IFFR 2010: an interview with Tsai Ming-liang!

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
IFFR 2010: an interview with Tsai Ming-liang!
This year, Malaysian / Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang visited the International Film Festival Rotterdam to present his latest film "Visage" ("Face"), a curious movie to say the least. For starters that film doesn't need to bring in any money as it is a commissioned piece for the Louvre Museum.

Both Peter van der Lugt and I have been following Mr. Tsai's career for the last decade and were lucky enough to interview his regular leading actor Lee Kang-Sheng back in 2008. So the moment it got out that Tsai Ming-Liang would be in Rotterdam, scoring an interview with him immediately shot to the top of our priorities list. Needless to say we had plenty of questions.

Despite having to reschedule the meeting several times and being warned by other journalists about the director's temper, when we met the man himself he was one of the kindest, most generous and all-round pleasant people we have ever interviewed. When Mr. Tsai starts talking... he talks!

Thankfully we ended up being his last interview of the day and he graciously allowed us to go majorly into overtime.
Read on...

PvdL: Your movie "Visage" has the famous Louvre Museum as its prime location, and you had their full cooperation in making this film. How did you end up working together with the museum?

Tsai Ming-Liang:
Henri Loyrette, the current director of the Louvre Museum who used to run the Musée d'Orsay just on the other side, decided that the Louvre Museum should do more with modern art now that he had taken over. He tried to establish stronger bonds between modern art and the Louvre.
Our collaboration started when they asked me in 2005 to create a movie which would become part of the Louvre Museum's collection, and they also wanted to be involved with the actual producing of the film. That was basically the start of it all, the first request. And in 2005 we all celebrated that film existed for 100 years, so that fitted together nicely.

However, the actual filming only started three years later at the end of 2008, and the funny thing was that it took until only a few months before shooting started that the people working at the Louvre Museum started to realize that we were about to film a movie at their location. I used those three years to thoroughly research the whole old palace from top to bottom, and while I was doing that, walking around the place for ages, I got the impression that we would never manage to truly have a film be made there.

I had immediately accepted the Louvre's invitation, but after that I got really nervous when they started asking me "What are you planning to film?". My reaction to that was again instinctive: I said the movie should feature Jean-Pierre Léaud, it should feature Lee Kang-Sheng, and I wanted to film a meeting of those two either in the Louvre itself or on the Museum's grounds. But this meant that it was very important to come up with a plausible reason for them to meet at that location, and that caused me a lot of headaches.

TML-interview-Jean-Pierre.jpgWhat was really great about the Louvre's invitation was that it coincided with a Truffaut retrospective somewhere in France. And I was invited there as well because my film "What Time Is It There?" featured a short homage to Truffaut, so I ended up seeing that film with all of Truffaut's regularly used actors right there in the venue. That in itself was a very touching moment for me, and the next day the invitation by the Louvre Museum arrived. So now that invitation was for me inexorably linked with Truffaut's films. After that I started wondering why I so badly wanted to film Jean-Pierre Léaud, and me musing about that question became the basis for the entire film.

Because of Jean-Pierre Léaud, the film is now about my own feelings towards Jean-Pierre Léaud and my feelings regarding film in general. The way I watch films and the way I create them myself. It all started to come together.

AV: That actually answered my eh... next three questions as well! (we all laugh)

Tsai Ming-Liang:
See? Everything is connected!

AV: But it is telling that you specifically wanted to have Jean-Pierre Léaud and Lee Kang-Sheng in "Visage". You explained why you wanted Jean-Pierre Léaud, but I'd like to ask you about Lee Kang-Sheng. You always use him in your films. Do you have a certain need for him to be in your movies? Can you imagine ever making a film without him in it?

Tsai Ming-Liang:
No! (we all laugh)
That would be impossible. Absolutely unthinkable.
I'll go as far as to say that if Lee Kang-Sheng dies, I will stop making films.

Tien Miao, one of my other regular actors who always played the father figure in my films, died while I was at the Film Festival in Berlin with my movie "The Wayward Cloud", which didn't have him in it. At six in the morning I received a message that Tien Miao had passed away. I was shocked and immediately went to Lee Kang-Sheng's room. I knocked on his door and told him: "Lee Kang-Sheng, you can not die before I do. I need... it's just not allowed. There are movies I still want to make with you in them!".

TML-interview-Lee.jpgThat got me thinking as well about why it was that I specifically needed HIM in my movies, and I concluded that I just want to keep portraying Lee Kang-Sheng with my camera, documenting him. It's not even important which roles he plays in my films, as long as he is consistently there. And as I film him so often, through my films you can follow the whole process of life, getting older... all depicted on the face and body of one actor. Because I always use the same actor you can watch him slowly grow, and that is what Lee Kang-Sheng embodies for me.

