A Cinema of Bodily Sense

Creator's Statement

A man stands on a corner at a busy intersection. He is holding up an advertising sign for a local real estate company and is struggling to keep it steady amidst a harsh wind that we can see and hear as it batters his translucent yellow poncho. Framed in wide shot, this take lasts close to two minutes and thirty seconds. Later, we will see the man resume the same position, in medium and then in close-up. In each, his discomfort is palpable. We sense his sense of time, the soreness of his legs from standing all day, the stinging chill of the wind against the left side of his body, the force of the flat wooden sign thrust to and fro by the gusts.[1]

A different film, another long take framed in wide: a woman, at first still, at the back of the frame down a long corridor, begins to walk toward us.[2] She has a limp and moves slowly and awkwardly. Lights on the ceiling diffusely glare back from the floor. The space is rundown and made up of faded shades of grimy greens accentuated by the glow of an exit sign. We hear her footsteps echo. She appears to lean on the wall on her right as she makes her way towards a door. The wall creates a leading line from the left of frame to the depth of its center. In other shots, we watch this woman make her way through other corridors and stairways of the labyrinthine cinema where she works, the tempo marked by her peculiar, uneven gait. I wonder now, in hindsight, whether by the end of some of these shots I even end up breathing at her pace rather than my own?

Like the figures in many scenes in the films of Tsai Ming-liang, it feels as though she exists in a container. In fact, Tsai even frames exteriors in such a way so as to make it feel as if the figures are moving about in restrictive containers: three-dimensional tanks with accentuated depth, rigid angles, and implied borders contained within or outside of the composition.[3] Figures are cast in wide, sometimes in extreme-wide shots, at others in medium and only rarely in close-up. Oftentimes they are still, and although sometimes captured in movement (typically slow, sometimes very), they always seem to be contained to a limited circulation of mobility within a small set of spaces, be they places of work, apartment buildings, or other any-space-whatevers of modern urbanity.[4]

Suspended in long takes, mostly tableaus, subjective temporalities are as palpable as these bodies and the characteristics of the spaces that contain them. The body is nearly always the anchor of any given shot. Seen in close, we sense the minutiae of movement, of breathing, of sensing—but seen from a distance we do not lose this bodily sense but experience it in a different context. There is no shot wide enough to free them of their bodies or the containers within which they circulate—nor the viewer from them. I am always anchored to them in each instance. 

Tsai’s characters come across others only at a minimum. Typically alone, his characters are more likely to be seen evading one another than coming together. The cinema worker in Goodbye, Dragon Inn wanders the halls in pursuit of a wayward projectionist who always seems to be a step out of reach—as his recently smoked cigarettes smushed into an ashtray that she comes across tell us in one scene. In Vive l’amour (1994), characters hide from one another in stairwells, under the bed. In The Hole (1998), neighbours forced to reckon with the other’s existence because of a gaping hole between their apartments come together only through transient musical fantasy sequences that inevitably give way to reality. Rare and ecstatic are the few genuine meetings of bodies in Tsai’s cinema. 

Tsai observes bodies in private spaces with the sort of keen interest other directors would pay to dramatic events. The body-subject is that great wild card of variability where behaviour and action take precedence over everything else. It is a physical, behaviour-based cinema where conventional plotting and characterization are done away with—we know his characters from what we observe and sense. Bodies in situations, encased in time and space, whose navigation thereof becomes subject and arc and form. So, in Tsai, it all begins with the body and is made possible by the body. It is the starting point for his films and our pathway through them. But it is never only about the body but the body in a flux of relations and it is through the body that we enter a set of relations. 

