Along with countrymen Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers Of Shanghai) and Edward Yang (Yi Yi), director Tsai Ming-liang has brought Taiwan to the forefront of international cinema. Tsai's formally beautiful films take place within their own self-contained universes, recycling the same actors, themes, and symbols to new and exciting ends. Born in Malaysia, Tsai moved to Taipei when he was 20, graduated with a degree in drama and cinema from the Chinese Cultural University Of Taiwan, and immediately found work as a theatrical producer and television director. His debut feature, 1992's Rebels Of The Neon God, was the first of a seriocomic trilogy on urban decay, followed by 1994's Vive L'Amour and 1997's The River. Commissioned to make a film about the millennium as part of the "2000 Seen By…" project, Tsai responded with 1998's sad but whimsical musical The Hole. His superb 2001 film, What Time Is It There?, deals with the grief of losing a loved one. Lee Kang-sheng, the poker-faced hero of all five Tsai features, stars as a street vendor coming to terms with his father's recent death. After reluctantly selling his watch to a young woman leaving for France, Lee is overtaken by an odd compulsion to set all the clocks in Taipei to Paris time. Tsai recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about non-professional actors, writing scripts without dialogue, and the French New Wave.
The Onion: How did you and Lee Kang-sheng begin collaborating?
Tsai Ming-liang: In 1991, I was producing a TV show, a half-hour drama about a junior-high-school student, and I was looking for a new face for the lead role. On the streets one afternoon, I happened upon this young man sitting quietly on a motorbike, and I asked him whether he would be interested in auditioning for my TV show. And, true to form, Hsiao Kang [Lee's real-life nickname and his character name in What Time and other Tsai films] actually took a long time to reply. He didn't say a word. He just waited and waited and waited, until finally, he said, "Okay. Here's my telephone number." [Laughs.] At that time, he was just finishing high school and was supposed to get into college, but he wasn't admitted. So he needed to wait until the next year to go back to school and retake the entrance examinations. In the meantime, he was working as a guard at a video arcade. His job was to sit outside and watch for policemen, because there was illegal gambling going on inside. So he was sitting on his motorbike, on duty, when I approached him. That's how our relationship began.
O: He had no acting experience?
TML: Even in the early '90s, I was already starting to mix professional actors with non-actors. I always enjoyed working with non-professionals, because their performances are very natural and unaffected. Hsiao Kang was put into shooting right away. After three days of shooting, I realized that his rhythm was a little strange, just a little bit slower than everybody else's. When he interacts with another performer, it's not as if he's not reacting to what they do, but it just takes slightly longer for his reaction to register. He had a very hard time at first. I kept telling him: "A little bit faster. Blink your eyes. Show something! Do something!" [Laughs.] But he was very stubborn, and since we were already three days into shooting, we decided to carry on and stick to it. When I was pushing him to speed up the rhythm, Hsiao Kang totally refused to take my direction, which shocked me, because I was the director, and no actor ever did anything contrary to my instructions. And here was this guy, coming from nowhere, saying, "That's just the way I am. I'm not going to change." [Laughs.] I couldn't believe it, but it also made me realize that there are preconceived ideas about how people normally behave. Yet not everyone behaves in the same way, so I decided to be more accepting of Hsiao Kang's acting, rather than force him to react quicker. If that's the way he reacts, that's the way he is.
O: You've said that your scripts describe the action but don't include the dialogue. How do you fill that in?
TML: It takes me one or two years to develop a script. During that time, the actors are frequently brought into the process, and I always integrate their input into the characters. As an actor, Hsiao Kang gets involved in his character's creation from the very beginning, and sort of grows into the role. The actors get into their characters a long time before we ever start shooting. During the script-developing stage, I give the actors scenarios and ask them, "If such-and-such happened, how would you react to that situation, based on your real-life experiences?" By doing that, I incorporate some of their actual experiences, and I know beforehand how the actors will play out the scenes. Yet during the actual shooting, I still allow the actors the freedom to react spontaneously to the content of the scene. For example, in Vive L'Amour, there's a scene in which Hsiao Kang has a watermelon. Even though I had some idea what he would do with that watermelon, I asked him if he had any other ideas about how this scene could play out. So he used it as a bowling ball. [Laughs.] This is the way we like to work together, to add these little details that make a more concrete and full-fledged character, with a lot of life and richness. In my films, I like to use the same actors again and again, so I know them really well and can bring their unique personalities into the process. However, as a director, I have strict control over the way they express their personalities. I don't want them to go beyond what I need from them, but I also don't want them to underplay. So I modulate their performances very closely, within a certain range of expression.
O: You were born in Malaysia and moved to Taipei. Has this affected your view of the city? Do you tend to see things as an outsider?
