Pleasure and Its Discontents: Lee Kang-Sheng’s Help Me, Eros

by Edwin Mak Volume 14, Issue 2 / February 2010 15 minutes (3575 words)

[T]his world already decrees itself free, it presents itself as ‘the free world’ – this is the very name it gives itself, an ‘isle’ of liberty on a planet otherwise reduced to slavery or devastation. Yet, at the same time […] this world, our world, standardizes and commercializes the stakes of such freedom. It submits them to monetary uniformity, and with such success that our world no longer has to revolt to be free since it guarantees us freedom. However it does not guarantee us the free use of this freedom, since such use is in the reality already coded, orientated and channeled by the infinite glitter of merchandise.

– Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought [1]

Sexual desire is preoccupied with youth, and the tendency to regard ever-younger girls as fair game was simply a return to the norm; a return to the true nature of desire, comparable to the return of stock prices to their true value after a run on the exchange.

– Michel Houellebecq, Atomised [2]

Early in the film we see Jie (Lee Kang Sheng) [Li Kangsheng] in his office or work environment, the film’s only sight of this location. There he sluggishly wakes at his desk, after what we already know is, another marijuana-laced stupor. He stares at a bank of flickering monitors displaying a flux of colourful alphanumeric characters: indexed names, prices, shares, and bonds; the global stock exchange’s fluctuating market-blood. It is a brief and virtually silent scene yet its significance is fundamental to both the film’s narrative construction, and this essay’s interpretation of its thematic representations, via its evocative usage of mise-èn-scene. Help Me, Eros ( Bang bang wo ai shen, 2007) critiques ways economic forces affect, as a process and contaminant, human life within the microcosm of urban Taiwan. This contamination process includes phenomena and everyday experiences of employment, and exchange —both bartered and monetary. Moreover, the film illustrates still broader contamination at the level of desire: the social construction and economics of desirability in transaction; its unavoidable commodification in globalized market capitalism; furthermore, collective alienation of subjects apropos cultures, lifestyles and nihilistic sexual conventions subsuming them.

Help Me, Eros was produced —like Lee’s debut The Missing (Bu jian, 2003)— by Homegreen Films, which also houses the works of his great mentor, Tsai Ming-liang [Cai Mingliang]. That there is an aesthetic continuity between them, then, comes as little surprise: Lee has appeared consistently in each of Tsai’s works since their shared cinematic debut, Rebels of a Neon God (Qian shaonien de nuozha, 1992); for Lee as actor, and Tsai as director. Some critics have even remarked that “Xiao Kang” –“little Kang” as Lee is affectionately known in local media– is more than a mere muse, but functions unofficially as Tsai’s onscreen alter ego, like Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel for François Truffaut––one of Tsai’s acknowledged heroes. Despite Lee’s own artistic autonomy, however, Help Me, Eros displays more than subtle traces of Tsai’s sensibilities as precedented in classics that spearheaded Taiwan’s second new wave cinema, such as Tsai’s Vive L’Amour (Aiqing Wanshui, 1994), The River (Heliu, 1997) and The Hole (Dong, 1998). The urban desolation is an immediately familiar scenario: a trio of dejected urbanites defined only by their anonymity to each other and their city —Kaoshiung, Taiwan’s reticulated Southern concrete metropolis— until chance encounters disrupt their routines. The focus here shall be on the exasperated pair: Jie and Shin. Jie is an unemployed marijuana-addicted bachelor living alone; so intense is his addiction that he declares it —with his homegrown crop— “his life.” We learn that he frequently depends on Samaritan counseling, and confides that his current life is unrecognizable with his past––now “unable to find work as a cleaner,” before he earned “a million NTD a month” investing in stocks. From a contrastive working class background is Shin (Ivy Yi), who chooses to earn a living by putting her attractive looks to use: working as a so-called “betel nut beauty” (Binlang xishi), roadside vendors of areca nuts––the snacks are popular amongst long-distance drivers on account of their caffeine-like properties. [3] Shin, at first, encounters Jie as a customer but after a series of unexpected encounters become lovers, finding solace in each other. Their relationship is short-lived, however, as Jie’s hedonistic tendencies exhaust Shin’s tolerance. Briefly retreating to her rural hometown, she works on a betel nut farm before returning to Kaoshiung once more in the film’s final act.

