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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
 Lee Kang-sheng in Stray Dogs (2013)
 Chen Shiang-chyi in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)
 Interesting to note the multiple times throughout Tsai’s films that we see characters gaze contemplatively at fish tanks.
 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'.