NYAFF 2013 Interview: A Chat With Legendary Taiwanese Director & Actor Tsai Yang-ming

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NYAFF 2013 Interview: A Chat With Legendary Taiwanese Director & Actor Tsai Yang-ming
Earlier this month the New York Asian Film Festical honored Taiwanese director & actor Tsai Yang-ming with a lifetime achievement award for his 50 years in the film industry. Tsai started his career in film as a manager at a theater and went on to act in over 200 films. He then began directing Mandarin films at a time when Taiwan was still under martial law. All in all he has produced and directed over 70 features: an eclectic parade of detective flicks, kung-fu and action films (including Big Land Flying Eagle and Woman Revenger) and gangster comedies. 

His most famous film internationally is perhaps the crime thriller Never Too Late To Repent, which follows Ma Sha a young pimp on the mean streets of the city. The film, based on the true story of Ma Sha (the actual star of the film to_, was a box office smash in Taiwan and started the so-called Black Movie trend, which saw over 100 exploitation films made and released from 1979 to 1983. Our intrepid NYC correspondent Diva Velez was able to sit down with the Taiwanese master for a brief chat on his long career. [ed. Ben Umstead]    

ScreenAnarchy: As someone who is regarded as changing the face of Taiwanese movies, what are your thoughts as to how Taiwanese film can progress and thrive into the future?
Tsai Yang-ming: I'm really thankful for all the people that came here today.  I've been making films for 50 years and you could say that I was born for movies and that movies are my life. It was very difficult to make films at that time because Taiwan was under martial law and there was no freedom of speech, so for all the screenwriters and directors, it was very difficult.  But now the government is starting to [allow] young filmmakers to rise in the field of filmmaking.  Right now is that prime time of Taiwanese and Chinese cinema because there were only 10 million people watching film and now there's billions, so now is the best time for Chinese movies.  New York is the Big Apple; everything is big in New York, so I'd really like people here to find us some place like the bank of films.  I want to save 50 years in my bank, because I've been making films for 50 years and if I could just withdraw my 50 years, I'd be in my 20's and I could just start making films as if I was young.

I'm very thankful for everyone who came today because I have no regrets in my life, because film has fulfilled my life.  If I can be reborn,  or if I have a next lifetime, I would still be making films. It is important for all the press and all the media to help bridge between the filmmakers and the audience that's why I'm very thankful for everyone that is here. [Stands up and bows]
How does it feel to celebrate your 50th year in the movie industry with the New York audience watching your films?
I feel very lucky. I am very happy because even though I haven't been a director for a long time, I'm still in the film industry in Taiwan. I've been a judge at the Golden Horse Awards and involved in the decision of granting government funding for new directors. So, I've been really involved in the film business and I'm really happy to be enjoying this moment here in New York.
You have had experience in all aspects of filmmaking, including as a very popular actor, but you had never intended to be one.  How did that happen?
I feel really lucky because it was an opportunity for me.  I was just coming out from the army; I was really young. I was 23 years old. I was a scripter for films and I was working on set and it was a very difficult scene where someone had to jump into the water. It was very dangerous and it was very cold and there were great waves.  We waited for 2 days and no one would dare to go into the water. I was there and I said, "Just let me do it," and that's how I became an actor.  The cameraman was a very strong, chunky guy and he was holding my line, he said to me, "It's okay that you go down, but remember you have to come up."  I was really scared, but I had to do it, because if I didn't do it, we couldn't go home for Chinese New Year. It was a very important scene, it was the boss's close up so the director gave me a close up and because I was very young and handsome at that time, they discovered me.
You are known for introducing dark themes that had never been broached before in Taiwanese films, but you also focused on women as the main protagonists, which was also very progressive.  What was the inspiration to do that?
So, actually, these things were real events that happened during the 70s. Many young girls went to Japan to find jobs and they were killed, or murdered, or they were captured by the yakuza there and they forced them to become prostitutes. If they didn't do it, they were killed. Sometimes it would be a fake death or suicide. Many of those cases were not closed because there were connections between the police and yakuza. At that time, there was a lot of news coverage about those events and I was reading about them and I decided that I had to make them into films to bring back some kind of justice to the society, but I could not set the events in Taiwan because it was controversial, so I set it in Hong Kong.
You are still active in the film industry; please what is next for Mr. Tsai Yang-ming?
I am mostly working as a committee member for film festivals, but more importantly I'm helping my son [Tsai Yueh-hsun]'s next film, Black and White 2. We're writing the script and we're putting together actors and directors. I'm going to be the producer of the film, so that's going to be very important.

This interview was cross-published on Diva's website The Diva Review.
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NYAFFtaiwanTaiwan black moviestaiwanese cinemaTsai Yang-ming