[1] It will be clear later why I have insisted on both “gay” and “queer” as adjectives here. But let me say at the outset that for me these terms are not collapsible (despite recent usage), yet are also not simply to be opposed in terms of generation, but rather in terms of a conceptual or ontological distinction. I take my cue from Moe Meyer, who argues that unlike the identities labeled “gay and lesbian,”

“Queer sexualities become, then, a series of improvised performances whose threat lies in the denial of any social identity derived from participation in those performances. As a refusal of sexually defined identity, this must also include a denial of the difference upon which such identities have been founded. And it is precisely in the space of this refusal, in the deconstruction of the homo/hetero binary, that the threat and challenge to bourgeois ideology is queerly executed.” (3).

A more practical reason for the distinction is that not all men who participate in cruising and homosexual sex would identify as “gay men” (nor might they identify as “queer” but here I use the term as a concept not an identity label). [return to page 1 of essay]

[2] On this, see Miriam Hansen’s discussion of how “the cinema as a heterotopia converges with the concept of an alternative public sphere” (402) in early cinema’s specific social context of theatrical reception prior to the disciplining of spectatorship in accordance with middle-class taste. I would like to thank John Mowitt for suggesting this connection.

[3] Put variously by Lacan in “God and the Jouissance of [The] Woman”: “there is no sexual relation” (143), “the absence of sexual relation” (141), and “in the case of the speaking being the relation between the sexes does not take place” (138). (See also Kirsten Hyldgaard, “Sex as Fantasy and Sex as Symptom”). Tsai’s The Hole is literally structured by the gendered splitting of two apartments connected by a hole in the floor/ceiling, and the frustrated desire/ curiosity/ communication between them (Lee Kang-sheng as “The Man Upstairs,” Yang Kuei-Mei as “The Woman Downstairs”). Elizabeth Grosz clarifies Lacan’s assertion in terms which fit the fantastical unifying ending of Tsai’s The Hole quite aptly:

"The subject demands a wholeness, unity, and completion which it imagines the other can bestow on it. The symbolic, on the other hand, requires a subject irrevocably split, divided by language, governed by the phallus and the Other. Love relations aspire to a union or unity that is strictly impossible. The two can never become One. The desire for the One is, for Lacan, the desire of the Other, the Other beyond the other. … In other words, the Other always intervenes between the subject and the other. There is no direct, unmediated relation between the sexes. The obstacle to love, so central to chivalric forms of love, is not external. It is the internal condition of human subjectivity and sexuality, constituted as they are by a rift governed by the Other." (137)

Lacan might also be helpful for reading an enigmatic erotic scene in The Hole in which the woman in the downstairs apartment participates in (fantasy?) phone sex. Grosz explains:

“Lacan counterposes a resistant and residual jouissance of the woman, an ecstasy that man has (mis)taken for divinity. Woman experiences a jouissance beyond the phallus. But if this enigmatic jouissance is attributed to woman as her mark of resistance to the Other, at the same time, this jouissance is, by that fact, strictly outside of articulation and is thus unknowable.” (139).

This is clearly what makes feminists ambivalent about Lacan, and while I have tried to indicate how Lacan might help us read The Hole, I don’t think that Tsai’s work is therefore Lacanian. Tsai certainly focuses on jouissance, but in the end I have found Barthes’s use of this same vocabulary (in The Pleasure of the Text) more appropriate here. I am also mindful of the danger of too heavily “applying” French theory to Tsai’s work, what Chris Wood calls “the dangers of over-criticism.” Despite having used André Bazin and Julia Kristeva to speculate about Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Wood concludes:

“Although it is often tempting to compose grand stories in which Tsai fulfills the fantasies of European critical theory, ultimately what makes Tsai’s cinema so compelling is its light-hearted playfulness” (113).

Though Lacan is quite aware of the “comedy” of romance, a Lacanian reading may not help us pick up on the comic, almost camp effects in Tsai’s musical The Hole, either.

[4] In an interview with Danièle Rivière, Tsai explains his relation to the actor’s body:

"For me it’s very important to work with Lee Kang-sheng for example, because I’m very familiar with how he acts. … Lee Kang-sheng may have changed between two shoots, but I always find it easy to get back into working with him. For instance, over the last two years his body has changed a lot. Recently I had lunch with him and some friends and they said to him: ‘You’ve really filled out!’ I don’t find it a problem working with the same actors all the time because I know that people who follow my films go to see them all. Lee Kang-sheng, who is already very close to the characters he plays, is actually two things in one, and the audience can see how the real person has changed as well." (108)

In an interview with Michael Berry his language is almost romantic:

“At one point he [Lee] came to complain to me and said that he didn’t want to do any more films with me after The Hole. He signed a contract with a Hong Kong agent and went off to shoot Ann Hui’s film Ordinary Heroes. But I didn’t really take his words to heart; I figured that he would go off and do his thing, but I knew that he would be back when we had to make another film. But he was very adamant and said that he didn’t want to be in my movies because I never gave him a real part that he could sink his teeth into. … But I knew that if he went out and worked with other directors, he’d be back.” (381).