Tsai puts this mode of relations to different uses. We form intimate relationships with his otherwise opaque characters and the actors that play them who we see age from film to film. The heightened sense of senses that emerges from this embodied relationship opens up divergent, even subversive, possibilities. The radical meta-spectatorial depictions within Goodbye, Dragon Inn and The Wayward Cloud (2005) illuminate and complicate the ways in which such relations resonate and produce the very effects they themselves formally utilize. Contrastively, Goodbye, Dragon Inn illuminates the phenomenological power of cinema and its layers of memory and time whereas The Wayward Cloud complicates the relational dynamics of spectatorship by casting a critical lens on pornography’s potential to alienate viewers from bodies— a process of disembodiment. The controversial sequence of (inadvertent) incest in Tsai’s The River (1997) poses a challenge to the cinesthetic subject, deterritorializing notions of identity and character in its radically empathetic depiction of a sexual encounter between father and son wherein judgment is withheld as bodily sense precedes the narrative revelation of their theretofore unknown identities, and the experience of their ignorant bliss of touch and affirmation is afforded its own affective singularity. Across his oeuvre, Tsai formally uses these embodied relations to stimulate immersion as well as to stage interventions. A cinema of bodily sense that formally constructs itself with consideration of how his characters’ bodies feel, move, behave, and react. Narrative events are reflected in the body, everything that occurs resonates sensorially. It is through the body that Tsai creates a methodology of viewing and expression. Mysterious characters with unknown pasts express themselves through exaggerated quotidian performances. While narrative stitches together the majority of Tsai’s films, story is overwhelmed by space, by time, by the body—by a palpable sense of existing. It is through this palpable sense that we relate to the characters and via them that we relate to his film-worlds and the ideas therein.

Tsai’s cinema consists of sites of encounters where the phenomenological aspects of perception are mobilized in order to form aesthetic and thematic meanings and resonances. This phenomenological dimension becomes the primary force of the film, the primary level of engagement. Subject and form blur, the body becomes, in part, medium in itself, creating a state of heightened embodiment


[1] Lee Kang-sheng in Stray Dogs (2013)

[2] Chen Shiang-chyi in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

[3] Interesting to note the multiple times throughout Tsai’s films that we see characters gaze contemplatively at fish tanks.

[4] Deleuze, Gilles. 1989. Cinema 2: The Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Athlone Press/Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 5. The any-space-whatever is an anonymous, non-descript space, often associated with modernity and described as 'disconnected, or emptied', and establishes 'a purely optical or sound situation'.

Tsai Ming-liang’s cinema divides audiences. You either hate or love his films—their slow pace, long takes, minimal narrative. Cook’s video essay highlights precisely these traits of Tsai’s films, with a view to connecting Tsai’s auteur style with a specific sensory experience: as a cinema of 'heightened embodiment'. 

Approaching Tsai’s entire oeuvre in a video essay is a tough assignment. And yet, 'A Cinema of Bodily Sense' provides us with a remarkably clear impression of what is key in Tsai’s films, moving between and juxtaposing on the screen scenes from individual films while creating the impression that all of Tsai’s films could be combined into a whole work of art in progress. This is an impression that Tsai himself fosters, especially because of his obsessive use of recurring actors, so that the oeuvre showcases what we might call an indexical temporality as we see how actors age across different films. Cook’s essay, however, does not jettison the individual films nor even their (extremely rudimentary) stories completely: in particular, two of the more recent films (Stray Dogs and Days) come with explanations of key characters and their interactions (or lack thereof). It seems we do need some minimal narrative orientation or framing, both for Tsai’s films and this video essay. 

By the same token, the video essay does not try to directly reproduce what a Tsai Ming-liang film feels like, or only very selectively so. After all, a video essay’s point is not merely to remix, but to frame, highlight, and comment instead. Cook achieves a balance between conveying a Tsaiesque feeling and constructing an argument by choosing carefully from the toolkit of the video essay form. For instance, the essay uses theoretical captions rather than voice-over (which would have been at odds with the sparse dialogue and lack of a central perspective prevalent in Tsai’s film). In contrast, Cook relies heavily on essayistic montage to discuss a filmic oeuvre in which long takes foreground frame construction and in which montage is rarely used in flashy or particularly noticeable ways—so rarely, in fact, that it is hard to forget when it happens, for instance the 'dialogue of gazes' between the ticket vendor and the heroine on screen in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (see Cook’s video essay 10:25). Of course, many of Tsai’s films 'montage' together different character trajectories (calling these 'storylines' does not feel appropriate when narrative has in fact become minimal). Cook’s 'montage' often juxtaposes two similar sequences from different films in one frame (usually in two adjacent boxes on a black background used for explanatory and theoretical captions). Or, more spectacularly, he splits the screen into four quarters in which short snippets of filmic sequences appear one after the other, culminating in the fourth square that lingers after the other three have returned to black. This creates an effect of repetition and highlighting, resulting in an impression of not-quite-coincidence: of precarious encounters, of connections just slightly out of sync.   

