A sentimental education. Another of my beloved red and green films. Or an autobiography as sewn through a film, as a thread through the eye of a needle. What I don’t know, never know, is if my life is the eye or the thread. Who is sewn into whom? This cross-stitched life. Older Asian father with touch of melancholy, who dies at the start of the film and whose death forms (informs, deforms) everything that happens thereafter. Did I know, in 2001, watching this film in high school, that my life would turn out this way? That in watching I would be threaded into it and it would be threaded into me?
This is one of my favorite opening scenes, for that abrupt cut from the scene of the father, walking away from us, smoking outside, to Lee Kang-sheng in the taxi, holding his father’s urn. Speaking to his father. Saying to the urn: “We’re going into a tunnel now, you have to follow us, okay?” How the film inflicts and then endures that cut.
Derrida, “Shibboleth For Paul Celan”: “We will therefore focus on the date as a cut or incision that the poem bears in its body like a memory, sometimes several memories in one, the mark of a provenance, of a place and of a time. To speak of an incision or cut is to say that the poem is first cut into there [s’y entame]: it begins in the wounding of its date.”
What Time Is It There? begins in the wounding of a date (a death). And remains in the wounding of a date. What time is it there, I wonder? There where you are, there where I can’t go. Has time gone on for you, after the date you marked with your death? In this case (but actually, in every case), there is a spectral term. An invocation. To get there, you need a medium. Film is one kind of medium. What gets held there. What gets called there. A book, too. Everything I’ve ever made is in the realm of séance.
In the scene, the last word the father says is the son’s name. The last word my father said was my name. Is it true that the last thing you see before you die is imprinted on your pupils like a film? Because the last thing he saw was me. Eyes opened from within the coma. First and last clarity. Love. You recognized me. And now I’ve become a film for you. My life is playing for you. The way Shklovsky wrote in ZOO: OR LETTERS NOT ABOUT LOVE, the way I quote it all the time, tediously but truly: “My whole life is a letter to you.”
S’y entamer. Entamer, to start, to begin. Like beginning a film. Or to open up, to eat into, the way you start a new pot of jam or cut into a loaf of bread. To start, to cut into, to eat into. To be eaten into; the way a worm eats into wood. What eats up matter. What eats up a life. What eats me. What’s going to keep eating me up forever.
Or to cut into, like chiseling. Receiving the blows and cuts of the chisel. Carving. Gouging. Engraving and being engraved. What cuts a groove or hole into matter, so that the groove or hole is the matter, too. What can be cut into a stone, a film, a life. What can be borne by it, and born by it.
The mother in her green pants telling the son not to kill the cockroach, maybe it’s the father returned. In my family, it’s moths that we’re forbidden to kill. Moths the medium of the visitation. And moths often appear around me at crucial times. The vigilance of the beloved-as-returned-insect.
Watching Les 400 Coups (coups, blows, giving and receiving blows) in bed. In Taiwan. I think this scene cut me. The transit of a film. There are always brown people watching European movies in a messy or foreign bed, in everything I write or imagine. European civilization is something you see on the screen and then you venture there, a little like an idiot. And of course, once you get there: Total Disconnect (a décalage——a word I say constantly——a gap that opens up, décalage like a décalage horaire, the word for jet lag). Gap between what you saw and what you live. What others live and what you live.
Like the book by the Senegalese writer Omar Ba: Je suis venu, j’ai vu, je n’y crois plus. “I came, I saw, I don’t believe in it anymore.”
How he says: “Bref, en Europe, on n’est ni au paradis ni en enfer, on est en vie. En survie souvent.”
“Rien ne se présentait comme je l’avais imaginé. Tout se révélait beaucoup plus compliqué, notamment la vie quotidienne, faite de déprime et d’une routine traumatisante. Il fallait que je m’habitue à cette vie aux antipodes de mes illusions. Le choc était brutal.”
My life in Paris as Chen Shiang-chyi in What Time Is It There. Soon you realize you’re not Audrey Hepburn or Jean-Pierre Léaud. You live in a maid’s room. You have no friends. You eat Leader Price biscuits instead of proper food. Everyone who asks you about your life, you lie to. You broke up with all your friends back “home” because they were conservative anti-feminist assholes. Older white women give you the stink-eye in the metro. And the men who are nice to you are nice to you are the ones who want to get you into bed. And they all want to get you into bed. They have all sorts of fucked-up associations with faces like yours. The way they compliment you makes you want to die. Girls like you. Skin like yours. A body like yours. Eyes like yours. It’s the like yours that carries all the fucked-up shit in it. You’re a template to them. They want to fill you in. Fill you up. You can’t walk down the street anymore because men actually shout things like, Wo ai ni and konnichi wa to you in broad daylight. There’s even a Facebook group, started by Asian women in France about it; a group “contre les wo ai nis et les konnichiwas et d’autres conneries de la rue.” I would have joined, but I’m not on Facebook.
An older gentleman in your neighborhood starts stalking you. He’s not Jean-Pierre Léaud, the way he shows up later in this film and gives Shiang-chyi his number (though he pulls off the creepy older French gentleman thing so well, I shuddered). Your stalker is just an older gentleman with the same colonial fetish as the rest of them. You start to be scared to go out alone. You’ve had stalkers before. Paris starts to look like the inside of your room.
