Tsai Ming-liang: 90 minutes with the slow cinema master

As Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang returns to Britain for the first time since his 2007 BFI retrospective, we sheltered from the rain for an in-depth discussion of his career and latest films, including The Deserted – an immersively slow virtual reality project.

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

The Deserted (2017)

The Deserted (2017)

Six years after his Venice prize-winning Stray Dogs (2013), Malaysia-born Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang puts paid to the rumours of retirement he started in its wake. This weekend he returns to London for the first time since his 2007 BFI Southbank retrospective with an armful of UK premieres playing at the inaugural Taiwan Film Festival.

Afternoon (2015) takes the form of an extended, candid conversation between the filmmaker and his leading man, Lee Kang-sheng, while Your Face (2018) transcends installation expectations with its profound meditation on mortality by way of close-up.

Perhaps most exciting, though, is Tsai’s first foray into virtual reality with The Deserted (2017), a staggering multi-sensory experience that places the viewer in the centre of his immaculately conceived scenes.

It was fitting that as our chat began the heavens opened, and an apocalyptic level of April rain fell over our an hour and a half as Lee Kang-sheng slowly paced the room before falling asleep in the corner. This was the perfect doubling-down of Tsai immersion following the breathtaking VR experience.

Tsai Ming-liang

Tsai Ming-liang
Credit: William Laxton

Had you seen any VR films before you were approached for The Deserted?

I hadn’t seen many and didn’t really like it. Like most people, I thought it was just a tool for gaming, and I wasn’t really interested in putting on a headset. Three or four years ago, many people approached me, asking me to make a VR film. I’d been invited to a lot of commercial studios to see what they’d done, but when I saw them I just thought, “It’s not for me.”

Then some people in Taiwan showed me some interesting examples, films from Australia and America. I saw something interesting there but wasn’t sure. I finally said yes after seeing a single photograph, one frame rendered in VR. The quality was so good that it changed my mind.

Did you have preconceptions about the possibilities or limitations of the technology? How did that change when you started working with it?

The technicians kept trying to tell me about all the different restrictions and regulations. I can’t do this, I can’t do that, I can’t get too close, I have to be a certain distance from the object. I finally said to them, “Stop showing me other VR works, and stop telling me what I can’t do.” Once I knew how it all worked, exactly, I realised it’s not about the technology, but about how I want the audience to see and experience the work.

The Deserted (2017)

The Deserted (2017)

Your films are so compositionally specific; were you ever worried about ceding a degree of control of the image to the viewer?

It actually broke through my habits of composition. The VR camera has certain restrictions, in that you have to maintain a certain distance, otherwise you’d get distortion. Once I’d discovered the space, and understood the 360-degree concept, it became more about regenerating the idea of how people participate in the scene.

Most VR is just so busy. I wanted to create a space that people enter and then begin to calm down, when they realise that they don’t, in fact, need to see everything. The composition is ultimately in my control, because where I place the viewer in the space determines their perspective and their attention. There’s still a frame, it’s just a different kind of frame. Because the audience can see everything, it just means you have to compose everything. Then I just started getting anxious because I couldn’t do any close-ups.

So was Your Face, which is made up exclusively of close-ups, a response to the restrictions of The Deserted?

None of my work appears suddenly; it grows like a tree, with different branches. Something about Lee Kang-sheng’s body really attracts me, really inspires me. After Stray Dogs, I spent five or six years making eight different Walker films. It’s not just his face, it’s his entire body, there’s something there. Through my journey with Lee, I went from wanting to control his body to realising that it’s not something that can be controlled. Like, when he had his strange illness, I was unable to control it; the only thing I could do was film.

Age is something I wasn’t able to control either. Stray Dogs was made especially for him, when I realised, “Oh my god, he’s already 47 years old.” That film came about through my thinking about the way I look at him. Later on, I realised that content doesn’t matter, narrative doesn’t matter, I just wanted to show how I see him.

Stray Dogs (2013)

Stray Dogs (2013)

The way I create my films isn’t the same as the way others who work for the market do. All my films are a development of the way I look at Lee Kang-sheng. This one developed through wanting to show how ageing, life and his attitude have shaped his body. From Stray Dogs through to the VR, we lived next to these ruins, which at some point were abandoned. Lee had this awful illness just before we made the VR film, so I realised that bodies were just like these ruins; our bodies were decaying. There’s not just one or two or three films, there’s only all the films.

You mentioned not working for markets, but Your Face is playing at a gallery here, while it received a theatrical run in Taiwan. Are you concerned about where the films are seen?