Cook’s essay captures the feeling of Tsai’s films successfully precisely because it combines showing and telling—giving us a sense of the cinematic flow, while also breaking it up into new combinations for the purpose of discussion and conceptual development. This is also why the piece allows for a theoretical argument. This argument homes in on one of the theoretical questions at the heart of film: that of its sensory functioning. While Cook’s argument is about Tsai’s oeuvre and its specific sensory work, it implicitly weighs in on the possibility of filmic corporeal relationality in general. For Cook, Tsai’s films generate a state of 'heightened embodiment' caused by a connection between the corporeality on screen and that of the viewer: 'A link is made between the spectator, their bodily sense, their vision, the bodies and bodily sense of the characters, and with Tsai’s embodied gaze as well' (9:49).  For Cook, Tsai achieves this by focusing on everyday routines and movements, by having long shots linger on scenes of bodily pain, or, more rarely, pleasure, by having bodies traverse (or become immobilized in) alienating urban spaces (among other cinematic characteristics). This forges, so Cook argues, a different sensory connectivity, an intimacy between the characters on screen and us viewers, a connection on the basis of shared temporality and corporeal empathy: we barely know anything about the characters on screen, which makes identification possible only on a visceral, bodily level. 

Cook is on to something here, something that could have been explored in another medium or with a fuller (textual?) reflection because it touches upon questions crucial to much of film theory. What is the connection between vision and the body, between what is shown on screen and what an audience sees? What kinds of sensory experiences can film create and how? And how much of the sensorium of film is the result of an auteur style, a collaborative effort, a technological affordance, or a viewer’s affective choice? And we can also lose ourselves and go down the rabbit hole of questions about the connection of sense (as meaning) and sense (as sensation) so central to theoretical and philosophical discussions. 

To point to a cinema of 'heightened embodiment' and 'bodily sense' fits in well with the film-theoretical move from psychoanalytically focused theories of identification to more sensorially-oriented theories based on film phenomenology and affect. But it cannot take its conceptual terms for granted and needs to interrogate them instead. Cook—via Tsai’s films—points to several possible strategies through which film can work sensorially and relationally. However, although Cook’s theoretical captions come across as insightful (if also, at times, a bit heavy-handed), they only scratch the surface of the theoretical problem at hand. The theoretical task as well as the ambitious scope with regard to Tsai’s work invite criticism because they necessarily leave gaps: While the meta-cinematic gesture of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is highlighted, the critical self-reflexivity of the porn movie being shot in The Wayward Cloud does not find a place in Cook’s essay. While some images of intimacy are highlighted (such as the massage in Days), the more controversial masturbation of son by father in The River is absent from Cook’s essay. While the musical interludes of The Hole merit a marginal comment, the extravagant, absurdly graphic fantasy scenes of The Wayward Cloud remained undiscussed in the originally submitted version of Cook's video. (Though the importance of these scenes has been addressed in Cook's updated accompanying statement). Obviously, no essay can do it all. But Cook’s 'A Cinema of Bodily Sense' succeeds in sharpening our questions about cinema’s sensory work. And it does so through a deftly framed, elegantly curated showcasing of Tsai’s film style that will delight Tsai fans as well as make for excellent secondary 'reading' material for teaching Tsai’s films.

As Vlad Dima fittingly asked about Estrella Sendra’s essay on Alan Gomis’s work, how to 'best trace the physical impact of his films'?[1] Adam Cook has chosen an astute way to make sense of Tsai Ming-liang 'physical impact', by using a complex split screen montage. It can be argued that Tsai’s body of work somehow resembles a high-brow soap opera: his movies and museum installations create a unified, coherent corpus where all elements resonate with one another in a holistic vertigo. Not only does Tsai use the same actors consistently – notoriously, Lee Kang-sheng appears in all his films – but, even if in a progressive refusal of traditional narrative, the filmmaker creates recurrent characters and plot lines that trace out a saga, and it is advisable to watch them in order of their release. 

In any case, Tsai has been experimenting for many years with different dispositifs and venues: he was primed for his VR work The Deserted, he collaborated with museums exhibitions and art galleries, and at the time I'm writing this he is a resident artist at the Centre Pompidou Paris, following Abbas Kiarostami and Jean-Luc Godard. It seems therefore appropriate to experiment with his images, putting them together, transforming them in a new collage that creates new sensations and a new spectatorial experience. As Tsai showcases his movies in an immersive environment, getting rid of linear temporality and letting visitors enter the experience at any time, or spreads his sequences on irregular surfaces that create new textures, so Cook molds glimpses of Tsai’s sequences in an immersive, silent universe which presents or condenses multiple plot and temporal lines in the unity of the frame.