What you often see in films is that when actors become older, they are replaced with younger actors because everyone wants "young" and "beautiful". But that is specifically what I don't want to do. I want to film Lee Kang-Sheng throughout his whole life. This is also why I insisted on having Jean-Pierre Léaud in the film. He was somewhere in his late thirties when Truffaut died and people stopped using him in movies. This caused a hole in his screen appearances because nobody wanted to film him after Truffaut. I know for sure that if Truffaut would still be alive, he would have continued to film Jean-Pierre Léaud, no matter how deteriorated, fragile and old he'd start to look.
Then again, I don't expect other directors apart from me to do this, to hire Jean-Pierre Léaud. He would not be a box-office magnet because he is not as attractive as he used to be. So I wanted to make sure people would have the opportunity to also see the aged Jean-Pierre Léaud. And I truly think it's a shame this gap between Truffauts death till "Visage" exists in his work. Because now we miss the actual aging of him. I'm convinced Truffaut didn't film Jean-Pierre Léaud because he thought the actor was his alter ego, as many people think, but because he felt an inner need to document this man on film. To see him age, just like I have with Lee Kang-Sheng.
I mean, Lee Kang-Sheng isn't my alter ego either.

AV: Ah, there goes another question! (we all laugh)

Tsai Ming-Liang:
I just want to film him even if he gets fatter and older. And now we get to the question of "What Is Film?".
For many people, film is just a consumption article, something you buy. But in my opinion, when you think that is true, you are selling film short. Film has the potential to also be a lot of other things. And for me, Lee Kang-Sheng is a bridge towards that question: "What Is Film?". Through him I discover what film is and what it can possible become.

PvdL: About that: I thought "Visage" was very intriguing. At one point Lee Kang-Sheng is outside with Jean-Pierre Léaud and a little bird, and Jean-Pierre says about the bird: "Titi is a great director". That made me wonder in jest what it takes to be a great director, but further on in the movie he says "All the great directors are gone", and lists many people who are now dead. Is that how you feel, that there are no great directors left these days, that all the great ones have gone?

Tsai Ming-Liang:
Whenever I hold a lecture in Taiwan about film, I always tell students that I will never be able to top the great directors of yesterday. Then I say to them: "And you will never be able to top me!". (we all laugh)

We are currently living in an age where we can no longer make movies in a truly creative way, like it was possible in the fifties or sixties. On the one hand we have no big political issues obstructing us and most people have the freedom to do as they please, but the biggest problems these days are of the financial kind. Films are supposed to make money, and quickly too. If you are involved in the making of a film, that film must be profitable or you can no longer survive in the industry.
Because of this, the whole trajectory is now pre-arranged. Films must be made in a certain way, distributed in a certain way, aimed at a certain audience, sold to television, put on DVD in a certain amount... That is part of filmmaking nowadays, and if you do all of that well enough you can survive.
Unfortunately this means that currently films are almost never made from an inner need to make a film. Such projects are sometimes started but commerce quickly intervenes.

And I don't think the audience's taste for movies in Asia is going to change anytime soon. It's very much aimed at Hollywood. That has always been the case and I don't think it will improve.
There are only few great directors left being able to do what they want, and their audience is dwindling.
So while I say that Titi is a great director, he also dies in the movie. During one screening of "Visage", when the "Titi is a great director" sentence appeared, someone in the audience started to applaud and I thought that was touching.

And another thing about film aesthetics: if you start thinking about Murnau, Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Kurosawa and Ozu, and where their ideas and techniques concerning filmmaking came from, the answer is NOT that they were taught these things in a university or a film academy. What you see nowadays is that many new directors have graduated from a film academy. I also notice many young people watching movies on their computers at home, or people see them on even smaller screens in airplanes, or watch movies in snippets...
The other day I met a Chinese student who told me he watched all movies on his computer, one with a very small screen. So I asked him: "Do you even know what a close-up is, and what the effect can be if you use a close-up on a BIG screen?". And he didn't. That is really a sign of the times, and in a sense I think these film academies are in fact damaging film itself. True movie lovers in the United States and Europe do realize that movies these days aren't as good or groundbreaking as the older movies are.

And it's not the same as reading a book either, where you have a huge choice of what you want to read and see in your head. If you go to a cinema in Asia, the only choice you have is Hollywood-style entertainment. Maybe European cinemas are heading in that same direction, but if so that would be a terrible waste, and a shame for film in general.

