televised voices explaining the situation and stressing the urgency in evacuation. A later scene has the main female character watching television while carrying out tasks around her apartment. The voices from the television soon become inconsequential – resting over the top of the images, filling time while floating through the air. The voice says a lot but it has become meaningless. Specifically in how little it is listened to or adhered to by any of the characters in The Hole. From the opening declarations for evacuation to the later advise on water purification the characters rarely follow what they are told. Later the voices no longer advise but relay spurious facts about people hiding under beds and how to cook instant noodles.

wayward-cloud-tsai-ming-liang-3.jpgThe Wayward Cloud, 2005

These voices contrast with the guttural meaningful sounds that resonate through the cramped porno scenes in The Wayward Cloud. These sounds are more visceral, more human. They hold potency to them and a meaningful relationship to the body. A desperate gasp, a sigh or groan demarcating a bodily reaction. These sounds can at least be trusted to some extent. Yet the characters still revel in their labour, pornography being as pointless as any other activity within Tsai's world.

Occasionally Tsai's films brim over with words. In both The Hole and The Wayward Cloud scenes of narrative 'reality' are interspersed with vibrant gregarious lip synch sequences. The actors mouth along to words from popular songs expressing whatever pent up emotions that lie simmering inside them. These sequences frequently break all of the stylistic concerns that Tsai has been using up until that moment – scenes rendered in primary colours, bright lighting and a higher frequency of cuts. The camera also displays far more motion moving in near Busby Berkley motions.

hole-tsai-ming-liang-4.jpgThe Hole, 1998

The woman downstairs sings about the joy of dancing the calypso. The lyrics bear closer inspection as they add weight to the notion of Tsai's silent bodies – "I twist and turn with endless pleasure" "I don't really need to pour my heart out" "To forget my hard day of endless labours" Dancing is a joy of the body. The emotions are still locked inside though it seems. I don't really need to pour my heart out. But maybe they all do?

wayward-cloud-tsai-ming-liang-5.jpgThe Wayward Cloud, 2005

The songs are the voice of the desires locked deep inside the bodies. Tsai's characters are emotionally inarticulate. They drift through the narratives rarely actively driving it. In I Don't Want to Sleep Alone both of Lee Kang Sheng's characters spend the film at the mercy and whims of those that revolve around them, one character being both bed bound and seemingly in a vegetative state. Their bodies and those around them simply engage within labour. Time, a bodily experience unites all of them. Yet the songs define and control this time with their structure and as such control and define the emotions the characters seem to struggle with. They act as explosions within the tightly contained milieu of the film. These characters are so inarticulate, so broken that they cannot even express their own emotions just second hand notions of what feelings are within a capitalist structure. The songs in their performance become the bodies’ labour of emotion with the same relationship of the bodily voice, the shift work of the pop song and the capitalist interaction.

Tsai's films are visual poetry. A poetry of existence, a poetry of the body and its labours.

John Bradburn is a writer and filmmaker. He is based in Birmingham and lectures at Staffordshire University.