Introduction by Erik Bordeleau
This text is an edited transcription and translation from mandarin of a talk delivered by Tsai Ming-liang at National Central University (NCU) in Taiwan on May 26th 2010. Tsai’s talk immediately followed a screening of Face (2009), his latest feature film, which has been commissioned and co-produced by the Louvre Museum. With Lee Kang-sheng, his beloved actor, Tsai Ming-liang regularly visits Taiwan’s university campuses to promote his films and talk with students and academics. He is a generous speaker and a remarkable storyteller, always ready to challenge his audience and tackle issues that might stir controversy. During his talk, Tsai freely discussed a series of subjects, among which, the recent history of Taiwanese cinema, François Truffaut’s influence on his work, his concerns about the commodification of cinema and cultural experiences, his recent turn toward video installation and gallery spaces, etc. Tsai’s talk reveals a deeply committed artist whose practice is thoroughly singular and ecologically grounded in the contemporary. Of particular interest in that sense is his final apology of homebrewed coffee as part of his latest video installation, through which he “percolates” an acute critique of an age in which everything appears to be disposable. “Nothing in our life should be tossed away easily”, Tsai says. “Ultimately, I want to put everything back in use.” Our editing work has been, in no small part, guided by the concern to take into account this unexpected and somewhat crucial eco-political dimension of Tsai’s artistic practice.
This transcription, translation and edition of Tsai Ming-liang’s talk would not have been possible without the dedicated work of Chi-Chun Chang, Shumay Lin and Beth Tsai, and the kind support of Professor Wenchi Lin and Shu-Chi Lin (National Central University, Taiwan).
Prelude: On Abandoned Theatre Chairs
It has been a while since I last visited this theatre, your theatre, where Lee Kang-sheng’s The Missing (2003) premiered. (1) I guess few people here know that the seats in this room come from the Fu-ho Theatre, a theatre that used to house eight or nine hundred seats. That’s actually where Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) was shot. I was a strong supporter of the idea to build a cinema theatre on the National Central University (NCU) campus. After the destruction of the Fu-Ho Theatre, most of the seats have ended up in a dump, and I’m happy that some have been shipped here and are still in use today.
Talking about cinema seats, I’d like to share with you that the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) has recently acquired my installation work for its permanent collection. There are, in fact, four works in this series, among which the first has been purchased by TFAM. This series consists of a short film and a set of seats stripped from an old movie theatre in Malaysia. The work was commissioned by the Venice Biennale back in 2007. The exhibition has hardly received any coverage in the major Taiwan media, except at the start of the exhibition when it got a headline in the Taipei Times, one of Taiwan’s principal English newspapers. The short film is called It’s a Dream (2007). It’s about an old and deserted movie theatre of a small town in Malaysia. In this work, Lee Kang-sheng plays the role of my deceased father, along with my mother who played herself, and who was still alive at the time. The film is about twenty-two minutes long. After shooting it, I tore down a bunch of chairs in the theatre and shipped them to Venice as part of the installation. The movie theatre is an integral part of the work instead of being merely a backdrop. Although one may argue that these seats are just normal seats that can be seen all over the world, I think their appearance actually varies from one country to another. That is why I wanted to ship the remaining ones to Venice. They are all usable. As you sit on the seats and you watch the footage I made, you are in my work.
The Many Deaths of Cinema
After I exhibited my work at the Venice Biennale, one Dutch art critic wrote that in Tsai’s work, cinema is dead, but is also resurrected at the same time. To speak of cinema as “resurrected” is quite interesting to me. We have often heard from film critics throughout history that cinema is dead, but it’s quite rare to hear that it also rises from the dead. During the 1980s, there was a kind of criticism announcing the death of Taiwanese cinema. Why was that? Well, the audience was scarce. The rate of production dropped from two hundred films a year to a dozen. Thus, from a market-oriented perspective, the critics declared the death of Taiwan cinema. Last year I ran into a senior German director, and he mentioned that in 1984 there was also a sudden rise of criticism proclaiming the death of German cinema. With Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s death in 1982, the whole German film industry went into a different phase. The German government stopped funding art cinema, causing a number of German directors to leave the country. The government’s defense was that film should be made for a general audience, just like Hollywood does. Ultimately, forlorn film critics marked the demise of the New German Cinema. Indeed, we remember Werner Herzog, Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, etc. from the provocative primetime of the New German Cinema, but we hardly remember any great German directors after the 80s. I think this is all connected to marketing. Every country seems to have gone through a similar period of experiencing the death of its national cinema, though the causes might vary. That inspired me to create such work. Be it dead or alive, I only want to express in this installation how movie theatres, as public spaces, are essential to my own childhood experience. The traces of this connection can also be found in Face.
