Saturday, October 13, 2007

Globalized Claustrophobia

You can read about the controversies regarding Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Wayward Cloud (2005) in various places. (From these accounts it’s not hard to see why the film never found a U.S. distributor.) The Wayward Cloud continues the characters and plot lines of What Time is It There and the short The Overpass is Missing--the figure of a missing bridge bridges two feature films—in which the character played by Lee Kang-Sheng in the first film is offered a job as a porn actor. Together the three films are panoramic, and if they’re claustrophobic, it’s not for lack of space, but because they depict a post-globalized world in which there’s nowhere different to go (hence the anticlimax of the trip to Paris in What Time Is It There). Political claustrophobia leads Tsai’s films to their interest in sex and in the dreamlife that manifests itself in surreal musical numbers in The Hole and The Wayward Cloud. These—and the eye’s compositional facility—are the level of fantasy that cannot be utterly stamped out with the exhaustion of the body. In I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) one thing we learn is that sexuality can be a source of autonomy and individuality even for the most destitute and stateless; but we also learn that it can outlive not only national and economic identity but the mind and all identity whatsoever. In itself, it has no particular value. In The Wayward Cloud, that there’s always sex means that it can always be sold; and in its commodified form, it's a figure of indenture. In one of the reigning figures of the film, you may have to live without water, but you can get a ton of “watermelon juice.” I don’t know of any contemporary art that helps us think as much about the phenomenology and psychological effects of the ending of politics always ongoing. The films suggest that history is the drawing close of totalitarian and democratic societies and the fading of their differences through their common interest in accumulation. It’s sort of as in postwar fantasy fiction about a global society with no outside in which “needs” are met, except that needs aren't really met and desires cannot be stopped at their source. What makes the films so difficult to experience is that Tsai is not a hysteric about the imprisonment he depicts, and never gets desperate enough to require the relief of oblivion that others' narratives tend to offer. His people are very tired and no longer waiting for anything, but they cannot forget. They aren’t going to collapse or go crazy or lose consciousness (the loss of self in 1984 is too easy; for a split decision on this loss, see Michael Winterbottom's Code 46). Like the young man in a vegetative (not comatose) state in I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, they stir with voiceless secrets. They continue want, even though there’s no decision to make, no question to ask.

Image: Chen Shiang-chyi in The Wayward Cloud (2005)

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