TML: In a way, you're right, because I'm not 100 percent Taiwanese, and thus feel a little alienated. Also, ever since I've become a filmmaker, I'm traveling the world a lot. I feel like I'm a citizen of the world, yet there's no single place that I can put my roots down and call home. I don't own anything. I'm not a homeowner. I've always rented and never stayed in one place for long. Almost every time I rent a place, I have some sort of water leakage or flooding. Whenever that happens, I just move somewhere else. Even when I moved to Paris, my apartment started leaking after a month. Maybe the leaking is just part of my life, doomed to follow me around. [Laughs.]
O: And that leakage frequently winds up in your movies, like The River and The Hole.
TML: For me, water means a lot of things. It's my belief that human beings are just like plants. They can't live without water or they'll dry up. Human beings, without love or other nourishment, also dry up. The more water you see in my movies, the more the characters need to fill a gap in their lives, to get hydrated again. If they are lonely people, with no love or no friends, you'll see them drinking a lot of water. Sometimes, the water builds up and becomes a nuisance. For example, in What Time Is It There?, [the hero, played by Lee] is shown urinating a lot. [Afraid to leave his room at night, the character urinates into bottles, bags, and whatever else he can find. —ed.] It's like he has a lot of passion and emotion in him, but he has no place to put it, so it just goes out through the system.
O: What Time Is It There? is dedicated to your father and Mr. Lee's father. Why?
TML: The film is not so much a memory of my father, but it does capture my feelings about his death at the time. Even though I was 30 years old, I was afraid he might come back as a ghost, and I didn't want to leave my room in the middle of the night. All those real feelings are depicted in the film. I'm using this movie to raise the question, "When someone you love very dearly passes away, is it only fear that you're feeling, or is it more than that?" Basically, this character is in shock after his father dies. The loss was very deep, affecting him so much that he didn't know what to do. He has lost a certain sense of direction, which compels him to change every clock in the city. It's almost like a disease, changing all the clocks to Paris time.
O: In The Hole, a virus called Taiwan Fever makes victims behave like cockroaches. What's the significance in naming it after Taiwan?
TML: There's not much significance, really. It just seemed like a natural choice. Cockroaches are very common in that community, because the environment and the housing and the way people cook conspire to attract a lot of them. They're everywhere, and so they're in all my movies. Sometimes, I don't even put them there deliberately. They just show up on the set. [Laughs.]
O: The Hole was part of a series of films about the millennium. How did you want the film to reflect that?
TML: The concept for that movie was developed back in 1995, when a group of French TV producers decided to finance 10 films about the turn of the century. When I got this project, I started thinking that the millennium would begin with nonstop rain, and that it would be destructive. It was my feeling that because of all the development and economic reform and construction designed to make a super-modern, 21st-century city, the ecological balance was sacrificed in the name of civilization. I wanted the constant rain to symbolize that.
O: What kind of influence did the French New Wave have on your work? What did it mean for you to have Jean-Pierre Léaud appear in What Time Is It There?
TML: As you know, I grew up in Malaysia, but I earned my university degree in Taipei. Before I got to Taipei, I was exposed to a lot of movies, but almost all of them were from Hollywood. I rarely saw films from Europe or anywhere else, so I thought that the Hollywood style was the only way to make a movie. But after I got to Taipei, I had access to the Taiwan Film Archives, and I was exposed to a full range of European movies—the German expressionists, the French New Wave, the Italian neo-realists. All of a sudden, my mind opened up to a whole new world of moviemaking, and it affected me a lot, especially the period during the late '60s and early '70s. I think that time was the highest point in film history. As for Jean-Pierre, I was able to contact him through my French financier, and I asked him to appear in a cameo role in the movie. I was very affected by Truffaut films, particularly The 400 Blows, and I wanted to know what happened to the little boy [played by Léaud] after all those years. At first, when Léaud was on the set, he was somewhat confused. As part of an older generation of actors, he was accustomed to having the dialogue ready for him in the script, which is of course not the way my scripts are written. He kept asking me, "Where are my lines?" [Laughs.] So in the end, I just had him sit on a bench in the cemetery and not talk, just be himself. And it wound up playing very well. I think it's a very funny scene.
O: Taiwan now has a prominent place on the international film scene, though without much financing from the government. What are your feelings about Taiwanese cinema? How has it been able to develop without government money?
TML: About 10 or 20 years ago, there actually was a film industry in Taiwan. There were studios, there were contracted stars… that kind of situation. However, the studios gradually dissipated, partly because of Hollywood movies, and also because of the burgeoning industry in Hong Kong. The marketplace was taken over entirely by foreign films, so investors took their money elsewhere. In mainland China, especially, the markets began to open up and Taiwanese movies were completely shut out. Now, every film that gets made in Taiwan may receive a small subsidy from the government, but most of the financing is outsourced. As a result, the budgets are very low, and the movies have become a little more arty. Every year, the Taiwanese filmmakers have to go through a big meeting with the government to argue over what is a commercial movie and what is an art movie. We go through the same aggravations every year to get the movies made. Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien were two of the first to get recognition in the West, which this has given us new financing overseas. Now that we're not as reliant on the government to make movies, we have the freedom to do what we want.