On Film as Art and Fake Korean Cuisine
If film is art, then the work should be an artist’s reflections, rather than something catering to the mass public. There are, of course, some commercial films that exceed expectations and become great art. But I know I am not interested in making films just to make a profit. My film work is my own creation; it is inseparable from my life experience. Everything for me is a source of inspiration, from an old song that I hear, to the coffee shop that I own. Nothing is random, and nothing should be made just for profit.
Here is an interesting anecdote. Just a few days ago Kang [Lee Kang-sheng] and I went to Taichung city for some public appearances. It was somewhat difficult for us to find a secluded restaurant afterwards, because we didn’t want to be bothered. So we ended up in a small Korean restaurant. When our dishes were served, we were stunned, because, in my opinion, it is not that hard to make an acceptable Korean barbecue. But the appetizers were surprisingly terrible, and when we asked for lettuce or Korean hot sauce to accompany the beef barbecue, the owner simply replied, “We Taiwanese don’t usually have these to go with the barbecue.” But why would someone open a Korean restaurant just to make money, and how come this is called a Korean restaurant when everything has obviously been modified and altered to match the locals’ taste? I mean, look at the kimchi, it is obviously a Taiwanese modification instead of an authentic one (and even in Taiwanese style, it’s lousy!). But in fact, if you look around, you understand what this restaurant is for. There were numerous posters and screenshots from some popular recent Korean TV series such as Jewel in the Palace (2) and Lovers in Paris. (3) Obviously, this restaurant aims at attracting the fans of Korean soap operas and catching the pop-Korean trend. The owner has probably never set foot in Korea and has probably learned to cook Korean food from cooking programs on TV!
Cinephilia: a Brief History of the Taiwanese New Wave
I have been a cinephile ever since I could remember. I remember that I started watching films with my grandparents from the age of three, and gradually that grew into habit. My history of going to movie theatres was just like anyone else’s. Especially if you are from East Asia, no matter which country you live in, in a city or in a town, as long as there is a movie theater, you often share the same movie-going experience as others. I was able to see films mostly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. I saw several Chinese opera films prior to the Cultural Revolution, and Model operas after that (very few because they were not box office material and because Malaysia, being an anti-communism country, Chinese Model operas were automatically banned from screening). I presume most of the Chinese opera films you see are in Huangmei tone, but because I grew up in Southeast Asia I saw more varieties of it, such as in the Cantonese, Chaozhou or Shaoxing style. Regardless of which accent or style you see it in, we were all exposed to operas like The Butterfly Lovers (4) or obsessed with the celebrity figure Ling Bo. (5)
What was missing in our viewing experience though was a wider exposure to world cinema, such as Indian cinema, or Bollywood films, to be exact. And most importantly, we were not exposed to the French New Wave. I only learned about it when I entered my twenties. I did not know who Fassbinder was, and I assume neither did your parents. Why is that? Because the government and the local film studios were very selective about the films they wanted to produce or import. They only cared about the market. For them, films only function as an entertainment and lucrative product. If you want to see Kazakhstan films or any other avant-garde or world cinema, you will have to go to film festivals. After the 1980s, when Taiwan’s martial law was finally lifted, Hollywood mainstream cinema started to invade the screens. It was also the moment when films started to be programmed on television and the old theatres were slowly being deserted. It was a time of change. It is with this situation in mind that I created this installation with old theatre chairs. It is an attempt to revive them in some way, to put them into use again.
For most Asian countries, there is either commercial cinema or nothing. But Taiwan has been an exception to that rule (of course, you can also think of Japan, where there is a fairly large number of spectators who enjoy and support art cinema). What made it different was its emphasis on traditional culture. Thus, even under the authoritarian Chiang Kai-shek regime, this emphasis remained. In Taiwan, auteur cinema has existed for about 25 years. It was brought about in the 1980s by the decline of the commercial cinema of the previous époque – once martial law was lifted and democracy began to flourish, Taiwanese official film production declined. There has been a sudden transition from commercial oriented cinema to non-commercial cinema. However, the Taiwanese New Wave did not really succeed in creating a large cinephilic audience with a distinguished taste and artistic sense. Therefore, after the temporary bloom, it decayed and was immediately replaced by the overwhelming commercial fictions that have dominated Taiwanese cinema ever since.