In Asia, especially in Taiwan, it’s very important that my films are able to be seen. After Stray Dogs won the prize in Venice, people in Taiwan said I had to have a theatrical release. I didn’t want to though; I wanted to show it just for my fans. So I organised 50 screenings on a single screen. 10,000 people saw the film, then I stopped. After, I moved it to a special museum installation with three different rooms, so people could experience it in a different setting, in a different way. Then I stopped again, and decided that I wasn’t going to do a DVD release or sell it to TV, that this was the only way the film should be seen. I wanted a concept where you saw the film through its author’s eyes.

Cinema-goers in Asia are very different from those in Europe. If you let someone distribute your film, you lose control over how the audience experiences the film. After Stray Dogs, I realised I could design the space in which audiences see the film. You could enter the space, lay down… You’re still watching the film, but in a different way. I’m working on a new way to change audience habits, especially in Asia where there’s no overlap between the gallery and cinema audience.

Your Face (2018)

Your Face (2018)

Speaking of fans, you directed Lee Kang-sheng’s mother in Your Face. Has she seen all your films together?

No, hahaha. She doesn’t really care. Older parents don’t have the experience of watching non-commercial films. They sort of know what you’re doing, but they don’t really care. You can’t blame them, it’s just the environment they grew up in. She was very easy to direct; she’s not afraid of the camera. The hardest part was convincing her to turn up at the location.

You’ve spoken before of formative cinema trips with your grandparents. They went to the cinema every day, so they must have been cinephiles in their own way. What would they have made of your films, do you think?

My mother’s parents were originally from Kaohsiung province, before moving to Malaysia. At the time, Hong Kong cinema made so many films, so they could see a different film every day. There wasn’t much else by way of entertainment. My childhood was spent with them at the cinema, seeing everything from Hong Kong and Chinese to Hollywood films. I guess my grandparents would have had no idea of what I was trying to say with my films. In their time it was all commercial cinema. Not like today. It would be Chinese Opera or period dramas and musicals. Lots of it was made for educational purposes too.

Lobby card for King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967), paid tribute to in Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Lobby card for King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967), paid tribute to in Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Did you see Dragon Inn (1967) with them? You must have been 10 when it came out?

Yeah, about 11. I loved King Hu. I don’t know why. I saw so many films, but there was something about his that really attracted me. All films excite you at that age, but his were really special. He’s a literary as much as an action director, who was making his films during a very commercial period, which is why his wuxia films are so different from those of others. They’re much more about real life. The rest have a much more romantic imagination — people flying around, riding horses — but King Hu’s films have a much more realistic historical backdrop.

There’s a similarity between our films in that both of us are less interested in making films for escapism. We’re both more interested in expression, even if it’s an expression of genre.

Your film Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) creates a beautiful dialogue with King Hu’s.

I made that film in my 30s. I’d found a cinema that was closing in the suburbs of Taipei. All the cinemas in that style were closing down, and this was one of the last ones left. I was filming What Time Is It There? (2001), and there was a scene that took place in that cinema. After I wrapped, I held a single screening there. It was raining outside, but there were a thousand people in this about-to-close cinema. The cinema owner called me asking if we might be able to collaborate, and I said no.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)

He was trying to convince me to run the cinema because I’d managed to pack it out. Instead I said, “Rent me the cinema and I’ll make a film here.” I had no idea what I was going to make, but I took it for a year. I didn’t run it, I just rented it from him. Then, of course, I forgot all about it. It was my producer who reminded me in the last month that I had it, and he asked what I wanted to do with it.

So I wrote just one page, that was basically just a short piece of poetry, and had a thought of screening Dragon Inn on the final day. It was after that I wrote the film and acquired the rights to the King Hu, then shot it over the last 10 days – four shots a day. It’s a film that deals with memories. The memories of that cinema became the memories of cinema.

With the exception of your musical sequences, on the surface your films don’t necessarily point to an interest in genre, but wasn’t The Wayward Cloud (2005) originally conceived as a John Ford-style western vehicle for Ann Hui?

Well, I grew up on genre films, and on Ann Hui. I’m the same generation as Ang Lee, and we were all obsessed with westerns and wuxia or musicals. When I was making The Hole (1998), I tried to make a very serious film, with a serious approach to the end of the world, but I couldn’t get away from the music. It came to represent resistance to the film’s reality, even while the world was falling apart. My whole life I’ve felt trapped. Trapped by my childhood memories of all these films and music. Even making this VR film, I couldn’t escape ending it with a song from the 1950s. I like to be trapped though.

The Wayward Cloud (2005)

The Wayward Cloud (2005)

You made a children’s film once for television. I’m intrigued to think what a Tsai Ming-liang children’s film would look like.