AV: But judging by your earlier comments you view your films as one large body of work, and that's why for instance you keep using Lee Kang-Sheng. "Visage" is a very referential film, containing many nods to other movies and even referring to your own earlier films as well. Aren't you running the risk that new films by you won't be approachable anymore for a regular audience? Because you almost need to be a film-scholar of sorts and have some background knowledge concerning the right subjects, to be able to enjoy "Visage".

Tsai Ming-Liang:
And THAT is exactly the problem you face with film. Film is not an art form with much freedom, because you are always stuck with the audience's wishes and expectations.

When "Visage" was shown in Poland, to my surprise an old film critic approached me and said: "Why did you film the Salome story in this fashion? Salome isn't allowed to look like this!". (we all laugh)
So I told him: "You forget that I am the director, and I determine what happens in my film!". It was a very interesting reaction though. Would he have dared to say the same thing to an artist who had made a statue of Salome? I don't think so, but with film people seem to feel entitled to.
And I also think he asked me this question because I'm Asian, and therefore he may have thought I was not able to comprehend Salome well enough. Maybe he wouldn't have said it if I had been a Western director.

In Taiwan I always tell my audiences that if they see one of my films and like it, but reach a spot where they don't understand what's going on anymore, you can approach that with the attitude where you think: "That is interesting, I want to learn more about that and investigate the background a bit". So when you see a reference to Jean-Pierre Léaud and are intrigued, I encourage you to go watch other movies with Jean-Pierre Léaud. That scene in "Visage" where the characters mention that list of great directors, Antonioni, Murnau... if you're REALLY interested you can research those directors.

In Europe you are used to visiting museums. You learn that at a young age, dragged along maybe by either your parents, grandparents or school. You think visiting a museum is normal. But in Asia, that is entirely not the case. So I always tell students that they can go to an art museum, stroll along all day and take in a huge number of paintings. And many paintings won't resonate with you. No matter how you try and do your homework, they won't move you. But there might suddenly be ONE painting that strikes something in you.
And that is how I see "Visage". There might be that one shot that touches and moves you, and I'll be happy if you took that with you from the film. One moment which you found particularly moving because it was beautiful, or emotional or whatever. For me, that is enough. When I look at my films in THAT way, only then do I feel free to do whatever I want. Because I don't make movies with the audience in mind. If I'd feel bound to the audience's expectations I wouldn't be able to make MY films anymore.

I make films because I feel an inner need to do so, because I HAVE to. And I see European audiences may be starting to forget that as well, those many possibilities that films have. Because I noticed that from "Goodbye, Dragon Inn" onward, European journalists starting to ask me questions like these more and more often. "What is film?".

In Taiwan also people have told me that because of my films, they learned to experience movies in a different way. That they now understood that there are many possibilities with film, not just consumption entertainment.
There was one young girl in Taiwan who had seen "Visage" and thanked me after the screening for opening her eyes to these other possibilities. And that is exactly the effect that I hope to establish: getting people to think about "What is film?".

PvdL: Well, with "Visage" you're doing fine in that regard. If I may I would like to discuss that Salome scene some further: I can understand it if a director has a certain vision for such a scene and thinks "It has to look PRECISELY like this". What I was wondering is how much of that scene was planned, and how much preparation went into it? Did you test-shoot it beforehand?
And what we both were wondering: how much was scripted and was there any improvisation in it?

Tsai Ming-Liang:
All I can say about the script is that there were many different versions of it, and during shooting we didn't use any of them. Too many things were different when we were on location to try and do what we had planned in advance.

It wasn't that bad during the Salome dance scene though. That dance is supposed to be a striptease act, but I didn't want it to look like all the other film-versions shot in the past.

TML-interview-Salome.jpgAt a very late stage I decided that Laetitia Casta as Salome had to dance for Lee Kang-Sheng, which was a change because in the original version she dances for the character of John the Baptist of course. That's what we planned as well but I decided "No, it HAS to be Lee Kang-Sheng".
At first we also wanted her to dance in water but I realized we already had another scene where that happens, so we changed the setting to an ice storage facility. You can actually see all the ice packed against the walls. It's a tiny chamber deep under the Louvre, somewhere in the basements, and I wanted the actors to feel the cold for real so you could see they suffered from the cold. Therefore we installed an extra air-conditioning unit and we cooled the set to minus ten degrees Celsius. That counts as preparation, and we went to a local butcher to get all of those metal hooks, the slabs of meat and the plastic tarp.