Anyways, after the lifting of martial law, there was a sudden influx of outside knowledge about film, which led to the setting-up of the Chinese Taipei Film Archive. It was at the same time that the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival started to screen films instead of being only a film awards ceremony. In the inaugural year of the festival, I worked as an usher and witnessed the huge lines –probably a total of two or three thousands people– waiting outside just to get movie passes. You need to understand that back then it was a really big deal. It was also a time when the audience was eager to learn about the world, and therefore I hardly knew anyone who would complain about the difficulties of watching a foreign film, even if the films were not subtitled. (Perhaps it was due to the fact that there was no Internet for them to truly express their opinions!). Back then people would actually acknowledge and appreciate difficult films like Alain Resnais’ L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961). Now most people would just leap to unconstructive criticism if they did not enjoy a film and post their comments all over the web. All I can say is that my time was very different from yours. It was a time when moviegoers were thirsty for challenging artworks.
It was, then, not until I came to Taiwan that I was exposed to a wider range of cinema. And then, after the lifting of martial law, I knew my luck had come. The government no longer imposed restrictions on me, the society became less politically controlled and film censorship was loosened. Suddenly, there was a spark of creativity. The audience turned their eyes from Brigitte Lin (6) to Yang Li-yin, (7) who is not as beautiful, but real. A new era was coming. You see something precious emerging here: freedom. But the price of this freedom was fairly high…
Faces of Face
What is Face? Who are those faces for? What is the connection between actors’ faces and me? I can tell you right away that everything is connected to my own experience. Truffaut’s cinema and Truffaut’s actors, especially the face of Jean-Pierre Léaud, have made quite an impact on me. So when the Louvre first asked me to make a film, I immediately responded, “I want to do a film with Jean-Pierre Léaud.” They later asked me what I wanted to shoot within the Louvre; I said I wanted to film Jean-Pierre Léaud inside the museum, which didn’t make much sense. Of course, you can also argue that I am trying to literally send Jean-Pierre Léaud to the museum, which is actually true. He should be placed in the museum; otherwise he would be quickly forgotten. The truth is he will always have a name in film history, but the public will not remember him, even the French, or the younger French generation (with the exception of film students). My point here is that I deliberately made this film not for the general audience, because most of the Asian audiences wouldn’t even know what the French New Wave is, let alone the German New Wave.
Face is often criticized as abstruse and enigmatic, but it was never my initial intention to play with cinematic language. The motivation or purpose for making the film could date back to the first time I saw Truffaut’s films. If Truffaut were still alive, there would be no need for me to have made Face.
As lots of people have said, Face is a self-portrait. I conceived it with exactly the concept of the self-portrait. Of course, it is full of my reflections on life and on creation; the movie is indeed about the relation between life and creation. And what on earth is the essence of them both? It’s nothing but uncontrollability, impermanence. People cannot stop themselves from getting old, nor avoiding death. It’s always random and unpredictable. It is indeed an endless circle. You contemplate in this circle the meaning of life. Soon you’ll notice what has gone will always return. But no matter how many times it returns, you can never gain control over it.
Memories of Truffaut
A number of actors and actresses who worked for Truffaut in the past and who are still in great demand, such as Jeanne Moreau, appear in Face. They don’t easily accept just any role offered, but thanks to the Louvre connection they accepted the invitation to meet for a cup of coffee with an Asian director. Because Truffaut’s actors are so renowned, no one, not even the French producers of my film ventured to ask the actors to interpret a guest role. They all told me to meet the actors and persuade them myself. I went there, and I almost persuaded everyone—not almost, but actually everyone.
