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Film : Interview April 8, 2015

Tsai Ming-liang
by Gary M. Kramer
Creation, bathrooms, and Buddhism.

Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Chao-jung in Rebels of the Neon God (1992).
Image courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image.

Tsai Ming-liang is one of the masters of contemporary


world cinema. His films are distinguished by long takes,
minimal dialogue, and the presence of actor Lee
Kang-sheng—the director’s muse—in a key role. The
filmmaker, who was born in Malaysia but works mostly in
Taiwan (and occasionally France), emphasizes voyeurism,
alienation, and isolation. He returns again and again to a
handful of resonant metaphors and motifs; the dripping
and pooling of rain and water is nearly a constant
presence in his work, and it frequently represents love or
despair, sometimes both at once. Like these images of
flowing water, the characters in Tsai’s films throb with

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Film Though erotically charged and austere, Tsai’s films can


Literature also be very funny. In his second feature Vive L’Amour
Music
(1994) a woman’s effort to kill an insect in an apartment
Theater
provides an amusing bit of silent comedy, and in his most
audacious film, The Wayward Cloud (2005), Lee is dressed
up (or more accurately, mostly undressed) as a dancing
penis for one vivid musical number.

What is most palpable about the director’s work though is


his ability to communicate tremendous emotion through
meditative, static shots—either fixed on a character’s face,
or on a landscape or room. Following a screening of
Goodbye, Dragon Inn at the Toronto Film Festival, a viewer
asked Tsai about the lengthy shot of an empty theater in
the film. “Did you feel nothing?” he responded, receiving a
round of applause. Not everyone will experience his
singular cinematic magic, but those spellbound by his
work are converts for life.

In addition to the recurring images of water, melons, and


bathrooms, there is the near constant presence of the
actor Lee Kang-sheng. Lee’s characters are almost always
named Hsiao-kang, a name that seems to be a merging of
the filmmaker's and actor’s in the fictional world of the
cinema. Unlike Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine
Doinel, it's not clear that Hsiao-kang is the same person
across multiple films, though he does overlap in the
features What Time Is It There? and in The Wayward
Cloud, which are linked by the short film, The Skywalk Is
Gone (2002). What is most consistent about Lee’s work in
these films, apart from his character’s name, is the
astonishing variety of his performances. In dual roles as a
homeless man and a paralyzed man in I Don’t Want to
Sleep Alone (2006), Lee is remarkably expressive and
inexpressive, respectively. In Stray Dogs (2013) his
unnamed character stoically stands outside in downpour,
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conveying the incredible efforts of will required of himShare
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Film 10, 2015. The opportunity to see Rebels, an auspicious


Literature feature debut and one of Tsai’s most conventional films,
Music
on the big screen is well worth the wait. On the same day,
Theater
the Museum of the Moving Image begins its
comprehensive Tsai Ming-liang retrospective, another
remarkable opportunity to survey the incredible breadth of
the this unique artist.

With the assistance of translator Aliza Ma, Tsai answered


questions via email about his films, his themes and motifs,
and his muse, Lee Kang-sheng.

Gary M. Kramer Why did you decide to become a


filmmaker? What inspired you? And how did you develop
your distinctive style of filmmaking?

Tsai Ming-liang At my age, I can very clearly understand


that no one chooses to be born into this life. I was born in
the 1960s, and that was a golden era for the cinema. My
grandparents took me to the cinema everyday. We
watched genre films that offered an escape from reality.
They cast me under a spell and left a lasting impression on
me. In the 1980s, I came to Taiwan and encountered a
hitherto unknown level of political freedom, and in that
milieu I was exposed to another type of cinema: for
example, the French Nouvelle Vague, New German
Cinema, and classic silent films. They not only broadened
my film vocabulary, but also stirred my heart and spirit,
and I began to really think about what cinema is.

GMK You are considered to be one of the pioneers of


“slow cinema.” Can you discuss your penchant for very
long static shots and these moments that create such
emotion?

TML I am very confused about why people insist on


discussing long takes. In the very beginning, weren’t Share
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simply something I need in order to create. I want my films
Literature
to appear more realistic, from a singular perspective. To
Music
Theater preserve the natural passage and movement of time
means using minimal cuts, which is one of the most
effective strategies to me. Isn’t porn mostly shot in long
takes? Aren’t they effective? Everyone wants to have a
remote control in their hands at all times. What we should
talk about is the audience’s viewing habits, or people’s
endlessly impatient hearts.

GMK Can you discuss your working relationship with Lee


Kang-sheng?

TML By now I am completely under his control. I guess I


owed him something in our previous lives. In my eyes, Lee
Kang-sheng is the world’s most anarchistic person. His
whole essence goes against all the standards set by
society, especially those of the acting profession, and
against preexisting notions of performance. Not long ago,
he appeared in a one-man stage production of mine as a
monk. Before the performance, he had a stroke and half of
his body was basically immobile. The situation was very
harrowing because we thought the show could not go on.
But in the end, even in his condition, he went onstage: a
planned two hour show became three and a half hours
with his incapacitated body. Right then, I had an idea: even
if he couldn’t move, if he just laid there, this performance
would still work. Our longtime collaboration is a form of
rebellion against the established notions of progress of
our society. In the Chinese title of Rebels of the Neon God
is Qing Shao Nian Ne Zha. Ne Zha refers to the most
youthful deity in Chinese mythology, who cut off all the
flesh and bones from his body as the most extreme form
of rebellion against his father.

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Theater

Lee Kang-sheng in The River (1997). Image courtesy of the Museum of the
Moving Image.

