Compass Magazine, May 2002

Creativity + A Search for Truth = Box Office Rewards?

-----------A talk with Director Tsai Ming-Liang

Photos and Text by Little Ann Translated by Jacques van Wersch

Meeting 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 Taiwanese director.

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.'"

Sometimes 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 films."

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.

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