This way, I met with seven or eight of Truffaut’s actors, including Isabelle Adjani, who starred in L’histoire d’Adèle H. (The Story of Adèle H. 1975). Whether she appeared in my film or not didn’t matter, I just wanted to meet her. Two or three years ago, Adjani actually mentioned she wanted to work with me, but I wasn’t shooting any French film back then. For Face, I initially didn’t ask her because I only wanted her to be my guest at the shooting of the film. I thought she probably would not accept this invitation. However, I still wanted her to participate somehow. The rendezvous with her turned out to be quite surprising. After sharing my feelings about the film to come, we ended up in tears together. It felt like déjà vu to me, because Adjani was the first actress I had discovered through Truffaut’s movies, since L’histoire d’Adèle was the first of his films I had seen. I had no idea who Truffaut was at that time. I remember that that day I was supposed to see another Hollywood film in a two-film package. Anyways, L’histoire d’Adèle was screened first. After watching this film, I was so wrapped up in my emotions that I didn’t want to see the following Hollywood film that had brought me to the theatre in the first place. It was only after seeing L’histoire d’Adèle that I grew more interested in Truffaut’s work and subsequently watched Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), which is the movie that has most influenced me as a filmmaker.
“Who is the Boss of Cinema?”
Film is not for entertainment only. It’s just like what Jan Hung-Tze (8) has said, “Every book you read is a pathway to change yourself.” Though you may not really undergo any transformation after reading it, each time you open a book, you must prepare to be changed. Likewise, when watching films, you presuppose a change.
Recently, I was stunned by the narrative talent evidenced in Eileen Chang’s recently published story “Strange Country.” (9) She is a genius. Her language is itself a miracle. In her work, Chang usually adopts a first-person focalization and then describes situations that the character-narrator is not so much related to. Readers may not know how far this indirect narration process is going to reach, but they still enjoy it. However, fewer and fewer people regularly read novels nowadays. This kind of narrative thus turns out to be dull and inaccessible.
Nowadays, the number of films people watch usually exceeds the number of books they read. But what kind of movies do they watch? They are full of commercial fictions screened repetitively on TV, most of which are from Hong Kong, such as The Deer and the Cauldron (1969) and Fight Back to School (1991). For those people, that’s what cinema is meant for: entertainment. For them, art is a far-fetched concept.
After watching my film in Cannes, one Hong Kong critic called Face “nonsense,” and said my work was narcissistic. But another friend of mine who lives in Hong Kong, too, told me that he couldn’t sleep after watching my film. Why? Because to him, every single shot of the movie expresses a passion for filmmaking. Watching the whole movie is thus like making love for two hours. I think this is quite an interesting expression. But I know that most people tend to agree with the critic. They announce the death of cinema because the films have no marketing value. They also profess that cinema should be a media of advertisement – to advertise a city, represent a nation or to promote tourism, for example. Indeed, wherever I go, local people often ask the same question: “When are you coming here to shoot a film? You should shoot one so that the outside world will know Taiwan better.” But why is that necessary? I don’t think film should be made just for marketing purposes.
I came to realize that my own transformation follows closely the development of Taiwanese democracy. I struggle in the margin of the socio-political system to earn more freedom for creation, and also to search for myself. But in the end, the real constraint is never from the outside but from within yourself; little by little you begin to govern your own film as if you are the Bureau of Information yourself. We live in a frame that grounds us where lots of taboos are never to be brought up. I recently read in a book that in some countries, say, in Saudi Arabia, you cannot even show a bed in your film work! There is restriction everywhere. But the greatest restriction is imposed by yourself. Why? Because you don’t dare to challenge the established sensibility. You are obedient because you want to survive, you want to make money. Most other film directors obey these rules because they do not want their work to be banned from screening. But I think differently. In some way I am glad that some of my films were partly censored, because then you get the chance to argue, to confront authority. It makes me feel trapped if they are not censored in one way or another. In the end, what makes me feel most uneasy is to face you, the audience. In a way, I don’t really care about the audience. Some may say I am conceited. But the fact is that I don’t care, or better: I don’t know how to care.
Let me tell you another story. There was one time when I was invited to an event organized by Professor Wenchi Lin. In that public appearance, a bureaucrat asked a group of secondary school students, with a five-thousand NT dollars prize as reward for the answer, “How much box-office did Cape No. 7 create?” No one answered. He then asked another question with a two-thousand NT dollars prize: “Who is the boss of cinema?” One student lifted his hand and said, “me.” He then got his reward. But I stood up and said to the student, “You shouldn’t take this reward because your answer is wrong. I am a film director and you are not my boss.” Now, I say, you can choose not to watch my film, but you will never be my boss, nor will I be yours.
