+ A Search for Truth = Box Office Rewards?
talk with Director Tsai Ming-Liang
and Text by Little Ann Translated by Jacques van
Tsai Ming-Liang for the first time, I smiled inwardly
as I caught a glimpse of the famed Taiwanese director's
bare feet clad in deck shoes. An aversion to wearing
socks appeared to be something I shared with the famed
Tsai, whose latest work,
"What Time is it There?", has been internationally
acclaimed, is known for his direct approach as a filmmaker.
He is equally forthright in conversation, as he addresses
the controversy that his films have provoked at home.
"A lot of people
who criticize me haven't even seen my movies. At a Government
Information Office meeting, one official said, 'Tsai MIng-Liang,
we don't understand your films.' Others have said, 'Don't
subsidize any more of his films because his favorite theme
is homosexuality and his main audience is comprised of
foreigners.' I know that the scenery in my films doesn't
appeal to government officials. I've never actively avoided
filming beautiful scenery but the fact is that I often
seek out the most chaotic areas of a city, where I believe
we can perceive truth more clearly than in classically-beautiful
locales. Once, an official pointed out that Taiwan isn't
just a filthy and disordered place as depicted in my films.
He said that there is lots of beautiful scenery as well.
I said, 'Great. You can go film them.'"
people are unclear about some detail or other from
a Tsai Ming-Liang film and wonder what he's trying
to say. Addressing this, he responds: "There's
nothing wrong with putting aside preconceptions about
a film. Just watch it. There's no need to be concerned
about understanding everything. Naturally, there are
some things I want to convey in my films but not all
audiences may interpret them in the same way. Different
people may be affected in different ways."
In his latest work, the
two-hour "What Time is it There?", the lack
of any soundtrack besides the sparse dialogue between
the characters and ambient sounds has sparked a lot of
interest. Tsai says, "A movie with a minimal soundtrack
gives an audience a different kind of feeling and can
be truer, more introspective."
It's evident when you're
watching a Tsai Ming-Liang film that the actors are familiar
with one another. They seem more like family or friends
than actors. Tsai and his ensemble have gotten to know
each other very well over the years. They coordinate their
actions and dialogue methodically, yet effortlessly.
"At this stage, all
that is necessary is to provide the actors with a simple
concept or emotion, and let them take it from there. They're
not saddled with the burdens most actors have to deal
with--and they usually can give me what I'm looking for,"
says the director.
Tsai is currently
on a speaking tour of colleges to communicate with
students and to get their feedback. "By chatting
with students, I discovered--quite to my surprise--that
many professors are using my films as models, or
even referring to them in test questions. If you
don't 'get it', you flunk!" he laughs.
After his laughter
subsides, Tsai adds that when he came to Taipei's
Chinese Culture University from Malaysia to study
film. "I discovered that I could watch movies
without having to justify it." While studying,
he had ample opportunity to enhance his film experience,
and to sow some seeds for crops that he is now reaping.
"So, I really value the time I spend with students
these days," he says.
Though he has won numerous
awards at international film festivals, Tsai generally
has a sense of overwhelming frustration and loneliness
upon returning to Taiwan. Most of his support in Taiwan
comes from a small but enthusiastic group of film lovers.
Taiwan box office figures are less than inspiring: "People
ask me what motivates me to keep making Chinese films.
They think it's an act of courage on my part to continue
the struggle, but I tell them, frankly, that I only want
to direct movies. I don't think it's my duty to rescue
Mandarin cinema. In fact I'm not really aware that what
I'm doing is Mandarin cinema."
There is a torturous path
that must be followed to get one's pictures subsidized
in Taiwan--another frustration for Tsai--but he is still
reluctant to accept a box office total as the measure
of a film's worth. He concedes, "I'm not against
the kind of packaging that goes on in Hollywood, but I
would hope that persistence and creativity could also
pay off for people who make finely crafted, low-budget
I was with Tsai Ming-Liang
when he received the news that "What Time is it There?"
was doing quite well at the box office, whereupon he made
absolutely no attempt to hide his relief and joy. On seeing
this reaction, I smiled inwardly once again as the director
remarked that, "In life, people often give up something
precious without fighting for it. I hope some of these
precious things can be captured in my films."
It's hard to say what
might come next for Tsai Ming-Liang. Perhaps this, in
its self, is the point in a way--a little bit of sensitivity
and a willingness to accept that all is not as ordered
as many might be comfortable with can go a long way to
reveal essential truths and even beauty. With his open
attitude and brutal honesty, Tsai has done just that so
far in his filmmaking career. He would do well to continue
capturing on film what he sees as precious in life for
hopefully ever-increasing audiences.