AV: With minus ten degrees Celsius and Lee Kang-Sheng lying naked in a steel bathtub, didn't he get frozen "stuck"? (we all laugh)

Tsai Ming-Liang:
Rest assured he was VERY uncomfortable, also because he was covered in tomato sauce.
By the way, that wasn't the coldest Laetitia Casta got during filming. Her dance around one of those onion-shaped roofs, the Spanish music number near the beginning of the film, that was the coldest for her. She was sort-of draped over this structure which is very high up on the Louvre's exterior, and we shot it in winter when it was very cold. One of the reasons why she managed to do that was because of her experience as a model. She is used to having to do weird things in odd locations. You and I, we'd probably not be able to stand there with our backs bent against this thing without sliding down but Laetitia didn't only manage to stand, she was even able to dance too!
I truly have much respect for my actors and what they were capable of.

Getting back to preparing the Salome scene: we got the plastic sheets and everything from the butcher, and we had a specific song we wanted to use. But the music turned out to be too weak for the scene when we tried it. I discussed this with the choreographer who told me "You cannot do this scene without music, maybe you can use some Chinese song or something?". So I told him that I didn't want any Chinese music, in fact I now wanted to do it without any music whatsoever. After some tinkering we ended up with no music, but we do have sounds.

AV: Klang-klang-klang...

Tsai Ming-Liang:
Exactly. We mixed that in the studio and brought it together with sounds from the location. The actual shoot lasted two days. We rehearsed a bit and then proceeded to just shoot it, because getting the camera installed under those conditions took a lot of time, which we didn't have much of.
And when I heard the actual sounds the environment made at the location during the shoot, ice cubes dripping, metal clanking, I knew we were on the right track.

AV: I hated that sound, it actually made me feel nauseous!

Tsai Ming-Liang:

AV: One thing I noticed, and sorry for asking about what might just be a detail, but... in "Visage" I spotted Norman Atun who was one of the leads in "I Don't Want To Sleep Alone". I heard he is not actually a professional actor, but a street vendor in Kuala Lumpur who just happened to participate in that film, and that afterwards he returned to street vending again.
So I was very surprised to see him in "Visage". I really think he was fantastic in "I Don't Want To Sleep Alone", an absolute discovery even, so I was glad to see him again. But my question is: is he really a street vendor, and did you fly him to Paris specifically for this film?

Tsai Ming-Liang:
Yes, Norman Atun is really a street vendor. He has a small stall selling snacks which he returned to after "I Don't Want To Sleep Alone". And indeed we had him flown from Malaysia to France specifically for this film, which was something our French producer just couldn't understand.

TML-interview-Norman.jpgLogistically it was quite a hassle: the airfare was expensive, we needed to find him accommodation, a Malaysian translator... things like that. Also the producer was under some pressure to get as many French actors involved as possible. More French actors meant it would be easier to secure funding for the film, so our producer wasn't happy with this choice. But I specifically wanted Norman Atun for the role of John the Baptist.
People often wonder why it was necessary to have Norman aboard, but for me it was so logical that he would be playing John the Baptist that in the end I just couldn't imagine anyone else for that part anymore. So I persevered and we got him in Paris for two weeks.

One thing that is truly special for me in Norman Atun is that he is a Muslim which adds some strangeness to this role, and there is also something very mysterious that he radiates. So for me he fitted that role exactly.

There was one scene which was very difficult for Norman to do. I wanted to film him nude, and as a Muslim he refused to do that. In "I Don't Want To Sleep Alone" there was also one nude shot of him but it was from the side so you didn't see much.
Then I took him on a tour through the Louvre Museum, showing him some art history and many nude paintings. I told him "Look Norman, all these people are nude as well and yet they are on display in the Louvre!". So on the day we wanted to shoot that scene I warned him: "Norman, I'm about to ask you to take off your clothes". He told me that he wanted ten minutes to think about it and that he might not do it. And after ten minutes he returned and said "For you I will do it".
And that scene went terrific! He was very natural, very much at ease. It worked fantastically.

But I just love the way he looks. He is so beautiful, so three-dimensional. One scene where we really worked on showing this is the one with the lighter.

AV: That's when I recognized him! I thought wait, what?!

Tsai Ming-Liang:
For that scene we really only used a lighter, no other lighting whatsoever.
And after we shot his scenes he indeed went back to his stall in Malaysia and is now selling snacks again... (we all laugh)

And that was all we had time for unfortunately.
"Visage" is a film rich in detail and we could easily have filled a whole day talking about it with Tsai Ming-Liang, but he was on a tight schedule and we counted ourselves very lucky we were allowed as much time as we got.

Both Peter and I would like to add a special thanks towards interpreter Anne Sytske Keijser. She was the interpreter during our interview with Lee Kang-Sheng as well (way back in 2008) and we counted ourselves lucky she was available for this current interview. As you can tell from the length of Mr. Tsai's answers she had quite an epic job to perform so this interview owes a lot to her effort, and we are very, very grateful.

Peter van der Lugt contributed to this story.

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