The Haunting Power of Silent Cinematic Images
These commercial and pseudo-democratic ideas are deeply rooted in the world we live in. Therefore, I often feel out of place, because I can only make films that are not market-oriented as Truffaut. This kind of cinema was strange for me when I discovered it in the 1980s. But I also feel like I am destined to be haunted by The 400 Blows ever since I watched it, especially by the face of the boy. The way Truffaut narrates the story of a young adolescent unfolds as a series of distinctive iconographies, particularly the final sequence when Antoine runs to the beach and turns to stare directly at the camera. It is a true confrontation between the screen and the spectator. It feels like the film is talking directly to you, the spectators. It exposes problems, but does not intend to offer any solutions. You might not feel inspired when you watch the film, but the memory of that viewing experience may also haunt you for several days. Why is that? What is the power of imagery (in black and white films in particular)?
This is what got me into thinking about what is film, and what is imagery. When the plot is not perfectly and completely constructed, that is, when the main purpose of the movie is not to tell a story and there is no famous star involved, things are different. Under such plain and ordinary circumstances, you suddenly come to realize the true meaning of cinema. And that is exactly what I expect my own work to be. The storyline might be plain, but it is meant to carry the power of imagery, so as to reveal the essence of cinema. This concept slowly emerged from looking at Léaud’s face and Fassbinder’s Angst essen seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974). It’s a love story between an old lady in her sixties and an Arabic guy in his thirties. It’s certainly not a comfortable film, with imagery that might actually disturb the audience. But once they accept to watch it and not to leave the theater, a transformation of their gaze might happen.
Many have argued that cinema must not be about storytelling. However, the filmmaking conventions usually presuppose that directors are good storytellers. But I never thought of myself to be a good storyteller. Therefore, I chose to be otherwise. I explored widely the early cinema classics and was stunned by many silent films. You should all see F.W. Murnau’s films, and Carl Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928). Murnau’s films are extraordinary. No spoken language, just the power of the image. It was not until I’d discovered Murnau’s cinema that I’ve had the impression of perceiving the true meaning of imagery. I have explored many moments of the history of cinema and studied different approaches to cinema like formalism, symbolism, etc. But it is only after I discovered the cinema of Murnau that everything became clear. I remember reading an article that said even Hitchcock, the famous British director, frequented the studio Murnau worked at. Why are his films so appealing?
A few days ago, I projected a film of Murnau’s to thirty junior high students. They really appreciated it. After watching it, they even felt reluctant to leave the classroom. Why? Because it’s a real combination of extreme aesthetics, and everyone, even junior high pupils could appreciate it because they had artistic sense. You see how silent films succeeded in telling story. You may ask which school did Murnau graduate from. But there was no cinema college back then. Cinema was just beginning. You may also ask: where did Charles Chaplin and Dreyer learn all those filming techniques? Well, I would say that they simply respected the objects they were filming.
I think now it’s the time to open up for questions and public discussion. Thank you.
Question: Traditionally, It seems to me that Asian painting tends to be more interested in landscape painting than portraits, while portraits is actually a predominant theme in the Louvre Museum. What was your reaction in the museum looking at all those portraits? How do you relate that experience to your film, or more explicitly, to the formality of your shooting style?
Well, personally I like portraits better. I myself love to doodle, or draw. I usually start by sketching people around me, then their faces. I actually spent three years studying the paintings in the Louvre for this film. Because I do not have an art history background Western art is still very much foreign to me. When you go into a museum, you tend to look for artists that you are familiar with, and the unexplored rest just sits by itself. But I wanted to learn about all these artists. I didn’t want to just learn about Western art, I also wanted to learn about the Louvre as a museum. When you look at the interior of the Louvre, a space that has been in constant expansion since the 12th century, most parts are not open to the public. While most of the staff working in the museum doesn’t even have access to see these closed sections, they let me in. A fireman accompanied me and took me to many unexpected places. In the gallery proper, I’d asked an art student for help. She accompanied me for a long time in order to help me understand Western paintings and their basic concepts. In short, I really enjoyed viewing portraits.
Question: So did you get to see the authentic John the Baptist painting?