How to talk about this scene. In which Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) tries to stop his mother from closing out all the light in the apartment. The dead father won’t return to the apartment if there’s too much light, she insists. He wants to come back. Duct taping the windows. How Hsiao-kang tells her she’s crazy, tells her that the fish in their electric aquarium will die if she turns off the power. Tries to bring her back into the world of the living. Honoring the living. Tells her to stop. But he doesn’t walk away. In any other movie, usually you tell the person crazed with grief that she’s crazy and you walk away, you leave them alone, you give up on them, or you nobly give them “space.” But he doesn’t leave her alone. He never leaves the shot. He stays with her. He watches her. He holds her back. He tries to block her from the window. He makes his body a wall she can throw herself against. “Could you please stop?” he asks quietly, as she’s yelling at him. Let me keep the house the way he likes, get out, get out, get out of here, leave me alone. But he won’t leave her alone. He doesn’t want her to be this sad, to go this far into her grief. But he won’t leave her alone, either. This being one of my favorite-ever love scenes. The love scene as vigil. Hsiao-kang holding that candle. F. held me back, too. Slapped my face when I wanted to die. Love story as vigil. Love story consisting of these two plot points: the person you love is half-dead with grief, and you don’t leave her.
So there’s Jean-Pierre Léaud, as himself and also as every creepy older man in Paris with a thing for Asian girls. (He more or less plays that same role in Irma Vep with Maggie Cheung, too, but that’s another essay. Which probably intersects with this one. What does Jean-Pierre Léaud have to do with Asian girlhood in Europe? A lot, I think, as it turns out.)
There in Père Lachaise. There amongst the dead. The green benches and chairs of Paris. Usually the only color in the whole damned city, or at least it seemed so to me at the time.
Shiang-chyi throwing up in the red bathroom. But where was the kind girl who would bring me hot water, who would ask me where I’m from, who would take me home with her, who would let me kiss her mouth? Is that a template, too? In any case, she didn’t show up, at least not for me. I had been waiting for that girl for a while. Faye Wong in Chungking Express or Cecilia Yip in What Time Is It There. But this is another kind of décalage. The girl doesn’t come. You either become her or you make her up. You improvise. You still fall madly in love. You’re built for it, though at the time you’d rather eat glass then admit such a thing about yourself. But you wouldn’t have come here if it wasn’t true. If you weren’t that kind of person. That kind of believer. What’s romantic about a migrant? The most romantic thing is believing that things will turn out well here, instead of there. There, instead of here. It’s romantic to think that happiness could be spatial or geographical. Well, it’s romantic to think that only happiness is spatial or geographical. But sorrow is, too. Emotions being radical, radiant. Both rooted and beaming. It means they don’t budge and they go everywhere, at the same time. What else behaves like that? What’s at once stuck, engraved, and also omnipresent, every-time and every-where? Memories (Bliss Cua Lim, “space has a memory.”) Interlopers (travelers). Ghosts. Color. Time.
The great close-ups of weeping female faces in Tsai Ming-liang. The extreme vulnerability of the face in his films. And the extreme heterotopia of the erogenous body, the erogenous world. The diversity of erotic life and longing, in his films. What you make love to, what makes love to you. Where you can make love on your body. What really touches you, through touch and beyond. How permeable, how osmotic, the body and its desires are. How radically othering and self-othering the erotic (not necessarily the libidinal or even sexual) can be. What happens when people make themselves really vulnerable. That vulnerability is really the sex act. And it’s usually the vulnerability part that people fuck up. The fucking of fucking.
Thinking about his film Vive l’amour, which I’m going to name a book after. This might all be part of the book, now that I think about it. On Asian girlhood through Asian film. An (other) epistolary book. Writen from the perspective of the girl who didn’t come, as if she had come. The girl who, it turned out, didn’t exist; as if she had existed. Who cut me. And whom I am now calling into, carving into. Becoming or inventing. Improvising. Resurrecting. Reincarnating. Once again making into a body. Autrebiography.
Or, the way that the poet Heriberto Yépez redefines autobiography:
“we should read this term the other way around, and say something like this: writing is always auto <— bio <— graphical. never writing on me. but: graphos (text) constructing bios (life) that appears as auto (on-itself). autobiography: language writing on itself and thus becoming ‘alive.’”
Derrida, “Language is Never Owned”:
“The poetic act therefore constitutes a sort of resurrection: the poet is someone permanently engaged with a dying language that he resuscitates, not by giving back to it a triumphant line, but by sometimes bringing it back, like a revenant or phantom… not like an immortal body or a glorious body, but like a mortal body, frail, sometimes indecipherable… Each poem is a resurrection, but one that engages us to a vulnerable body, one that may be forgotten again.”
Those chairs are incredibly uncomfortable, I found. I hate how they lean backwards. I assume their reclining backs are meant to encourage repose, contemplation, the passage of time like in a pastoral idyll (but pastoral only the way the Petit Trianon would be pastoral for Marie Antoinette).
