Painterly Poetics: An Interview with Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng (Web Exclusive)
by Declan McGrath

Tsai Ming-Liang and Lee Kang-Sheng.

In his introduction to an interview with Tsai Ming-liang in the Fall 2004 edition of Cineaste, Jared Rapfogel notes that in Tsai’s latest release at the time, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, “the narrative element falls away almost entirely.” In the fifteen years since that interview, the “falling away of narrative” in Tsai’s work has steadily continued. He has also displayed increasingly less interest in characterization, while the pace of his films has become slower. Indeed, beginning with the release of his first cinematic feature, Rebels of a Neon God (1992), Tsai’s career can be viewed as a continual move away from the imperatives of commercial cinema.

That is not to say that he is some po-faced aesthetic. Tsai’s films are filled with moments of humorous observation of the foibles (and absurdity) of humanity. Furthermore, those foibles are observed with empathy for those who are alone and unable to connect with the wider world. Nor is he an elitist. Tsai is unafraid of using the sentimental torch songs of popular culture to convey a sensation of romantic yearning. Yet, despite this big-hearted empathy, he remains a distanced observer. The distance can be literal, since he tends to balance his propensity for close shots with extreme wide shots that are held for a long time. More fundamentally, that distancing effect comes from his minimalist approach, which eschews plot, dialogue, music score, and expressive acting. Tsai does not attempt to hold his audience’s attention through the standard techniques of emotional manipulation. His mise en scène often feels more like a dance of movement and color than a conventional drama, leaving us more hypnotized than emotionally engaged.

For example, his 2014 film Journey to the West (one of seven films in the “walker” series) is constructed from a series of long shots of a monk walking through a variety of locations in Marseille (or it could be viewed as actor Lee Kang-sheng dressed as a monk—one of Tsai’s trademarks is a paradoxical mix of vérité observation and heightened mise en scène that makes both interpretations valid). Little happens in each (long) shot, apart from the monk’s very slow progress through the city. No plot development links the shots, apart from the continuation of the walk. Tsai’s treatment encourages the sympathetic viewer to contemplate both the reality of the moment and also the artistry of the composition. The reality comes from the way that Tsai is open to capturing everything that naturally unfolds in the location while the monk walks through the frame. The stylization comes from the skilled artistry with which each shot is beautifully composed and the dazzling color scheme of vibrant reds, golden sunlight, and deep blacks which are featured. Every frame looks like an oil painting. Where Tsai has subtracted plot and characterization, he has added striking compositions and rich color schemes. In short, he has prioritized sensation over narrative.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

Considering Tsai’s foregrounding of painterly values over those of a dramatist, it is perhaps no surprise that his work is now as likely to be seen in an art gallery as a cinema. In an era where filmgoers debate the convergence of the theatrical feature film with small- screen broadcast and streaming services, Tsai has gone in a contrary direction and sought a convergence between the theatrical feature with the art gallery. He is now as likely to fund and distribute his work through the art world as through conventional theatrical film routes. This new approach began in 2007 when Tsai was commissioned by the Louvre to make a film after he had finished his feature I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (2007). The gallery provided him with all he needed, including use of the Louvre as a location. The result was Face (2009). Since then, he began to make shorter films, like the walker series, that would not be aimed at a theatrical release and seemed more suited to a gallery. In 2017, he made a virtual reality film, The Deserted. His 2013 film Stray Dogs would be regarded as a theatrical feature: it premiered at the Venice Film Festival (where it won the Grand Special Jury Prize) and featured in the top twenty of many end of year film polls. Yet in Taiwan, Stray Dogs was shown in art galleries rather than cinemas.

Tsai’s most recent release, Your Face, can also be defined as a “film.” Seventy-six minutes long, it premiered at the Venice Film Festival and has since screened at other festivals and in select art-house cinemas. The experience of watching it, however, is similar to visiting an exhibition of paintings in an art gallery. Consisting of twelve medium-close shots of twelve different faces, each shot lasting six minutes, it is essentially a collection of portraits. While the sitters do (infrequently) talk to an off-screen Tsai, we are given no background information about them. Most of the time, they simply stare at the camera. One of the subjects even falls sleeps during their allotted time. Again, there is that same ambivalent sensation of both vérité and heightened style. The vérité comes from Tsai’s instruction to the sitters to act as they pleased: we are watching people being themselves. The heightened style comes from the beautifully crafted lighting by cinematographer Ian Ku and the use of atonal music by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto on the soundtrack.  