Yes. During my viewing tour, the name that came up most often was John the Baptist. This character usually stands beside wild trees, sometimes as an infant and other times as an elder man. The most well known painting of him is Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. This motif has been constantly re-interpreted by many Western painters, and that prompted my interest in this character. The character of Salome didn’t catch my attention until later, when I realized that the Louvre Museum holds an enormous collection of works on Salome, including the one by Leonardo da Vinci. There are some sculptures worth noting also. And because of Richard Strauss’s opera, we are familiar with the story.
When I designed my own characters, my own Salome and John the Baptist, I integrated a lot of my personal imagination. I didn’t want them to conform to classical narration, or to their pre-established/prototypical image. In Face, when King Herod says to Salome: “Show me your dance,” this scene is full of ambivalence. King Herod may not be saying that to Salome, he may be saying this to his bird, or to himself, to the soul dwelling in his life. Anything is possible. It’s a sort of imaginary extension of the many artworks depicting this scene. In the end, Salome is actually dancing to the director. But what does the director represent? You can say he is transformed into a symbol of the trial. Therefore, he was beheaded in a very dramatic or theatrical way. I don’t know if this is too much for the audience, but I know I had a lot of fun shooting it. Therefore when Face was showing in Poland, several elderly local spectators objected that my portrayal of Salome was inaccurate and unorthodox. I simply replied: “Please don’t forget that a film has its own director.”
Question: I want to ask about the scene where Lee Kang-sheng is in the underground tunnel beneath the Louvre. I have read in some articles and interviews you gave that it could be identified as a metaphor for the vagina. You made Lee Kang-sheng hold lighted incense sticks in his hands, wading through this dark tunnel. Did this scene refer to your mother’s death? I am very curious about the incense sticks.
Yes, of course. When we asked Lee to hold the incense sticks, our original idea was to create the atmosphere of the scene. With incense sticks they refer to death and his mom’s spirit, which I believe is explicit to the audience.
Question: I am interested in the extreme close-up shot with (the actress) Laetitia Casta and her face. I noticed that throughout the film, there is always an elaborated contrast between daylight and the shadows of the night. It feels like it’s creating a tension between transparency and opacity, like some kind of aura. I wonder if you could comment on this tension between transparency and opacity in your film.
Let me put it in this way. Han Liang-Lu (a well-known Taiwanese writer and film critic) once told me “What is interesting about your film is that you placed all kinds of plastic items (cans, sheets) into the setting of the Louvre.” What she meant was that if I had given her a film about the glamour and the grandeur of the Louvre, she would not be able to understand. I did not place these objects intentionally; it was an instinct, because objects like water cans, plastic bottles, plastic bags, etc. are part of my everyday life and it just feels natural to put them in. On the other hand, these objects are often ugly. Just like a building that has crumbled over time may not look desirable from the outside, it may still have a certain allure to it. To tell you the truth, I was never interested in the splendid hallways of the Louvre. The objects I used in my film may not seem attractive but they are certainly inseparable from our life. Things like water pipes, shrubs, convey a feeling of concreteness and reality. Through the camera lens and the outline of light and shadow, these things become similar to and concrete as sculptures, carrying a kind of beauty. They create a sense of realness. And placing them in the film and in the Louvre thus creates a sense of unreal reality.
I also paid a lot of attention to my framing. What comes first is that the framing must be good looking. However, the meaning of it should not be single-layered, but multilayered. I want it to be beautiful and sustainable to a lengthy gaze. It doesn’t serve the plot in the first place, nor does it convey any particular diegetic message. Rather, it is an image for interpretation, an image that helps the audience understand the intrinsic meaning and the inner world that I intended to convey.
Question: In the beginning of Face, the audience glance through a fixed camera viewpoint and the voice-off mentions something about Wang Tsung, who is the film producer within the diegesis but at the same time is also your producer in real life. Now, in the last scene of the film, you show up on screen with Lee Kang-sheng and converse with each other, which seems to reveal a certain intimate and realistic bond. This self-reflexivity about the process of filmmaking, constantly reminds the audience of the film as a medium existing between reality and imagination, an artistic form of expression that confines both the diegetic and the real life. What would be your inspiration behind this?
