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 repressed sexual desire. They are seen cruising public toilets, or in his 1997 feature The River, a gay bathhouse, and both masturbation and isolated sexual encounters feature heavily in his work.
Though erotically charged and austere, Tsai’s films can also be very funny. In his second feature Vive L’Amour (1994) a woman’s effort to kill an insect in an apartment 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, conveying the incredible efforts of will required of him to protect his children.
Tsai’s first film Rebels of the Neon God, from 1992, will receive a belated theatrical release in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Quad Cinema on April 10, 2015. The opportunity to see Rebels, an auspicious feature debut and one of Tsai’s most conventional films, on the big screen is well worth the wait. On the same day, 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 all films consisting of long takes? Nowadays, people don’t discuss Eisenstein because montage is a given. At the same time, the long take is still the essence of cinema. It’s like endlessly debating issues of homosexuality—isn’t it something that has always existed? The long take is simply something I need in order to create. I want my films to appear more realistic, from a singular perspective. To 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.
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 Aloneand 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 isolation. Perhaps true isolation is true freedom.
GMK Can you comment on the depictions of homoeroticism, and gay or queer sexuality in your work?
TML When Rebels of the Neon God was finished someone recommended I go to a queer film festival in London, but I don’t like any such labels to be applied to my work. Now a 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. They are spaces of the body, of privacy, sexuality, and identity. I’m curious how you see bathrooms as crucibles for your characters.
TML When the door is locked shut, and you are by yourself, anyone can be completely free. But the hard thing for my actors is how to portray that total freedom in front of a camera, so I truly respect them. In my newest 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?
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 scriptures from India and bring them to China. I greatly admire his solitude, stubbornness, and stupidity.
GMK You have won numerous awards, and critical praise over the years. Is it difficult for you to keep making films? How do you find inspiration for each new project and continue to tell stories about Hsiao-kang?
TML If you believe life is short and bitter, nothing gets in 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.