Tsai’s move from art cinemas to art gallery is at least partly a business choice, a pragmatic means to navigate a changing film environment where art-house cinema has become increasingly niche and harder to fund. The positive side of this move is that it affirms the artistic merit of Tsai’s work and allows him greater artistic freedom. The negative side is that it further ghettoizes art-house and theatrical cinema. The end of cinema is something that would surely grieve Tsai. His 2003 film, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, is set in a dilapidated and scarcely populated cinema where, throughout the majority of its running time, King Hu’s 1967 escapist film from the Golden Age of Taiwanese cinema, Dragon Inn, plays in the background. The elegiac tone reflects Tsai’s sadness that this vibrant era in filmmaking has passed: in one of the few dialogue scenes in the film, one customer tells another that “Nobody goes to the movies anymore’’ Since Goodbye, Dragon Inn, cinemagoing has further declined, apart from action-packed, funfair-ride superhero franchises and their ilk, which hardly impresses Tsai. Earlier this year, he told The Guardian newspaper, “In my childhood, cinema was like going to a temple. Now, it is more like going to a shopping mall.”

Tsai fascination with the power of popular cinema as a means of escape infuses his earlier work. His first feature film, Rebels of The Neon Gods (1992) referenced Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955), not only indirectly through its title and its portrayal of suburban teenage ennui but also directly by placing a poster of James Dean behind the lead character in one shot. Moreover, Rebels explores the attraction of watching and fantasizing about the lives of others as an escape from a mundane reality; it is surely a metaphor for the potency of cinema. Tsai’s next film Vive L’Amour (1994) also dealt with themes of voyeurism (and thereby cinema). Again, it featured Lee Kang-sheng as a passive and alienated character vicariously experiencing what seems a more exciting life by watching others. The River (1997) has the lead character taking part in a film shoot. What Time Is It There? (2001) features a nod to François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).  

What Time Is It There?

The reference to The 400 Blows is apt. It is the first film in which Truffaut cast Jean-Pierre Léaud, an actor whose relationship to Truffaut as a proxy for the director is similar to the way in which Tsai features Lee Kang-sheng. However, whereas Léaud would subsequently appear in four of his director’s films, Tsai has used Lee in every feature film he has made . Lee does not play the same “character” in each of Tsai’s films, in the way that Jean-Pierre Léaud always played Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s films, although there is a continuity in the character that crosses over many of the films. For example, whenever Lee’s character is credited with a name, he is called Hsiao-Kang. Whenever his character’s parents were featured in the earlier films, they were always played by Miao Tien and Lu Hsaoi-Ling. Furthermore, events from Lee’s real life have inspired events in the films: for example, when Lee got sick, his character got sick; when Lee’s father died, his character’s father died. To my knowledge, it is an actor–director relationship unprecedented in world cinema.

Cineaste met Tsai when he was in Dublin for the Irish Film Institute’s East Asian Film Festival. He was accompanied by actor Lee Kang-sheng, who, like the characters he plays in Tsai’s films, proved to be a man of few words. Cineaste would like to acknowledge the support of the East Asian Film Festival organizers, Marie-Pierre Richard and Maria O’Brien, who coordinated the interview.—Declan McGrath

Cineaste: How did the relationship between you and Lee begin?

Tsai Ming-liang: I was working in television in Taiwan. In 1991, I was asked to make a program about an adolescent teenager who bullied young children. I needed to find an actor to play the “bad boy” role and auditioned several actors, but I was not happy with any of them. Then, after watching a film by David Lynch, I came out of the cinema and saw Lee by the side of a game arcade where he was sitting very quietly on a motorbike, working as a lookout to see if the police were coming or not. I was interested and said to my friend, “Let’s talk to him.”  

Cineaste: Lee, how did you react when Tsai first approached you? Had you ever considered becoming an actor? 

Lee Kang-sheng: I hadn’t passed my college entrance exams and was preparing to redo them. I was working at the gaming arcade as a short-term measure to get money. I had never thought of becoming an actor. I thought it would be an interesting experience, something that would be a good memory, but I never intended to continue it. When I was asked to act by Tsai, I was very skeptical at first. Back then, Tsai was only in his early thirties, and I expected a director to be much older. I didn’t really believe that he was a real director and asked my friend to go over to the studio to check it out.