I think a lot of creations are like that. If you read Eileen Chang’s writing, I would say it is as if we were reading through the author’s eyes, observing what was in front of her, but you also recognize the existence of the onlookers in the story. Through filmmaking I present to you what I perceive, and meanwhile, I see my own looking face. Sometimes, Kang is not me, while other times he actually is. Therefore, sometimes, it’s separated. It is not clear-cut. My creations are all like that. I am actually looking for the relationship between us. I often think that my biggest hobby is to observe, often in pleasure, the aging face of Kang. The most important thing is not which role he plays, but to display his aging face on screen. It’s fine as long as he is there, because you get the chance to see his changing face. Otherwise he is just another mass-produced face that people forget fairly quickly. You will not remember what the film is about, nor understand the meaning of a face or a living being inside the film. He is just a character consumed by the audience. My greatest concern lies here: I am watching, and you all know that I am watching. I do not intend to imitate anyone, but it’s really a pleasure reading a text like Chang’s (which manifests/embodies the same idea). And thus I think I could do the same in my film.
In the film industry, not everyone thinks like this. Most people are obsessed with acting, or to embody a character. You need to act like Empress Tzu-hsi, Zhang Fei (Chinese military general), a villain, a liar, a con artist, or a prostitute and so on. But if you really think about it, viewers are aware of the ongoing acting. While actors are trying really hard to conceal this fact of artifice, we still know they are acting! Lee Kang-sheng, on the other hand, is not a good actor. But this is where the ambiguity of performance comes in. Does he look like a director in the story? He doesn’t look like a director. But who told you that directors should be chewing cigars or wearing sunglasses on their face? There is no rule to this. We are the one’s who make up the rules. Of course there are some directors and producers who look like this and follow the rule, assuming everyone should behave according to their roles. But if you go down to a public market where no one knows who you are, you are no longer a producer. You are not the person who you think you are when no one recognizes you. I often like to keep this ambiguity, this opaqueness, and let my films and my characters linger in and out of the real world so as to earn more freedom for my creation.
Question: I just heard you express your feelings about cinema. What I perceived is that this is a form of “eternal return.” That is to say, you may feel being invoked (by a greater force) and then you exercise the invocation repeatedly. What arouses my curiosity is to know whether you want to experience repeatedly this invocation or to yourself perform this invocation?
This is probably one of the most profound questions I’ve ever been asked. To answer your question, yes, I do often feel summoned or invoked. You experience this when you put all your energy into a creation. When I was filming Goodbye Dragon Inn, I felt I was summoned to shoot that theatre. By being summoned I do not mean that your emotion is stirred up at the sight of it. No! It was way before that: before discovering the theatre itself actually. It came to me in a dream. Like this, I had this dream of old movie theatres. I usually am a dreamer. I am a light sleeper. If I do not dream, it means I did not fall asleep. Interestingly, there was a time when I kept dreaming about the Fu-ho Theatre, the one that used to house the chairs you are sitting on now. It was then that I realized I had to shoot this film, and it didn’t matter what storyline I was going to write. A year later, I rented the theatre for a full year, and prior to shooting it I had written only one page for it, like writing a poem. Everyday I visited the theatre with lighting setup for four scenes. Just shooting a short phrase like that. Go and see this film, and you will understand that it was shot out of a one-page manuscript. In this way, a scene with a lit cigarette could burn forever, as the spectators watch it burn…and burn…. It burns for so long; it is actually some sort of invocation. As time goes by, I realize this kind of summoning actually recurs. If you have a chance, you should also try to interpret your dream. It doesn’t have to be about old movie theatres. Many things are waiting to be rediscovered.
Recently, I was thinking: the old things are returning to our world, they never completely disappear. There was once a professor of economics named Huang, who told me that he used to travel by train for six hours, all the way from Berlin to Paris only to see my movie. He then said, “Don’t worry, director Tsai, you are not alone. We all watch your movies, though we are not many. But in the future, when those who are now nineteen years old feel empty and void, they’ll start to watch your films again.” This may be an overly complimentary. But you see, there are lots of things happening today, and they are all like this. When I saw in the news that some workers in Terry Gou’s company committed suicide, (10) I thought of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). It’s the story of a flock of birds attacking people without reason. And I think we are all like those birds. We keep attacking people or doing certain things without knowing why. Likewise, those who commit suicide will never stop repeating it. Why? We don’t know. But in the very inner part of us, we know. We know why it keeps recurring. We know as long as we are alive.