When I was young I had to survive, so when the studio asked me to make a children’s film, I just did. I made a children’s musical, but the TV station was afraid to show it because it was too dark.

Oh, you have to tell me more about that.

It was a regular TV show, and they asked me to make this special episode. So I wrote a story about a little girl whose mum is always busy. The Moon Festival in Taiwan is a time when families always get together, but this mum was still too busy. So the little girl goes out by herself, where she meets a stray dog played by Lee Kang-sheng, and in the end she just follows the stray dog and leaves, and that’s it.

It often gets overlooked how funny even your darkest films are.

Lee Kang-sheng is a very talented actor, but he has this very serious, ridiculous melancholy. It’s actually very funny. On the outside he’s really cool, but there’s something I find very funny. I’m always trying to make things as real as possible. Perhaps I’m afraid of making a sad person appear too sad. Too sad is funny. I can’t bear it in certain types of films, where an actress will just really go for it.

The timing of your sight gags is impeccable, like a Jacques Tati gag. Does a lot of planning go into those moments or is it spontaneously choreographed?

I’ll go in and look at the location and space carefully, before inviting the actors and the art departments in. It’s really not that difficult.

Do you have a clear concept of what the film is going to be before you start filming, or do you find that during the process of actually making it?

I take a lot of time to prepare in the beginning, to try and get it clear in my head, but I’ve never finished a script before I started filming. Once I start, the first part is very constructed, but then I just let go and let it happen.

After I made The Hole, some French producers were asking what I wanted to make next, so I just said, “Can you just find me some production money, then just leave me alone for four years and I’ll come back to you with another film?” But no one wants to do that yet. Every producer wants the script or the story to raise money, but it’s just a limitation, making films the industry way.

Vive l’amour (1994)

Vive l’amour (1994)

So with, say, the ending of Vive l’amour (1994), at which point did you decide that incredible shot would be the ending of the film? While you were writing it, filming it? Was it always that length?

That wasn’t the original ending of the film. The park was there, but under construction. It was such a good location, and the sun was great. The actress arrived, and I thought, “Maybe you should just cry here.” It was a decision made on the day. The park was a former military installation, a retirement village for generals. They were turning into a park, so it symbolised hope. I really wanted to do something there.

What do you think is the hardest thing to capture on film?

It’s difficult to make good films. There’s no easy answer; everything is difficult. Being a film director I just feel very anxious, I feel a great responsibility. There are certain expectations of you. I finally understood something while I was making the Walker films; I wanted to throw a lot of baggage away. Everyone can be very critical. Over a hundred years people have been trying to tell each other what film is, and I just wanted to get rid of that baggage.

No No Sleep (2015), part of Tsai’s Walker series

No No Sleep (2015), part of Tsai’s Walker series

With the Walker films, Lee had to walk very, very slowly, entering one side of the frame and exiting the other. This process sometimes took 20-30 minutes. I couldn’t get in the way of Lee’s energy. If I wanted to reset, it had to be in the first minute; otherwise I just had to let him go.

I discovered that with these films I’m more like a painter. I only wanted to make the films that I wanted to see. I wanted to throw away people’s concepts of what films are supposed to be, my concepts of what films are supposed to be. I realised that films can be truly precise, handmade craftsmanship. When I realised that, my anxiety just disappeared.

I’m very relaxed now. I don’t feel that I need to make a lot of films. When I first entered the industry I really liked to write; I thought I was just a screenwriter. Then I thought I’d just make 10 films in my life. Filmmaking is hard, and 10 films is already a lot. But then I realised that every opportunity to make a film is a gift. I’m lucky that I don’t need to find money to make films, the funding comes to me. I don’t get a lot of money, but it’s enough to make my films. Gradually I found the freedom to make the films I want to make.

Afternoon (2015)

Afternoon (2015)

I’m developing a new concept. The concept isn’t just that you don’t need a script, but that you don’t even need a concept. One film I’m working on continues to follow Lee Kang-sheng. In recent years, I’ve been filming a second person with Lee, in parallel. I’m thinking about this ongoing project, how I film them together. I’m trying to think about structure by forgetting about structure, but structure always finds you.

Your Face is one of my experiments in structure, but I’m developing something that’s more author orientated. Something beyond the construct of a story. It begins with an author’s conception, but then moves beyond that to become something new. It’s an abstract concept, but it’s really hard to throw my old habits away.

With Hou Hsiao-hsien or my films, you don’t really need to understand what the film is going to tell you, you just enter and see the films, our way.

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