Lost in Exchange

Marx’s theory of alienation [Entfremdung] —and its related notion valuation— continues to be relevant in considering situations wherever human experience, labour, objects, and the logic of capital are concerned. [4] And the environments and exchanges arranged in Help Me, Eros are compatible, as a visual representation of objects and relations, for such a reading. The film suggests a common question to that in Marx’s seminal manuscripts: what persists in value after value in itself, and value in relation to other people or things in exchange are discerned? Or as Marx put it: ‘If the product of labor is alien to me, if it confronts me as an alien power, to whom, then, does it belong?’5 These questions and its proceeding responses are repeatedly articulated throughout the film in an array of visual and dramatic terms; some of which are highlighted in what follows. They are aided, however, by also considering the representation of the environment as an example of a “city film”; a notion allowing for both an allegorical conceptualization of Kaohshiung, and an appreciation of its material spatiality —a composite of inhabitants, objects, their exchanges etc. [6]

Memorably illustrating this notion is the film’s comic exchange sequence (as I like to call it). It traces the fluctuating value of a single fifty NTD coin passing through various arrangements of urban space that originates diegetically as a money-to-commodity transaction between Jie and Shin at the betel nut kiosk: Jie, on foot, spends the coin in payment for a packet of cigarettes and a free betel nut, out of sympathy. The coin “bounces,” however, when her colleague eventually confronts Shin for carelessly accepting it; we discover that the coin is no longer currency, already obsolete in value. Told that she would have to personally compensate for future mistakes, she notices another colleague flaunting a gift from a customer driving a sports car: a designer handbag, itself exchanged for an agreed date. Both given and received gifts emphasize Shin’s comparatively poor return on an otherwise equivalent labour with her colleague. Afterwards, Shin attempts to recoup her loss by confronting Jie as she notices him passing her kiosk. Jie is carrying a mildly absurd-looking designer lamp to the local pawnshop —itself nothing more than another concentrated exchange of exchanges. Shin demands to be reimbursed by Jie: a new coin in exchange for the old; however, without any cash he is able only to offer her his lamp in its place. Finally, this sequence of exchanges ends after Shin declines his offer with the lamp also refused by the pawnbroker. The lamp becomes, like the coin out of circulation, worthless in itself, despite even his insistence of its “designer” value. The scene illustrates the arbitrary nature of objects in valuation; objects have little to no use-value when stripped of their illusory qualities: their commodity fetishism in exchange. It is precisely this absurdity that’s exacted in the scene’s sardonic marrying of long-take and mise-en-scène: as the pawnbroker vocally discerns use-value from exchange-value, the lamp is symmetrically-framed in the shot’s composition by shape, size, colour, and position by a pair of ivory tusks locked ostentatiously within the shop’s display cabinet.

Beyond exchanges at the micro-level, the film also depicts labour processes that re- values things and humans on a larger scale, but relate humans with consumer objects all the same. With this is mind we can return to the film’s central narrative and visual object: the controversial betel nut retail industry that employs female “betel nut beauties” exclusively. [7] Displayed in neon lit kiosks —as ostentatiously as the aforementioned ivory tusks—, furnished with pole-dancing poles and its obligatory seediness are these female workers. As retailing extensions of consumer produce they serve betel nut commerce precariously; they exemplify alienation through the sale of labour. They are at once: individuals valued in themselves, and made-to-be-lurid consumerist interfaces valued only insofar as the desirability of the products they serve remain desirable. This ambivalence is portrayed in two contrasting visual styles: realistically, where tedium and danger are included —one girl is abused by an aggressive customer; and, fantastically, where their idealized coquettishness operate uninhibitedly— seen only by Jie as he hallucinates. This process extends beyond the urban, however, the film follows the heartbroken Shin into the countryside where she still is unable to escape the industry; where she picks betel nuts on a farm. In effect, the betel nut industry and its labour processes map a fuller extent of both the social and geographical breadth of their employees’ fate, one that is diagrammatical of capitalist logic. Shin never escapes.

Jean Baudrillard in The Consumer Society captures this profoundly warped relation between human subjects and (non-human) objects affected by rampant consumerism. Unadulterated consumerism, he writes, “represents something of a fundamental mutation in the ecology of the human species,” since, “humans of the age of affluence are surrounded not so much by other human beings, as they were in all previous ages, but by objects.” [8] The consumer objects’ ecological dominance within cities, in modernity, mutates human experiences of them to an extent where urban life becomes synonymous with “liv[ing] by object time,” life subsumed “beneath their mute gaze.” [9] Similarly, Miriam Hansen described this condition as “the modernity of mass production, mass consumption, mass annihilation, of rationalization, standardization and media publics.” [10] The described social ecology is typified by modern Taiwan, particularly in light of the region’s widely discussed adoption of neoliberal political economics and globalized trade in the 1980s —the so-called “economic miracle.” [11] June Yip clearly reflected this initial wave of optimism when she wrote —in 2004— that:

Today the island’s supermarkets and department stores are stocked with the hottest fashions and newest consumer goods from Asia, Europe and the Americas, and the streets of its cities are lined with international franchises like 7-Eleven, McDonald’s, and IKEA. As personal income increases, the Taiwanese people have become avid and knowledgeable consumers (thanks to the internationalization of advertising) of brand name products from all over the world. [12]

Aside from consumer “wisdom,” the film may be read as a response to this condition by posing the question: what are the lived local ramifications of these globalized exchanges?

Lost in Sexuality

Urban Taiwan’s globalized heterogeneity, as Yip described, changes not only their geopolitical significance amongst “complex network[s] of transnational capital, global communications, and mass consumer culture,” but also the interpersonal relations of their inhabitants. [13] For these inhabitants, interpersonal inclusion has two possible ontological implications. The first recognizes the intrinsic alienation in Yip’s definition of this global interpersonal relation; that they ‘have become active and avid participants in global circuits of economic and cultural exchange’ realizes Marx’s notion of ‘Species-being’: inhabitants are estranged from being-themselves locally, and being-a-participant globally, yet are at once both. [14], [15] The second speculates on the inhabitants’ total objectification by circuits of exchange, since participation in global capital permeates their being such that they are de facto no more than circuits themselves; a radically post-human “subjectivity” that we might even call: circuit-being. In either case, however, we recognize the inhabitants’ desires––consumerist idiosyncrasies included––as fully subsumed by the logic of global capital, where both are no longer distinct: global capital’s logic is local interpersonal desire. Supporting this notion is Lacan’s famous structuration: ‘desire is the desire of the Other,’ where the Other is recognized as desire-manufacturing symbolic discourse such as advertising and the mass media industry in general. [16] Thus, global capital operates as a hegemony of desire’s inexhaustible idiosyncrasies, a standardization of desirability that allows for discursive manipulation of its conventions, including the meanings of: sexuality, sexual difference, intimacy, adequacy, and ultimately––as the film suggests: the fragile conditions for love within them.

The idea of fragility or vulnerability is the opening scene’s keynote, where Shin begins betel nut beauty work, but attention is paid to her colleague tending to a trucker customer. Clinging to the truck door after pole dancing down from her kiosk, she awaits payment. Arranged in a medium head-and-shoulder shot placing her mid-frame faced inwards, the sight of the balding middle-aged trucker masturbating desperately off-screen is reflected and fragmented in the truck’s two wing mirrors behind her. Unfazed, she stretches across to collect cash from his half-extended and unoccupied arm, but without ceasing, he retracts and pleads to her gently: “help me.” Out of an indifferent mixture of professionalism and pity, she simulates an orgasm for him. The scene ends as they “climax” together, but never at any time touch.

This short scene can be interpreted in a number of ways, three of which shall be sketched.