However, life is business, life is competition. We see how the directors squeeze themselves only to produce box-office success. We see how the politicians intend to persuade people that economic development should come first, regardless of the fact that the ozone layer is getting thinner and thinner as global warming becomes more and more serious, and that the earth cannot withstand more exploitation.
In this weakened environment, an era of recycling is coming. I think everything should be stopped, including my lecture here, my movie production, everything. You see, there are tons of movies on the plane, fifty channels, including English films, French films, Japanese films, etc. One of my friends switched the channels from the first to the last and then in reverse. He then came to a conclusion, “It’s shit.” Then I said, “Don’t say that. Even producing shit costs a great amount of money.” Of course, it could be a masterpiece. But what I want to emphasize is the concept of production: we are all consuming this earth to complete exhaustion. I come to wonder whether it’s worth it. I’ve been watching many old films lately, to realize that there are so many precious things we leave behind, preferring “shit” instead. And in doing so, we are also participating to this consuming process.
I think it’s enough for today. We’ll stop right at this “shit,” alright?
There is one last thing to mention. In June my installation “Moonlight on the River” (He shang de yuese) will be presented at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. If you visit it, you may recognize this concept of recycling there and then realize that not all things are disposable. Part of the video installation is a short thirteen minute film rarely screened in public. This work was produced without funding. Lee Kang-sheng and I went to film the dredged Danshui River in order to send it as a gift to a retired film festival chairman. The title of the film is derived from a song title of the same name. And the film itself is based on this idea of recycling cinema and theatre production. This film “Moonlight on the River” is then integrated into this new installation work with the same title. You’ll see what I mean when you go see it. Then you might be asked to buy a cup of coffee on site. Why? Because making coffee is also part of my work. It started out when one of my friends encouraged me to open a coffee shop after I made coffee for him. So I did. And now it is an integral part of the installation. I held on to one philosophy when I opened my shop, that is, I did not care much about sales records, nor about how much I sell. What matters most is to know what exactly I am selling. The coffee I sell is also food for thought, and I guarantee you, it’s delicious homemade coffee. If you visit the exhibition, you will understand why I have integrated the process of brewing coffee. It is part of the recycling concept: nothing in our life should be tossed away easily. Ultimately, I want to put everything back in use. I cannot emphasize this more strongly. Thank you.
- Here, Tsai Ming-liang refers to the 107 Art Film Theater at the National Central University, Taiwan.
- Jewel in the Palace (original title in Korean : Dae Jang Geum, 대장금) translated as Da Chang Jin (大長今) in Chinese. A popular Korean TV series, first screened in 2003, directed by Kim Yeong-Hyeon.
- Lovers in Paris (original title in Korean : 파리의 연인), translated as Ba Li Lian Ren (巴黎戀人) in Chinese. A popular Korean TV series, romance, first screened in 2004, directed by Kim Yang.
- The Butterfly Lovers (梁山伯與祝英台) is a legendary Chinese tragic love story often regarded as a Chinese counterpart of Romeo and Juliet.
- Ling Bo (凌波) is a Chinese actress and Huangmei opera singer. She is an influential figure in the Chinese entertainment industry, best known for her performance as Liang Shanbo (梁山伯) in The Love Eternal (梁山伯與祝英台, 1963, see above) and as Hua Mulan (花木蘭) in Lady General Hua Mulan (花木蘭, 1964).
- Brigitte Lin (林青霞) was a Taiwanese popular actress, best known for her roles in many romance films adapted from Chiung Yao’s novels. She also starred in numerous Hong Kong movies, and was considered an iconic image from the 1970s to the 1990s.
- Yang Li-yin (楊麗音) was a Taiwanese actress, most known for her performance in variety shows during the 1980s, but she also won the Best Actress award in the 41th Golden Bell Awards, an annual TV production award in Taiwan.
- Taiwanese writer, editor, publisher and film producer. He was editor of many renowned newspapers and publishing companies, and is also founder of Cité Publishing.
- “Strange Country” (異鄉記) is an autobiographical account by Eileen Chang posthumously published in 2010, which traces her journey from Shanghai to Wenzhou in search of Hu Lancheng (胡蘭成).
- Tsai here refers to the series of suicides that were committed at Foxconn in spring 2010 and lead to a significant raise of the employees’ wages. The Taiwan-based company, which employs some 820,000 workers throughout China, is one of the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturers.