Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Tsai Video

Going through those old screen captures, I found some images from a little Tsai Ming-Liang film called Fish, Underground. It's a video, about 30 minutes long. I remember I wanted to write about it then, but never got around to it. Well, it's late, I'm not doing anything better -- "no time like the present" and whatnot.

There's a story to the movie, and it goes like this: Tsai wanted to make a documentary about a medium, and so he hopped on his bike with a camcorder in tow; the bike broke down or the traffic was bad or something like that, and so he found himself stranded at local fair. So he takes the camcorder out and starts walking around.

Camcorders are complex instruments. They're not just cameras. They're microphones, VCRs, effect generators, titlers. It's a lot of power to put in a little plastic box; it's funny how casually we use them, like it's nothing at all to record sound and image, play back, turn on a digitial filter. Complex and uncomplicated -- there's a beautiful combination. So complete, you don't even have to think about it.

Sometime later, Tsai said that when he made the movie, he wasn't filming, but using the camera as his eyes. He said this about the shots of the tunnel and the dead fish from which the movie gets its name, but I don't remember those as well as, say, the girl shimmying to "...Baby One More Time," the way the gold miniskirt and platform shoes make her movements even more awkward or that bored expression on her face, like the kind a waitress has when she's bringing you the check. She's "dancing," not dancing -- she repeats the same movement over and over, not even following the rhythm of the song. It's what she's paid to do; when the song fades out, she continues her "dancing."

The girl starts "stripping," and the announcer behind her sees Tsai in the crowd and tells him to stop filming. He puts the camera in his bag, but he doesn't stop recording. If we can't see, we can at least hear. There's something like half a minute of the grainy blacks and browns of the inside of the bag while we hear the crowd applauding the show.

He intended it as a recording, but it's a sketchbook, too. There's an intersection with a broken traffic light, mopeds buzzing by in the hazy morning light. A street lamp casts a peach glow over a crosswalk to nowhere. It's the Kuala Lumpur of I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, but as he first found it in Taiwan.

I don't remember whether I saw the latter movie before or after I saw this one, but, either way, I noticed no connection in 2007. What difference a couple of years make. Now it seems obvious, as though at any moment those Bangladeshi men will carry the lice-filled mattress through the intersection.


Danimal said...

I've never heard of this video, but now I must see it. Thank you.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

You should. I'll lend you a copy sometime. It's made me appreciate Tsai more -- I've come to think of his images less as designs than objects and bodies arranged in space, a little like a still life. Having "seen what he sees," I think those Tsai images aren't about some sort of formal prettiness, but about a way to explore relationships between elements he sees around him or finds interesting, or the way an angle can show certain gigantic aspects of a space (his is an oversized world).