Interview: Tsai Ming-liang
Twenty-three years can turn a rebellious Neon God into Xuanzang—from restless souls wandering around Ximending (the old city center of Taipei) in Rebels of the Neon God (92) to the pure spiritual idea embodied by the slow-paced movement of a red-robed Buddhist monk in the Walker series (12-). Tsai Ming-liang, the Malaysian-born, Taiwan-based film director, has occupied a central position within the Taiwanese New Wave, and shined internationally within the realms of slow cinema and even beyond. His work has traversed a wide spectrum of mediums: art installations, video installations, street performances, theater, painting, and of course cinema, both shorts and features. His versatility and mastery are reflected not only in this multidisciplinary expertise but also in his capacity to investigate the very core of human passions and existence, through a magnificent aesthetic devotion.
In Tsai’s films the bygone city landscapes of Taipei have been preserved in his earlier work (in Rebels of the Neon God; Vive l’Amour, 94; The River, 97) while in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, a black lake in an abandoned construction site back in his home country Malaysia has its own poetic presence; further afield, he’s carried on an intercontinental conversation between Taipei and Paris in What Time Is It There? (01) and Visage (09). All throughout, Tsai portrays what you might call his characters’ mindscapes, and undertakes an exploration of the potential of and possibility of cinema, its history and identity, and his own memories of the medium. With his iconic body of work, he has created an inner time that belongs to him alone and that further transforms every single aspect of his film world.
Among his collaborators, Tsai has stressed the importance of actor Lee Kang-sheng in his films and his life. “I wouldn’t have continued filming if there were no Lee Kang-sheng,” he has said. Tsai always worries and cares most about his actors; to them, Tsai is teacher, friend, and family. Shiang-chyi Chen (who plays the crippled ticket clerk in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, 03, and the lonely figure traveling acrosst Paris in What Time Is It There?) once dedicated the Apollinaire poem “Come to the Edge” to him, in Tsai’s book about his latest movie, Stray Dogs (13). For Kuei-Mei Yang (Vive l’Amour; The Hole, 98), Tsai is like an ascetic or a Buddhist practitioner, and grows ever more so as time passes by.
Before making the award-winning Stray Dogs, Tsai wrote the following note to his lead actress, which appears in the book:
Before we started filming, I rang [Yi-Ching Lu] up.
I told her I was ill
And had no more passion.
After this one,
I shall stop making films.
I thought of Kuei-Mei and Shiang-chyi
and couldn’t bear not working with them one last time.
what do you think if your character was played by all three of you?
Starting Friday, the Museum of the Moving Image presents a retrospective of Tsai’s work, including rare mid-length films and a documentary about him, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center begins an exclusive engagement of Rebels of the Neon God, which had never had a proper U.S. theatrical run. This is a world carved out of time, and Tsai’s perception of life has changed his understanding of time. The 57-year-old filmmaker’s interview via telephone with FILM COMMENT, like his films, followed his own pace. After trying and failing to take the lead, this interviewer gradually became a listener to an artist and a man giving a moving and honest reckoning with work, movies, and life.
I would like to start with Taipei, since Stray Dogs revisits the city. The city landscape seemed to be more desolate and cruel in this film than in the past. Why did you choose to present the city that way?
Yes, let’s start with Taipei. But… well, that’s what you think. Don’t talk about meanings. You have your own interpretation, I have mine. I don’t want to talk about this, or anything related to meanings. Sometimes, I feel, those in the world of criticism have a different mindset from us. Taipei has its own symbols, but I feel like shooting anywhere is all the same. The location is not that important. Just shoot.
You have said elsewhere that Stray Dogs is your last film. I am wondering why you think it is your last one. Is this really the end?
Many people asked about this. If someone invites me, I will consider it. I don’t really want to answer questions. It’s so boring and I cannot catch your tempo. Maybe the best way is just… I will say what I want to say.
I really want to say that I am sorry that I cannot be there in person. I don’t really know why the Museum of the Moving Image chose this timing to present a retrospective. Probably because my film style especially can garner attention in the West. My filmmaking trajectory goes the opposite way: unlike everyone else, I don’t follow the typical trajectory, like starting from making short films and then feature films, from experimental to mainstream, or from the underground to “above ground” in China.
