Academic journal article Post Script

Drifting Bodies and Flooded Spaces: Visualizing the Invisibility of Heteronormativity in Tsai Ming-Liang's the River

Academic journal article Post Script

Drifting Bodies and Flooded Spaces: Visualizing the Invisibility of Heteronormativity in Tsai Ming-Liang's the River

Article excerpt

I will continue to be interested in people who are blue-collar, marginalized and subjugated, and document their lives.

--Tsai Ming-liang

Tsai's films are highly metaphorical and, as a result, offer multiple possible points of entry into them, leading to an irresolvable network of connotations.

--Rey Chow


Over the past two decades, Taiwan, like many other Asian countries, has witnessed the unprecedented flowering of gay cultures, ranging from gay activist groups and gay-themed literature, film and television drama to various commercial venues, such as gay bars and dance clubs. However, despite the blooming visibility, gays and lesbians in Taiwan seem to be confronted with two imperative challenges. The first challenge is that through the process of assimilation into the mainstream society, the otherness and criticalness of the gay rights movement in the early 1990s has been rap idly erased, flattened and replaced by a growing number of normalized, globalized and commodified gay images. The second challenge is that the surge of visibility and publicity of mainstream gay identity not only further marginalizes non-mainstream gays and lesbians, but also paradoxically renders heterosexuality even more invisible and uncontested.

In light of these two challenges, the objective of this essay is to use Tsai Mingliang's (1) third feature, The River (1997) to revisualize and re-signify the invisibility of heteronormativity. By "the invisibility of heteronormativity," I mean the ways in which the majority of heterosexuals have been living in a heteronormative society without seeing or questioning it because they have grown up within it. In other words, heteronormativity is particularly invisible to those who take their sexuality for granted and benefit from it. In order to make heteronormativity visible and contestable, Tsai Ming-liang utilizes deformed bodies and spaces in his film to excavate the invisible and yet compulsory process of naturalization of heterosexuality. This essay includes two parts. The first part situates Tsai's oeuvre within the socio-cultural context of tongzhi movement in Taiwan while differentiating his films from the surge of mainstream "gay films" since the late 1990s. In the second part, I analyze how The River juxtaposes images of bodies, spaces and water not only to visualize heteronormativity as phantasmatic but also to forge a "fluid" alliance between women and gays to counter the male-dominated heterosexual family structure in Taiwan.

Born in 1957 in Kuching, Malaysia, where his grandfather had emigrated from China, Tsai Ming-liang is no stranger to diasporic displacement. In 1977, like many other Malaysian Chinese (2) youths of his generation, Tsai came to Taiwan to pursue a college education. (3) Upon receiving a degree in Dramatic Arts from the Chinese Culture University in 1981, Tsai decided to stay in Taipei and became a playwright and theatrical producer. His early productions, including Instant Bean Sauce Noodle (1981), A Sealed Door in the Dark (1982), and A Wardrobe in the Room (1983), already exhibited his extraordinary talents for portraying the isolation and alienation of modern people in contemporary Taiwanese society, which has become a recurrent theme in his later work.

From 1983 to 1991, Tsai first devoted himself to writing movie scripts and then worked as a television screenwriter and director, which prepared him for his leap into feature films. While shooting the television film The Kid in 1991, Tsai discovered Lee Kang-sheng at a video arcade. Though Lee had no prior acting experience, he soon became Tsai's favorite actor, playing the central character in all of Tsai's films. (4) In his sixteen-year career as a director, Tsai has directed eight critically acclaimed feature-length films: Rebels of the Neon God (1992), Vive L'Amour (1994), The River (1997), The Hole (1998), What Time Is It There? …

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