[5] This is why I find Tsai’s films “queer” rather than “gay,” simply because his vision of cruising goes beyond being “about gay men” in any sort of matter-of-fact way. Certainly Tsai has experience making films about gay people, as evidenced by his AIDS documentary My New Friends (1995), which he describes in an interview with Danièle Rivière:

"My producer at the time advised me not to look for a homosexual HIV sufferer. ‘Why not?’ I asked her. ‘It would be stupid for people to link AIDS with homosexuality.’ I went home to think about it, and came back to tell her that I would still prefer to use a homosexual. Personally I think that in Taiwan, as in many other countries in the world, there are many people with a stereotypical and rather negative view of AIDS because they think of it as a disease of homosexuals. So I thought that if they knew so little about the disease, they probably knew nothing about the life of a homosexual either." (92)

Tsai’s logic here is quite refreshing, actually, but beyond this documentary I would question whether Tsai’s other films are “about” homosexuals (to use his term) in Taiwanese society. Tsai has declared “I’m sick of people labeling my films as ‘gay films’ or ‘dysfunctional family films’" (Berry 385). I believe that sexuality is “queered” in films like The River, The Hole, Vive L’Amour, and his most recent feature I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (see Martin 84–85, 85n4, and Johnston, online). Vive L’Amour is to my knowledge the most often identified as having a “gay” character (played by Lee Kang-sheng), but Angelo Restivo, in the context of a reading of the film in connection with Antonioni, resists this particular reading. After putting “gay” in quotation marks, Restivo adds in a note,

“While promotional literature for this film calls the character ‘gay,’ I find the film to be ambiguous on this point.” (193n16).

I think Michael Moon’s concept of “sexual disorientation” — as a way of challenging a certain kind of “knowingness” about homosexual identity — might apply to Tsai’s characters, who also challenge our knowingness about their sexual identities. Like Delany’s personal-sociological reflections on cruising in his account of Times Square porn theaters, I do not presume that all the men doing the cruising in Tsai’s film are “gay men” per se. In this, I differ slightly from Kenneth Chan’s reading of gay cruising in the film. Chan argues:

"The gay men in the Fu Ho Theatre are ultimately ghostly not only because of their abject status in Taiwan, but also in terms of their appropriation of liminal spaces abandoned by mainstream culture and society. They ‘haunt’ the theatre in search of sexual fulfilment [sic] and human connection that is never to be … I do not seek here to judge gay sexual practices of public or anonymous sex, but rather to critique the way homophobia drives gay sexuality ‘underground’, creating liminal zones of ghostly existence. Tsai’s representation of gay cruising in the Fu Ho Theatre, therefore, becomes a powerful politicization of place where social wounds, in this case those of the gay community, are revealed." (99)

Chan makes it clear that in emphasizing institutional homophobia he has chosen not to valorize queer freedom, though he supports a “politically multivalent view of gay cruising” (99n8). While I am sympathetic with Chan’s stated desire not to moralize, I think he might end up doing so despite himself, however now on behalf of an unambiguously out and proud “gay community.” Again, this is why I find Delany so helpful, since he resists both forms of moralizing, without ignoring institutional homophobia. I should also add that I read Chan’s essay after composing my own, and have incorporated his insights into my revision. [return to page 2]

[6] The three-year-old boy and grandfatherly Miao Tien are in fact a “ghostly” intertextual reference to Lee Kang-sheng’s directorial debut film The Missing (Bu jian) produced around the same time as a companion to Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bu san). The two appear as “ghosts” or, in a more lighthearted joke, as gone “missing” in the theater in Tsai’s film. (I thank Chuck Kleinhans for clarifying this for me.) Tsai provides the back-story in his interview with Michael Berry, starting with the theater about to be torn down:

