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Interview with Tsai Ming-liang

Softly Tsai

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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It's not often that a filmmaker finds himself labeled as a world master after only five films. Think of someone like Michael Bay, whose first four films: Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, and Pearl Harbor, still leave him pretty far away from that title, no matter what his fifth film might be. David Fincher's fifth film (Panic Room) comes out this year, and even though his first four, Alien 3, Seven, The Game and Fight Club, were awfully good, you'd probably think twice before giving him the "master" tag. Even the Coen brothers' status seemed a little shaky after their disappointing fifth film, The Hudsucker Proxy (they were redeemed by their sixth, Fargo).

But Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's greatness seems cemented by his fifth film, What Time Is It There? which opens Friday at the Lumiere. With his first four, Rebels of the Neon God, Vive L'amour, The River and The Hole, he has established a distinctive and alluring style -- an obsession with dark comedy, long, still shots, and a use of water as a source of both life and death.

The soft-spoken, bespectacled and buzz-cut 44 year-old Tsai traveled to San Francisco last fall to promote his newest film, bringing with him his five-time lead actor Lee Kang-sheng (also known by his onscreen character's name Hsiao-kang).

Tsai met Hsiao-kang in 1991 while filming an early TV movie. It was as simple as spotting the handsome, quiet young oddball on the street and asking him to be in the film. "In the beginning it was very difficult," Tsai told me, speaking through a translator. "I was losing patience. Hsiao-kang was speaking very slowly and I kept trying to get him to speak quicker. Finally Hsiao-kang said, 'this is just my nature. It's how I am.' That caused me to re-think my view on filmmaking. I realized that we have this very rigid perception as to what an actor should be, and it should be more natural."

That theory extends to real life. The director and his star apparently do not live the lives of celebrities. "We were at the market once and someone said, you look just like Hsiao-kang! You could be on TV and you could be him!"

In a way, Tsai's filmmaking method resembles that of master French filmmaker Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest and Pickpocket), who worked with very still, austere shots and used what he called "models" instead of actors. Tsai says he admires Bresson but that he works quite differently.

"My relationship with his actors is long-term," he says. "I understand their daily life and who they are. I want to see what they're like in real life, so that the actors can express that. But you can't say that they're not acting, because it's more difficult to act this way. For them, it's not a question of being a professional or non-professional actor. Just standing in front of the camera makes someone an actor. I want the audience to believe that this is a real person and not just an actor."

Tsai's long-term relationship with Hsiao-kang came into play for their new film What Time Is It There?.

The film follows a young watch salesman (Hsiao-kang) whose father has dies after the first scene. The salesman becomes obsessed with time and with re-setting all kinds of clocks all over Tapei. He meets a girl who is just about to leave for Paris and sells her his own watch -- and we later follow her on her adventures through Paris. As Hsiao-kang watches The 400 Blows in Taipei, the girl meets the star of that film, Jean-Pierre Léaud, in a Paris graveyard. Meanwhile, Hsiao-kang's mother becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that her husband will return as a ghost. She cooks meals for him and sets up an elaborate shrine.

Tsai's own father died in 1992. And when Hsiao-kang's father followed in 1997, it reminded Tsai of the grief he went through. "This film was meant to resolve that," he says. In order to reflect the idea of death, Tsai concocted a film that includes not one single moving shot. Every shot is completely still, like a theatrical stage. (Tsai's background is in theater.)

Casting Jean-Pierre Léaud was Tsai's way of paying tribute to his favorite film, Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows. He says meeting the young boy from that 1959 film as a 60-something grown up was a strange but delightful experience. "He has two faces -- one is his older face in his 60s but his way of speaking and his gestures, they're 14. His acting is very natural. Everything comes from his own experiences, his own self. When you meet him, it's almost like he's walked out of the screen."

This preoccupation with the genuine is a constant issue with Tsai. Even the sex scenes in his films are played realistically and not for titillation purposes. "Other movies show sex like it's a happy thing and it's put in to get people to come to the theater," he says. "For me, making love is a very natural part of living and the way people make love reflects their inner selves."

"That's why I always say that the distance is far too great between movies and real life these days. Audiences like their fairy tale movies so much that if one came along that was true to life, they wouldn't be able to accept it," he says, hoping that the whimsical, masterful What Time Is It There? will be the exception.

January 25, 2002


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