In terms of the film market, I do feel powerless. Because I am the kind of person who is afraid of being restrained. Any artistic creation is not meant to be restrained. I feel like my film is always about self-exploration. I think cinema needs freedom. For example, the film rating system only restricts it. It’s hard for cinema to avoid marketing issues. I feel I am very fortunate that my film career hasn’t been blocked by such problems, possibly because the power in my work allows it to break into the international film festival circuits, or the film market in Europe. I do find a way. For example, my film can be distributed under the category of art film. There are traditions of showing art films in some particular theaters in Japan and Europe; however, it’s getting harder and harder for these venues to survive, due to, I guess, globalization. The reality is that if your film is not sellable, they don’t want to show your film. The film has to survive, and yet that reality makes it impossible.
Like my work, it’s so much about self-expression. I feel fortunate that my films keep being accepted in film festivals, art scenes, and also the academic world. Especially after I made Goodbye, Dragon Inn, many people from the art world began to get in touch with me. For example, Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang invited me to participate in the Kinmen Fortress Art Festival in 2004. My work was entitled Withering Flower. The Taipei Fine Arts Museum also showcased my video installation work and first presented it at the 2007 Venice Biennale. In my later work, I do art installation, video installation, theatrical pieces, and short films. I feel the central concept in my work hasn’t changed. I still create in the same way I make films. I just feel that I have more freedom by doing these pieces, and can care less and less about the mainstream market. Even the very concept of market, I can choose for it to be something non-mainstream.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn
The movie theater has all kinds of limits, and I think the museum can liberate film, though there are still some limits. I need to think how to present my work, and the visual aesthetics must match a certain standard of quality. I hope I can view Taiwan as a starting point to cultivate an audience, by showing films in the museum, making an exhibition, or even making films for the museum. You see, film needs an audience in the movie theater, and it’s the same for the museum. However, I am also an Asian—I think people are not encouraged to visit museums in Asia. It’s not a habit. Those who want to watch films will only go to the movie theater.
In Europe, there is more room to develop, to grow. Why can the museums [there] appeal to guests of all ages? I think the differences lie in education. That’s why I put a lot of efforts in selling tickets to the students, especially those who are younger than high-school age. You see, the Museum of National Taipei University of Education is situated in the campus of the university, but how many people in the school will visit the museum? Not many. Some people even have no idea about the exhibition. So I went to the dining hall to sell tickets directly. If I can sell one-tenth of the total number of students in that school, then I achieve my goal. I hope I can let them understand the potential of cinema. This is the requirement of artistic creation. If I want to make films in the place I live, I need to cultivate an audience. I constantly try to encourage children to visit museums. The point is not to see my work but to have fun in the museum, to enjoy it, and to get used to that atmosphere.
Much of my recent work happened in the museum. Journey to the West can be shown in all types of big international film festivals, galleries, museums or other venues through courtesy of ARTE. I am also amazed and glad to see that a film like Stray Dogs can be released in the theaters in Europe. They have the tradition of appreciating films like this, of having the opportunity to learn about cinema once again! Instead of being fed all kinds of plot-driven films. Things like plot and genre are concepts that I want to subvert, but I can’t just be “a lone flower admiring itself” [i.e., take pleasure in work only by myself]. I want to be seen. That’s why I create constantly. The goal is to increase the likelihood of being seen.
Can I ask a question about Stray Dogs? About the final sequence, in front of the mural: the whole space is swathed in dark blue light. How do you create that beautiful panorama?
The sequence was shot during the night, so the lighting was a night setup, and the light also comes into the space from the exterior. Lighting actually takes the longest. That scene also relies heavily on the color grading and light adjustment during postproduction. Thanks to digital, the range you can adjust your light is wider than with 35mm. For Stray Dogs, I devote great attention to every detail regarding the lighting. I think all my later work is very much about the presentation of images on the screen. It’s like painting, how an artist draws a painting with paints. Throughout the course of filmmaking, I gradually realized that I paint with light. Making films is like drawing. Especially in the Walker series, my latest work, No No Sleep, the imagery is gorgeous. When I filmed it in Tokyo, I didn’t set up lighting, because they don’t let us do that on the street. It’s not permitted. So, I borrowed light from the streetlights, but you need to measure whether that streetlight can help you achieve the effect you want. Same situation for the bathtub scene: I only used what I can get on the spot—only the elements you can find there, such as the natural light, the character’s costume, etc.