GMK What strikes me most about your work is your use of


water as a symbol—it often represents love and desire, or
intense emotion—the heavy, penetrating rain in The Hole
and Stray Dogs, especially. Can you discuss this
symbolism in your films?

TML For the rain scene in Stray Dogs, we only had two
water trucks and three large fans. A small crew tied strings
to the branches of the trees and shook them with all their
might. It was a grueling two-day shoot. One person
thought he stepped on a used needle in the forest, and he
was afraid he got AIDS, but actually it was a snake bite.
Still, filming a rain scene brings out the essence of filming,
and I like rain very much—you can’t go anywhere, and you
must stay still.

GMK Your films often deal with characters in


isolation—such as in Vive L’Amour or The Hole, or
alienation—Rebels of the Neon God—or marginalization,
as in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Stray Dogs. Can you
explain why these themes are so integral to your work?

TML I am like this myself. It’s not that anyone else has
isolated me, but I have happily isolated myself. When I am
alone, I feel natural, truthful, and at ease. Still, I feel I am
not isolated enough, so I want to film more pure states of
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Film TML When Rebels of the Neon God was finished someone
Literature recommended I go to a queer film festival in London, but I
Music don’t like any such labels to be applied to my work. Now a
Theater
lot of my work gets shown at LGBT-related festivals, and I
don’t mind anymore. I never thought I was making queer
films, only that there were queer characters in the films. In
my experience of social reality, queer culture is truly
marginalized. There is a dark, secret side to each person’s
heart which harbors deep feelings that cannot be
discussed. Talking about queer issues can never truly
settle anything, so it’s useless to start. How can you ask
another to truly understand you? Like the characters in my
films, you can only be yourself, and hope others will try to
understand.

Lee Kang-sheng in Vive L’Amour (1994). Image courtesy of the Museum of


the Moving Image.

GMK I’m curious about the use of the space of bathrooms


and toilets that appear as key settings in all of your films.
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Film yourself, anyone can be completely free. But the hard


Literature thing for my actors is how to portray that total freedom in
Music
front of a camera, so I truly respect them. In my newest
Theater
work, Wu Wu Mian, filmed in Japan, we see Lee
Kang-sheng and An Teng Zheng Xin, a Japanese actor, in a
bath: two beautiful bodies floating in the clear water, a
feast for the eyes.

GMK You often play with cinematic themes and genres in


your films. The Wayward Cloud is a porno musical; The
River features moviemaking; Goodbye, Dragon Inn is set in
a cinema. Face and What Time Is It There? both feature
French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud. Can you discuss
these self-reflexive cinematic qualities to your work?

TML Isn’t creation inextricable from life? I don’t want to tell


stories or to edit reality. I recommend a biopic a young
director from Malaysia, Su Zhong Yuan, made about me.
He followed me for three years, urging me to recall stories
from my past. He even went to my birthplace to shoot
what has now become a graveyard of abandoned movie
theaters. Actually, when I left there as a twenty-year-old,
these theaters were already disappearing one by one. But
they didn’t disappear—they came back in my dreams. It
started when I was thirty: I dreamt many times that I was a
kid again and back at these theaters. They were still
showing wuxia films, opera films, old songs were still
echoing through those spaces. Incidentally, in real life I
became a director, but not of these commercial films, and
without any regard for box office revenue. But I do feel I
am constantly trying to depict these old memories.

GMK There was much discussion about your “returning


home” to Malaysia to make I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.
What can you say about working in Malaysia and Taiwan?
Do you feel a sense of displacement or belonging?
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Image of Lee Kang-sheng in Vive L’Amour (1994). Image courtesy of the


Museum of the Moving Image.

TML After I left Gu Jin, my small town in Malaysia, I stayed


in Taiwan. I didn’t leave Taiwan because I feel more free
here. I can say whatever I want. In Malaysia, many social
restrictions prevent me from being myself, so I never
considered going back. However, in 1998, I exploited my
freedom to such an extent that I received a lot of negative
responses from the Taiwanese. In a fit of anger, I decided
to go back to Malaysia. That’s when I realized Malaysia
was no longer “home,” but a totally foreign place to me.
So in 2005, I went back to film I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.
The subjects of the film were drifters and migrant workers
on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. In these foreigners’ faces, I
saw myself.

GMK Lee Kang-sheng plays a monk in your recent films


Journey to the West and Walker. Can you talk about your
depiction of monks and Buddhism in your films?

TML I am a Buddhist, and I really like Xuanzang, a monk


from the Tang Dynasty, from about 1400 years ago. He
crossed the desert alone to procure the complete Buddhist
Share
scriptures from India and bring them to China. I greatly +

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Film continue to tell stories about Hsiao-kang?


Literature
Music TML If you believe life is short and bitter, nothing gets in
Theater
the way of doing what you want to do. I always feel like
I’m going to die soon and time is running out, so I only do
what I want to do. I once lacked for inspiration until one
day, I realized I cannot stop filming Lee Kang-sheng’s face.
I thought, This is so cool. And I happily accepted this as
my destiny.

The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens presents a


retrospective of the films of Tsai Ming-liang beginning
April 10. Rebels of the Neon God will be released for the
first time in the US at Film Society of Lincoln Center and
Quad Cinema in New York on the same day.

Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer


Cinema: Reviews and Interviews and the co-editor of
Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.

Tags: buddhism, new german cinema, french new wave,


directing, acting, experimental film, sexuality, alienation

Film : Editor’s Choice Film : Interview Film

Tsai Ming-Liang's What Yang Fudong Denis Cô


Time Is It There? by Li Zhenhua by Steve
by William Cohen

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