When I sat in them I always felt opened up, exposed, splayed out. I usually only sat on the edges, hunched over. Or curled up in them, knees to my chest. I never felt protected or at ease in those recumbent chairs. I always felt vulnerable, on display, supine, at the mercy of everyone around me. And the way the Jardin de Luxembourg itself is laid out only exacerbates the feeling. It’s like being at court (regal). Like being in court (judicial). I hated it. The only place that’s kind of nice is the Fontaine de Médicis, but even that feels like a strange kind of Parliament. I always feel on trial, when faced with the carved or cultivated beauty of Europe. Suspended in judgment. What it divides up and what it decorates. What it cuts and what it hides. What it imposes. How it imposes.
Space and emotions, huh. The emotionality and morality of geography and architecture. There where you’re made to feel you don’t belong, despite your place in a savagely unequal history having built it, made it possible. What does it mean, then, to go (back) to that place. To stay there. To not be removed from it. To squat, or to occupy.
Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth:
Today, national independence and the growth of national feeling in underdeveloped regions take on totally new aspects. In these regions, with the exception of certain spectacular advances, the different countries show the same absence of infrastructure. The mass of the people struggle against the same poverty, flounder about making the same gestures and with their shrunken bellies outline what has been called the geography of hunger. It is an underdeveloped world, a world inhuman in its poverty; but also it is a world without doctors, without engineers, and without administrators. Confronting this world, the European nations sprawl, ostentatiously opulent. This European opulence is literally scandalous, for it has been founded on slavery, it has been nourished with the blood of slaves and it comes directly from the soil and from the subsoil of that underdeveloped world. The well-being and the progress of Europe have been built up with the sweat and the dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians, and the yellow races. We have decided not to overlook this any longer.
Aimé Césaire, “Discourse on Colonialism: “
Because, after all, we must resign ourselves to the inevitable and say to ourselves, once and for all, that the bourgeoisie is condemned to become every day more snarling, more openly ferocious, more shameless, more smmarily barbarous; that it is an implacable law that every decadent class finds itself turned into a receptacle into which there flow all the dirty waters of history; that it is a universal law that before it disappears, every class must first disgrace itself completely, on all fronts, and that it is with their heads buried in the dunghill that dying societies utter their swan songs.
Franco Berardi, “Info Labour and Precarisation”:
How can we oppose the decimation of the working class and its systemic de-personalisation, the slavery that is affirmed as a mode of command of precarious and de-personalised work? This is the question that is posed with insistence by whoever still has a sense of human dignity. Nevertheless the answer does not come out because the form of resistance and of struggle that were efficacious in the C20th appear to no longer have the capacity to spread and consolidate themselves, nor consequently can they stop the absolutism of capital. An experience that derives from worker’s struggle in the last years, is that the struggle of precarious workers does not make a cycle. Fractalised work can also punctually rebel, but this does not set into motion any wave of struggle. The reason is easy to understand. In order for struggles to form a cycle there must be a spatial proximity of the bodies of labour and an existential temporal continuity. Without this proximity and this continuity, we lack the conditions for the cellularised bodies to become community. No wave can be created, because the workers do not share their existence in time, and behaviours can only become a wave when there is a continuous proximity in time that info-labour no longer allows.
When Hsiao-kang changes all the clocks in his vicinity in Taipei to Paris time, this isn’t just a romantic gesture, a wanderlusting melancholic’s gesture. Hsiao-kang as a man who sells watches on the street. His is the epitome of precarious and de-personalised work. And it’s this kind of work that preoccupies Tsai Ming-liang in all his films, in his emotional cinema of late modernity, of alienation under capitalist globalization. So what is the radical content of Hsiao-kang’s gesture, then: to change the time, to overcome the gap, the décalage, the discrepancy. To cross over the chiseled groove that divides us temporally and spatially, historically and economically. To try to share an existence in time, across countries, across life and death; to insist on a hyper-continuous and hyper-contiguous sense of space and time, when capitalism renders both so disjointed, and us so disjointed from them.
Another word for this is: revolutionary time. Time that you turn back, roll back, like the hands of a clock. Time you put your body inside, like in a ferris wheel car. A passenger and an occupier.
Of course there’s another side of Hsiao-kang’s gesture: changing Taipei time to Paris time, is that another example of the temporal zones that globalization/neoliberalization decimates, homogenizes, subsumes? Everyone has to run on Paris time, London time, New York time. On monolithic Western time as sold to us through movies and television. It has a bitter taste to me: that longing to be out of the time of Taipei and in the time of Europe, watching Les 400 coups and dreaming of a glamorous European Elsewhere, not yet knowing that the reality of European Elsewhere is so stark, so unrelenting. I don’t want to be on Paris time.
On European time. Overseas time. What’s time to a migrant. Time better there, not here. The time of the one who stays and the one who left. Stuck and everywhere. Time you try to be part of. Time you try to share. Time you choose or invent yourself. Time you make. Time you’ve already been made by, all this time.
Time that comes back——that you can make come back——like a spectre. What time is it there? There, which is also here? The future, which is now?