Tsai: When I first auditioned Lee, I made him act out a scenario in which he had to bully a teenage boy in a lift. He had no stage fright and seemed oblivious to the camera. The performance he delivered was completely natural and that is what made me decide that he was the right person for me. I cast him for the TV program. Once the shoot began, however, I began to regret my decision. There was one take I had to redo about twenty times. It was simply a shot of Lee turning his head, but I felt that he was not completely natural in the way that he did it. So I started doubting him. I asked him to turn his head more naturally and to blink his eyes as he turned, just to remind us that he was a person, not a robot. But Lee replied, “That’s how I am naturally.” He didn’t feel that there was anything wrong with his performance. That made me think that I was projecting too many of my own ideas onto Lee’s performance, rather than allowing him to draw upon his own natural way of behaving. I realized that there are many modes of performance in films and that the way that I had perceived a correct performance was only one of those modes.

A young Lee in  Rebels of the Neon God.

A young Lee in Rebels of the Neon God.

Cineaste: So that first experience of working with Lee changed your view of acting?

Tsai: Yes. It was a huge change in my concept of acting. From that point onward, I believed that to reach an ultimate sense of naturalism in a performance you must get rid of all traces of professional acting. Lee’s method of acting was primarily about being himself, his natural self. That was very different from the performances of the “professional” actors that I had used before; it was hard to get those actors not to leave a trace of performance in their scenes. So, I developed a new way of directing my films. When I am working with actors, I wait for the moment when they reveal themselves in front of the camera. Although I will give them some suggestions about their performance, I then wait until they have forgotten those suggestions and reveal a performance that I have not expected. There is uncertainty about what I will get with this approach, but I believe that is where true performances lie.

Cineaste: Cinema is a visual medium, and you are an incredibly visual director. It strikes me that when you first picked Lee, it was simply based on a “look.” How important is an actor’s “look” above and beyond anything else?

Tsai: Lee’s face and his general appearance was an important factor in my selecting him. It evoked a particular sensation that touched me deeply, while the professional actors that I auditioned did not touch me as much. Ordinary faces, and ordinary people, tend to leave a stronger impression on me. When I chose Lee to be my actor, there was a lot of criticism. People complained that he did not have the face of a star. He wasn’t big or muscular. Yet, what deeply touched me was precisely this sense of ordinary-ness in his appearance. He was natural. Lee’s appearance in my films actually changed the whole path of my development as a filmmaker away from standard, industrial-style films and in another direction.

Cineaste: Your recent film, Your Face, is made up entirely of locked-off shots of faces, each lasting six minutes. You frequently hold for longer than conventionally practiced on close-ups of faces in your feature films, too. What is the particular power of the face for you?

Tsai: Once you fix a camera on a face in a close-up, the image acquires a special significance and will naturally carry multiple meanings. I believe the image is brightened and has a heavenly sense, even if it is a very ordinary face. When I look at a landscape shot through my monitor with a stand-in actor, it can look ordinary, but when the right actor enters the frame, suddenly everything changes and it looks extremely beautiful. I feel that there is a sense of magic about the choice of the right person with the right look.

I want to share with you a story from my own, real-life experience that relates to my understanding of how this works. There was one time I traveled back to my home country of Malaysia with Lee Kang-sheng and a few of my friends. We were in a remote forest with rivers flowing through it. I thought the whole scene looked very mundane at first. Later on, two naked ladies in their seventies appeared on the mountains—local peasants with little dresses, carrying baskets on their backs. They had gone to the mountains to pick vegetables. Once they appeared, I felt that the whole scene of the forest was enlightened. Out of nowhere, it became beautiful, just like when I see the right person in front of my camera. That is the principal method by which I choose my actors; they don’t necessarily need to be beautiful, but they need to leave me with the impression that everything is different when they are in front of my camera.

Your Face, Tsai’s most recent film.

Cineaste: You have spoken about how you have based a lot of your scenarios on Lee’s own experience. I presume you also bring your own experience to a film.

Tsai: I always feel that it is a mixture of experiences in the production of my films. There are script elements based on Lee’s life, but also bits based on my experiences. In our collaborations, Lee is playing a character; it is not himself. But a lot of times, it is his life, his state of being, that is reflected in the film. By that I mean that when he fell ill or when he worked as a salesman or when his father died, I incorporated elements of these events into his character. That is on the surface. But the “inside” of the character that Lee plays is more reflective of me personally. For example, through Lee I express my sexual orientation, my anxieties. Even fathers passing away, my father had also died. These were all parts of my life that I thought I could express through Lee.

Cineaste: Would you accept that your films have become less and less narrative and plot driven?