"I ran into the owner again, and he told me they were preparing to tear all the seats out and rent the space. As soon as he told me that, I could feel myself starting to get anxious. I immediately called my producer and told him to rent it so we could make a short film there … It was just around that time that Hsiao Kang [Lee Kang-sheng] was also planning to make his directorial debut with a short that eventually became a feature and was renamed The Missing (Bujian). I liked Hsiao Kang’s script so I decided to work with him on it. It was at that moment that I thought, Why don’t we each make a short in the theater? One is called Bujian [lit. “don’t meet”], the other is called Busan [lit. “don’t leave”], the Chinese titles of which together form the popular idiom bu jian bu san, which means 'don’t leave until we meet.'" (388) [return to page 3 ]

[7] On this, see my article, “We Are the World Cinema: Chacun son cinéma, ou, Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s’éteint et que le film commence” in Senses of Cinema 45 (2007) (online):

and the editorial by Rolando Caputo and Scott Murray in the same issue:

[8] Though they often try to show how Tsai’s particular use of nostalgia avoids potentially reactionary uses of nostalgia: specifically Chan reads the nostalgia in Goodbye, Dragon Inn in a way that “disrupts its conservative possibilities,” arguing that “this nostalgia, in employing place-based politics, allows Goodbye, Dragon Inn to question the cultural commodification of Chinese culture in the recent Hollywood interest in the wu xia pian” (92). Likewise, Hu draws out the ambiguity and ambivalence of nostalgia as it is deployed in Tsai’s The Skywalk Is Gone and Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

[9] Also, several of the characters appear quite pale and are lit with a slightly greenish light reflecting from the screen, thereby conforming to the conventions for representing “ghosts” in Chinese cinema, especially of the King Hu era. Thus, they seem more like ghosts by association with cinematic presentations of ghosts. I thank Chuck Kleinhans for pointing this out to me.

Works cited

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Barthes, Roland. “Soirées de Paris.” Incidents. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992. 49–73.

Berry, Michael. “Tsai Ming-liang: Trapped in the Past.” Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. 362–97.

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Burston, Paul. “Confessions of a Gay Film Critic, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Cruising.” Anti-Gay. Ed. Mark Simpson. London: Freedom, 1997. 84–97.

Chan, Kenneth. “Goodbye, Dragon Inn: Tsai Ming-liang’s political aesthetics of nostalgia, place, and lingering.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1.2 (2007): 89–103.

Chow, Rey. Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.

Davis, Colin. “Hauntology, spectres and phantoms.” French Studies 59.3 (2005): 373–79.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

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(online): http://www.sensesofcinema.com/

Edelman, Lee. “Tearooms and Sympathy, or, The Epistemology of the Water Closet.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Ed. Abelove et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 553–74.

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Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A feminist introduction. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Hansen, Miriam. “Chameleon and Catalyst: The cinema as an alternative public sphere.” The Film Cultures Reader. Ed. Graeme Turner. New York: Routledge, 2002. 390–419.

Hu, Brian. “Goodbye City, Goodbye Cinema: Nostalgia in Tsai Ming-liang’s The Skywalk is Gone.Senses of Cinema (online):

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Films cited

The 400 Blows (Les quatre cent coups), 1959. Dir. François Truffaut. Criterion.

Chacun son cinéma, ou, Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s’éteint et que le film commence, 2007. Curated by Gilles Jacob. Cannes/Canal+.

Dragon Inn (Long men ke zhen), 1966. Dir. King Hu.

Dragon Inn (Xin long men ke zhan) [remake], 1992. Dir. Raymond Lee. Tai Seng Video.

The Eye (Gin gwai), 2002. Dir. Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang. Palm.

Far From Heaven, 2002. Dir. Todd Haynes. Universal.

Fireworks, 1947. Dir. Kenneth Anger. Mystic Fire Video.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Bu san), 2003. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Homegreen Films.

The Hole (Dong), 1998. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Fox Lorber.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Hei yan quan), 2006. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Fortissimo Films/Strand Releasing.

Man with the Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom), 1929. Dir. Dziga Vertov. Kino Video.

Midnight Cowboy, 1969. Dir. John Schlesinger. MGM/UA Home Entertainment.

My New Friends (Wo xin renshi de pengyou), 1995. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang.

Rebels of the Neon God (Ch’ing shaonien na cha), 1992. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Mongrel Media.

The River (He liu), 1997. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Leisure Time Features.

Sunset Boulevard, 1950. Dir. Billy Wilder. Paramount Home Video.

Scream, 1996. Dir. Wes Craven. Dimension Films.

The Terrorizers (Kongbu fenzi), 1986. Dir. Edward Yang.

Vive L’Amour (Ai qing wan sui), 1994. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Strand Releasing.

What Time Is It There? (Ni neibian jidian), 2001. Dir. Tsai Ming-liang. Wellspring Media.

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