In Stray Dogs, I was very fortunate to come across the mural painted by Jun-Honn Kao. It was not in my original plan. It’s not until we saw it during location scouting that we decided to use that. Actually, I tried to preserve everything left there. Everything about that space, including its mess. Nothing was moved. I was even worried that I could not keep it as it was. The ruins were still there when we finished shooting, but now, it’s gone. The building was torn down. So, in a sense, you can say that Kao’s mural is preserved in my film.
Journey to the West
I also want to talk more about your short films, particularly the Walker series, which began in 2012. The sense of slowness in the series differs greatly from that in your feature films. What kind of new understanding of slowness do you have when making the Walker series? Did it affect the way you made Stray Dogs?
Yes, it’s slower. [Laughs] The Walker series and Stray Dogs are two different concepts, but the Walker series does affect the way I think, especially when you find that Lee Kang-sheng’s body movement can be even slower. Let’s put it this way, I think the concept of “auteur” becomes strengthened. This is the speed of Tsai Ming-liang. This is Tsai Ming-liang’s film. These make me rethink: what is a director? What is an auteur?
For example, in Visage, there is a scene where Salome is dancing. A lot of people have made films about Salome. I still remember once at a screening of Visage in Moscow, an audience member came to talk to me after the screening, saying things like: “This is not Salome.” I just smiled at him and said: “This is my Salome.”
As for the Walker series, it’s very much about the spiritual aspect. I don’t do walking meditation [myself]. Neither does Lee. It just happened during my theatrical piece Only You [an elegant trio of monodramas performed by Lee Kang-sheng, Kuei-Mei Yang, and Yi-Ching Lu. Lee’s slow walk in “The Fish of Lee, Kang-Sheng—The Journey in the Desert” later evolved into the Walker series]. You saw a physical person, with his physical movement, conveying an abstract concept. You saw his body moving, walking at the fixed speed. A temporal flow. Why should I film this? It’s because your lifestyle needs to be changed. My health is getting worse. You have to change your life tempo, and that’s why I moved to live in the mountains. In the mountains, you feel time. Time is slowly fleeting. Wind blows and cloud moves. You can see time. Many people cannot see this, because they only see work, or all kinds of talking. They never stop.
The reason why I wanted to do something like the Walker series is rooted in my obsession with the idea of [7th-century monk] Xuanzang, and the characteristics of the times he lived. There was no car, no train, no airplane, and no cell phone. He just walked. He is Xuanzang. He cannot walk fast, or walk slow. He can just walk forward.
I think I experienced the highest degree of artistic freedom when I was doing the Walker series, because it’s not about a story, not even about meanings. It’s painting. Of course there are meanings, if you really want to say them—everything has its own meaning. Otherwise, how can those classic paintings make sense?
Indeed, the Walker series has some influence on Stray Dogs. Comparatively, Stray Dogs is more abstract and fragmented. No plot. It can be a dream, even a memory. Maybe not the memory of a person. Maybe it’s of the space: a memory about a family that used to live in this space…
Lee Kang-sheng is also in the cast of Sashimi, directed by Pan Zhi-yuan. Do you hope Lee can continue working with other filmmakers?
Not really [laughs], but you have no right [to tell him not to]. Lee is an individual. Of course, Lee also asked for my suggestions, and I gave the filmmaker some of my advice as well. For example, at the time when Lee agreed to play a role in Sashimi, he didn’t feel very well, so I was worried. After all, he has collaborated with me for such a long time. We know each other very well. There are habits. Especially, he mostly played “monodrama” [i.e., performing alone], with no specific development of events. He has his own character development that is distinct from any kind. And I am very concerned about his health. I always check in with him.
He has collaborated with some other filmmakers. However, I think most of them don’t know how to use him. I mean, Lee is a very special person. Every film that he enters will transform, with better quality. [Laughs] You will be led by him, but the premise is that you have to know how to use him. As for Sashimi, I also offered my help with the editing. I think the result is fine.
Do you feel like now finally you can spend more time doing what you love most?
Well, I want to just live. Live well. Live without doing too many things. Live without worrying too much. Eventually, many things will have something to do with your body. I found myself increasingly worried about my body. Same for you. You will also worry about your body, because problems will pop up. Lee is in the same situation. I think now the most important thing is take good care of my health. Live well. Things that I like or dislike to do are not important anymore.