Tsai: Usually in industrial film production, when you talk about films, you talk about plot, storyline, and performances. In the development of my own language of filmmaking, I have tried to diminish those standard ways of looking at film by gradually eliminating plot, dialogue, and even music. If we come back to the subject of Lee and of performance, sometime I believe the whole idea of “performance” needs to be removed from our idea of film. I have struggled with this idea of “exact” performances that people expect in film. For example, if a character is angry, then an actor is expected to show their angry face to the camera. If a character is rebellious, then the performance must be blatantly rebellious. My career has been a process of diminishing such practices.

Cineaste: A lot of your films deal with the idea of impermanence, the notion that the things of this world will disappear. Lee, how do you feel that your work, your image, and even the changes in you life, will be to some degree be permanently preserved in these films?

Lee: Actually, I feel very honored to be part of Tsai’s artistic production. Even if we have not become rich, in terms of monetary wealth, these works of art will exist in the world for a long time. Even though I, too, will one day disappear. For me, that is a good thing.  

Tsai: As we have continued to collaborate, Lee has aged and his body has changed a lot. Usually in the film industry, when an actor ages and changes, the director will get a different actor to perform. Rather than choose that path, I chose to accept these changes and to allow the audience to watch as someone gets old and sometimes gets sick. I am using the changes in the body of Lee to have a conversation with the world. He will always be my actor. Using Lee throughout my career has been a kind of constraint because I could easily have used other professional or “star” actors. Placing this constraint upon myself was an active choice: a choice that was not driven by market forces but by what I wanted to achieve in my films.

Cineaste: We have spoken about the power of a close-up of the face. Particularly in your recent work, like Stray Dogs or the in the “walker” series, you are also prone to holding extremely wide shots of visually striking locations for an unusually long period. You mentioned the importance of casting people, how do you “cast” such locations? 

Tsai: When I am picking a location, I conceive of myself as an artist. When I was younger, I wanted to be a painter and I have always enjoyed looking at paintings. Viewing a film is admittedly a different experience from viewing a painting, but in my films I am continually trying to develop an experience for my audience similar to that of viewing a painting. I am more like a painter who is using the language of filmmaking than a storyteller who is using the medium of film. Choosing to be that type of director means that I have to be very precise in my selection of locations and in my composition of shots. Indeed, when I am deciding upon the elements that will make up a shot, the most important element is finding the right location. I spend the most time doing that. The location that I choose may end up affecting the whole structure of my film. For example, I had a simple script for Stray Dogs, but when I picked the locations they greatly affected the story.

Journey to the West, part of Tsai’s “walker” series.

Cineaste: Talking about painting, I have noticed in your recent films that the images are particularly beautiful and striking; the color schemes often appear like oil paintings. Is it digital technology that has allowed you to make it so rich? 

Tsai: It is not only advances in digital technology or postproduction, the cameras we use today are also very good. They give a greater capacity than before to create effects with light and with the color scheme. Lighting is the most important element, however, in the creation of that look. I spend a lot of time in each potential location trying to conceive how the light will come in from different directions. For example, when I was making Journey to the West in Marseille, I spent most of the shoot trying to find where the natural light was coming from. Basically, I got my ideas about shots, in terms of where the camera would be and how the frame would be composed from the way the light shone There is one shot in Journey to the West where there is a long flight of stairs. We went to that place a few times and waited until the natural light came in just the right way. When Lee Kang-shen was not on those stairs, the shot looked one particular way. Then, when he appeared in the frame, dressed up in his red robe, the whole lighting system was affected and everything changed. There is always this mutual encounter.

Cineaste: You have mentioned Truffaut as an inspiration and featured The 400 Blows in What Time Is It There? Had you seen The 400 Blows when you cast Lee? 

Tsai: Yes. By the time I started with Lee, I had already seen Truffaut’s The 400 Blows while in college. It wasn’t the relationship between Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud that attracted me to this film. Rather, I learned what a film could be from The 400 Blows. Prior to that, like most Asians, all I had seen were commercial films. It was rare to see European art films. What resonated with me was the very last scene—a close-up, freeze-frame of the actor. That scene woke me up to the possibility of a different kind of movie, and a different kind of actor, because Jean-Pierre Léaud’s face seemed so common, and yet so powerful. It’s not about a face being pretty; it is about how you frame it. The reason that I always cast Lee is his face. His face inspires me to look at film in a different way. Thinking about it, over my twenty-year career in feature films, it was never about the story, it was about filming Lee.

Declan McGrath is a filmmaker who has written two books on filmmaking.

Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 4