The video starts in medias res, no captions are given. Then something happens around 40’’ seconds, and Cook splits the screen with a double image – and words, silent, to be read, each one with his or her inner voice – very appropiately since Tsai’s body of work is silent. Or, should I say, wordless, since the noises and surrounding sounds are of great importance in his world building. 

Certainly, the sensation of the long plan sequence is lost in a short video, yet the juxtaposition of sequences through split screen editing evokes the reverberations from film to film, by letting spectators peep into the monumental construction of Tsai’s work.

At 3’13 another shift, split screen x 4: Cook’s hypnotic, slow-paced montage spirals in a vertiginous slow accumulation that lets the bodily presence be apparent in its weight, and ponders on the reactions of the spectators, immersed in an experiment of haptic visuality.

The video also leaves some questions unanswered – just like Tsai’s movies themselves. Much is said about bodily senses: when does the mind come into play? Does it make an entrance? I would argue that it does. We are not in a body genre like horror movies or porn that solicit physical reactions from the spectators: Tsai’s bodies are offered up to pensive meditation. See for example 5’55: 'respite from the body'. Would it also be possible to read a tension between carnality and a striving towards metaphysics? 'Resistance vs gravity of solitude' is a nice phrase; it would be possible to read it also as a plunge into tired flesh in order to glimpse at a metaphysical redemption. The body weighs, yet the mind is somewhere, too, at least according to Tsai’s own admission: his belief in Buddhism is not inconsequential, and we might infer that between the lines – or, hidden behind the bleak images – it is possible (or better: Tsai asks us) to meditate on life, impermance, vacuity. The rhythmical split screen might suggest that a mindful gaze, watching attentively and perceiving hidden correspondences between timelines, people and things, can and should bring relief to earthly desires and their relative suffering, and openly transcendent perspective. 

I find the cut at 6'30 very compelling. It reminds us of Tsai’s montage itself: from 'the poverty of contemporary Taipei' we jump to the musical piece, and it’s music from the past – the text says, 'bodily of physical grounds' and the editing achieves this, convincingly. Yet I’d add that, in the musical pieces, nostalgia plays a pivotal role. Is nostalgia physical? It probably is according to Cook, even if the video fails to dig into another temporal dimension of Tsai’s oeuvre, namely his work with the memories of the past. Specifically, Tsai uses songs that he used to listen to in his youth, and that also create a common imaginary for sinophone diasporic communities. The songs of Grace Chang are a memory anchor for an entire generation, and listening to them today evokes a vintage, retro patina. Besides, these songs were also music for films. The images prompt nostalgia as well: the elder protagonists of Goodbye, Dragon Inn are watching themselves in their young age on the screen; of course, spectators can relate to their sadness regardless, yet knowing that the phantomatic images of King Hu’s wuxia are a specific temporal quotation enhances the power of the ethereal melancholia. The montage of 'aging bodies', is also a montage of ghosts – memories from an intangible cinepiliac yet insistent heritage. 

At 7’25, bodily presence is further emphasized in ruined architecture, or, the other way round: are the metal and concrete screaming out their wordily existence, responding to their forgetful creators? See Tsai's abstract, formalist  short The Night (2021), dedicated only to the urban landscape - unless houses can be bodies as well, as the astute parallel at 7’39 shows.

'The body helps us see, much like a frame makes us pay attention to what it contains', yes, but also to what it excludes – hors champ, off-camera. By allegory: ghosts; dead; past love; past youth; imagination. Here, the invisible forces evoked by Tsai are summoned by the split montage. 

A final note: one aspect of the body is not touched upon: the slapstick comedy. I personally find Tsai’s films more and more funny. His bodies are disarticulated, silently falling and stumble, grotesquely scorched by invisible aches. Yes, bodies can be ridiculous or grotesque, and – I think – in the dreary vision that Tsai’s work strongly proposes, he also lets some hints of humor slip between the tears and pain. 


[1] Dima, Vlad. 2022. 'Review of "Displacement, Intimacy & Embodiment: Nearby Alain Gomis’ Multi Sensory Cinema"', [in]Transition: Journal of VIdeographic Film and Moving Images Studies, 9.2. http://mediacommons.org/intransition/displacement-intimacy-embodiment-nearby-alain-gomis%E2%80%99-multi-sensory-cinema