One is to view it as an inversion —at least temporarily— of masculine chauvinism, or a phallocentrism that exploits the betel nut worker’s femininity. Clearly this recalls Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, which subjects, and in a sense devalues, the visualized female body to a privileged male voyeur. Rather, on the basis of this looking-and-looked-at relation, here, the male is reframed as the subject of feminine scrutiny by way of an audience’s complicity. This inverted relation is emphasized by the male’s metaphorical imprisonment within the mirror’s reflection, as if incarcerated by his desires of the Other, in both senses of this relation. This inversion surrenders the exploiter’s supposed privilege: he becomes the subject of her pity, providing her with agency, if not superiority over him. Here, masculinity cedes its dominance to the femininity it is powerless in desiring to resist.

The second reading, however, recognizes the unmentioned mediation by capital outlined in the first. In that, referring to desire’s power relations or of being-desired —the privilege of desire over manifest power— implicitly recognizes its own privileging of processes that construct desirability itself, or, simply: what is desirable. It is possible to view capital as this privileged process, above the ranking of all phenomena considered manifestly powerful or sexually desirable precisely by depending on it in order to be powerful or desirable. Here, in praxis, the business of betel nut retail exists merely as a nodal point of capital’s wider structural flow, the accumulation of profits that is capitalism. Objecting to any gender-based privilege is to lose sight of capitalism’s true hegemony. Thus, the betel nut beauty profession —facilitating libidinal traps— demonstrates capitalism’s equal, or at least indifferent, profitable extraction from both: fetishized feminine servility, and manifest masculine power, however false.

The third reading links this scene with the film’s other sexual depictions, identifying the deeper ideological implications of consensual masturbation: values endemic of a society where even group sex is a disconnection. The logic for this claim originates in Slavoj Žižek’s Hegelian reading of a British charity sex health event named “Masturbate-a-thon,” which fundraised and campaigned against public attitudes towards “self love” as anti-social, conversely, promoted the idea that collective masturbation deserves recognition as a form of liberal enlightenment, as such. [17] Žižek extrapolated the underlying contradictions within,

its form and content: [in that] it builds a collective out of individuals who are ready to share with others – what? The solipsistic egotism of their stupid enjoyment. This contradiction, however, is more apparent than real: Freud already knew about the link between narcissism and immersion into crowd […]This coincidence of the opposed features is grounded in the exclusion that they share: one not only can be, one IS “alone in a crowd,” i.e., both an individual’s isolation and his/her immersion into a crowd exclude intersubjectivity proper, encounter with an Other. [18] (Emphases added)

Applying this logic to both the opening scene and events surrounding the film’s later orgy scene––involving Jie, Shin, and two other betel nut girls––this counterintuitive yet resolutely false intersubjectivity is rendered apparent; the collective always remains ardently individualistic. This orgy seals Jie’s diegetic fate, but, crucially, indicates how it should be valued too. Clearly, it is portrayed not as a celebration of sexual liberalism, but precisely its antithesis: the mourning of its —and Jie’s— conscious self-destruction. Jie’s indulgence in the orgy betrays his unspoken fidelity to Shin, and with it the possibility of trust itself. This betrayal by orgy, as is suggested by the scene’s phantasmagorical superimposition of luxury brand logos on their writhing and contorting bodies, literally reveals the truth of their libidinal consumerist subsumption.

The film ends with a cycle of events depicting Jie’s pre-suicide acts, expressing an impotent resignation. Each act is laden with pathos: having had his domestic utilities disconnected, he waters his marijuana plants with his rations instead of quenching his own thirst; after losing his fortune to avaricious speculation, he pawns his remaining possessions for as many lottery tickets; he checks his lottery numbers by chasing, until exhaustion, a broadcast from a moving vehicle. Even his first suicide attempt fails; his last gas canister expires before he does. However, each instance cumulates towards a fitting climax, represented appropriately in a moment of magic realism —which seemingly confirms theories already discussed. In a wide-shot from his rear, Jie leap’s from his apartment window, but shortly after we see only a blizzard of transubstantiated lottery tickets, descending upon Shin in the kiosk below. Jie’s final transformation elegiacally materializes the reality of his utter commodification.

