Oddball Snigdhendu Bhattacharya with renowned Taiwanese alternate film maker Tsai Ming-Liang. Shot right after this interview. Watch Liang's "Journey to the West' on our homepage.
When my friends and I finally managed to track down Tsai Ming Liang at a five star, it was already 10.10 in the night, about two hours after the screening of his Journey to the West in the Kolkata International Film Festival. There was no appointment. But Liang was cooperative. He spoke at length, for more than an hour, with help of a Taiwanese girl in her late twenties who was studying film in Kolkata and knew English. She told us that their generation grew up in Taiwan witnessing Liang bore the audience to death, only to realise that he is a master of the art. Here is an excerpt of my conversation with Liang.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, Oddball
You must have been shocked to see the projectionist fastforwarding the first scene?
(Laughs) That was the funniest part of the screening. I warned everyone during my introductory speech that the first scene was a bit long – eight minutes to be exact – and the ones who would stand it should be able to see through the whole of the film. But the projectionist either got impatient or thought the reel was not moving. And he did it twice.
But the audience protested.
Yes, they did. I always heard good things about the audience in Kolkata. My respect for them only increased today. I was pleasantly surprised to see a number of elderly people turn up for the film. Generally I get the youngsters as audience. The Asian audience is generally young. But it was different here.
How did you manage to survive making such films, having no commercial value whatsoever?
It is indeed very difficult for me to survive in Taiwan but I did it my way. For my fifth film What Time Is It There? I myself sold tickets on the streets, to college and university students. Total 10,000 tickets were sold in a month. Then I took the records of those 10,000 ticket sales to the theatre and told them that I have already sold these tickets and so you can lend me your place to invite my audience to come and watch the film. I was initially given a two-week slot but it was later extended to one month. I took different ways to build my own audience. And I gradually want to completely move away from the mainstream theatres and screen my films only at art museums, for, say, a period of three months. I look forward to inviting my audience and college and university students to come and watch my films.
Do you care about the audience at all?
I make films to express my own life. Filmmaking is my way of life. So, it really does not matter whether my films are getting audience. But I’m lucky that I have some of them and that I always find money to make films…not big budget ones…but yes, I get the money! (Laughs) The flipside is, I often feel the film could have been slower and lengthier. But since producers are linked to the films they have to be released in theatres and screened in festivals. So I often need to cut short.
Do you have screenplays? How do you deal with your actors?
I used to have scripts but now I mostly do without it. Even if I have a script, it basically comprises notes like he comes and he goes and she comes and she goes. I love to follow my characters as real human beings. I know my actors. I have been working with many of them for about 20 years. I watch how their lives change. I personally know these things. I want to see and show the real faces of my characters. One of the reasons I have little dialogues in my films is that I have a very quiet actor! (Laughs) I keep asking my actors to be themselves. I leave them in isolation. I ask them to slowdown. This will help them to reach closer to their own selves.
In Journey to the West, the Buddhist monk is simply going against time. He was practically walking at a snail’s pace and that too deliberately. Is it a direct statement on the speed of today’s life?
He is not still, he is moving, but moving at his own pace. It’s his life, he decides the pace. So, I put his speed in contrast to the speeds in six different cities. We hear that life is speedy today. But how speedy is it? I put the speeds in contrast to see how speedy it is. People often ask me, why are your films so slow? I say, it’s not slow; it’s according to my time. In Kolkata too, I found a lot of people almost running on the streets. I wonder why are they hurrying so much. People running fast run unidirectionally. They can’t think of where they are going. Even during the screening today, I saw a number of people come rushing to the venue. I was smiling. (Laughs) They came running so fast to watch a damn slow movie! Good if they can make use of it.
So, actually you represent the monk?
Yeah, kind of.
And at the end one bystander, after watching the monk for some time, starts following him, at exactly the same pace. So, if you keep doing what you want to, you think there would be followers?
Yes, you can say so.
Are people in Taiwan following you?
It’s very difficult to say. I hope there would be. But cinema in Taiwan is only about the mainstream. And I am trying to drift completely away from it. It is because the producers hold parts of the production rights that I have to allow screenings and theatre at festivals. But I personally prefer art museums as the best place to screen my films.
Isolation of human beings has been one of the major themes in your films. Do you feel isolated?
Isolation is a natural requirement for human beings. And I enjoy isolation to a great extent. But, the society’s values make us think that this isolation is bad, that people shouldn’t be alone. A person needs to talk to him or herself. When we can do that, you don’t feel alone. You enjoy the isolation.
So, you’re talking to yourself in your films?
For me, making films is to look at the process of life. But most filmmakers do not do that. They want to tell great stories about human life. In my last few films I have tried to do away with the so-called cinematic elements like dialogue and narration. I am trying to portray the real cinematically. I also want to destroy the way the audience likes to watch a film. My films are open to any realisation, understanding or interpretation. It’s like existence. Suppose, the moon exists. But we put different meanings to it. Everyone seeing the moon or a flower has different feelings. Everyone interprets existence in his/her own ways.
You want to change the audience?
No, I don’t want to change them. I want to broaden their vision. I am never against Hollywood. I am just saying that Hollywood is not the only thing about cinema. I have been trying to make the audience used to my kind of films and now, after doing it for two decades continuously, I see youngsters in their twenties turning up to watch my films. I am very pleased to see this new audience.
Different types of erotic expressions, especially of urban people, have featured in your films. They often seem to represent people’s incapability of sexual expression.
Sexual content is absolutely normal for me. It is something like eating or peeing. But making such films, and especially screening them, is a problem in our country, even though Taiwan is quite liberal. Sometimes I use these erotic scenes to see how much the country can ease up, how much they can accept. There are many questions and taboos related to issues like homosexuality. I’m sure every place has its own set of issues. But I find it is very easy to address the issue of sexuality. My actors feel at ease too. I try to show the real life in film, not the kind of beautiful sexual elements made for commercial success. I try to expose the reality of it. Watching it you may get a feeling about how real life can be. I want my audience to understand who they are. It is not easy for people to see their own naked body and private organs. Film can give them an idea about the reality.
Do you have any inclination towards Buddhism? Buddhist monks often appear in your films.
I grew up in Malaysia in the 1960s. It’s a place of cultural diversity. There were Hindu temples. Whenever we would pass by any Hindu temple, my grandfather would ask me to pray there too. Thus, I’m open to any culture. But yes, I have an inclination towards Buddhism. One of the reasons I love India is that Buddhism originated here.
The Odd Magazine thanks Tsai Ming-Liang for talking with us. We wish him roaring success in all his odd endeavours.