Capitalism as represented by the film contaminates not only experiences of alienation, but also desire’s regrettable subsumption of love. Here, we would do well in referring to Alain Badiou’s amorous conceptualizations. Very simply, Badiou conceives of love as a procedure absolutely opposed to desire’s necessary excessiveness; an excessiveness inextricable with globalized capitalism’s insatiable and exponential accumulation. In that, love affirms itself as the condition for truths subtracting themselves from desire’s anarchy, or, as Peter Hallward puts it:

desire, as desire for something or someone, is always the effect of a socially mediated triangulation. Such mimetic desire has nothing to do with love. Love is no more a matter of interindividual negotiation or envy than it is of Romantic fusion or obsession (original emphasis). [19]

Thus, love is attained not just through resisting market-tainted desire, but also via an axiomatic fidelity to love’s generic intersubjectivity: what Badiou calls the “stage of the Two.” [20] Jie’s failure to remain faithful to his initial encounter with Shin constitutes the fatal regret at Help Me, Eros’s heart. And as demonstrated by Žižek, such microcosmic grievances permit wider ideological extrapolations that extend toward criticisms of collectives and societies, both in terms of scale and severity. Such examples, as Žižek insists, are societies resigned to “post-political biopolitics.” [21] In embracing neoliberalism and administrative governance —resembling laissez faire economics— the real heart of politics is lost. It is also worth mentioning that Badiou considers love as one of only four other conditions capable of truth —science, art, and politics being the other three— and, furthermore, able to discern subjects from the pure multiplicity of objects composing them. Seen in this light, then, Help Me, Eros functions as a warning of enjoyment’s abyssal nature. And demonstrates this not through a sanitized lens, but from experience’s ruin; attesting to pleasure’s inherent vacuity; transience, and discontent.


Endnotes

1 Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought, Trans. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens, London: Continuum, 2003. 40

2 Michel Houellebecq, Atomised, Trans. Frank Wynne, London: Vintage, 2000. 125

3 “Betel nut beauty” work is controversial mainly due to the notoriously risqué costumes workers are expected to wear. As a cultural phenomenon it is unique to Taiwan. Cf. Laurence Eyton, “Betel Nut Brouhaha Exposes Disagreement,” Asia Times Online, October 9 (2002), (accessed April 10, 2009)

4 Karl Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. (accessed April 9th 2009)

5 ibid.

6 Cf. James Tweedie, “Morning In The New Metropolis: Taipei and the globalization of the city film,” in Cinema Taiwan: Politics, Popularity and State of the Arts. eds. Darrell William Davis and Ru-Shou Robert Chen (London: Routledge, 2007), 116-130. 118

7 Laurence Eyton, “Betel Nut Brouhaha Exposes Disagreement,” Asia Times Online, October 9 (2002), (accessed April 10, 2009)

8 Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: Sage Publications, 1998. Trans. Chris Turner. 25

9 ibid.

10 Miriam Hansen, in James Tweedie, 2007. 119

11 Cf. The Government Information Office in Taiwan, ‘The Story of Taiwan – Economy’ (accessed 4th May 2009)

12 June Yip, Envisioning Taiwan: Fiction, Cinema, and the Nation in The Cultural Imaginary. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 212-3

13 June Yip, p.223

14 ibid.

15 Karl Marx, 1844

16 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. Trans. Alan Sheridan. 235

17 cf.

18 Slavoj Žižek, “Masturbation, or Sexuality in an Atonal World,” The Symptom, October (2008) (accessed April 8, 2009)

19 Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject To Truth, Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, p. 190

20 Alain Badiou, ‘What Is Love?’ Sexuation. Ed. Renata Salecl. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. 263–81. Trans. of “Qu’est-ce que l’amour?” Conditions. Paris: Seuil, 1992. 253–73, p.263

21 Slavoj Žižek, “Masturbation, or Sexuality in an Atonal World”

Edwin Mak is a London based writer and editor. He blogs at Nothing to be done, and contributes to The Auteurs’ Notebook, and Electric Sheep Magazine.

Volume 14, Issue 2 / February 2010 Essays asian cinematsai ming li