I would like to dedicate this interview to my close friend Michael Hawley who introduced me to film festivals more than a decade ago and who has consistently educated me about international film, even as he has stood by me through the darkest years of my life, offering love, friendship and economic support, and encouraging my venture into the field of film commentary. Without his crucial assistance, I could not have attended this year's TIFF and it is an experience I will never forget. Tsai Ming-Liang is one of Michael's favorite directors and it was for him that I sought out an audience with Tsai.
Tsai Ming-Liang and I met in the dining room of the Intercontinental Hotel among the clatter of coffee cups and late lunch chatter. We have the same haircut. He giggles a lot, as if he is genuinely enjoying his bad boy auteur persona. Through the articulate administrations of translator Paul Chi, Tsai and I discussed I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, his contribution to the Crowned Hope commemorative series of films honoring the 250th birthday of Amadeus Mozart, scheduled for November in Vienna. I want to thank Anna Francis of DDA for granting me the opportunity to interview Tsai without TIFF press accreditation. I felt I was doing my best Alfonso Bedoya impersonation from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges."
* * *
Michael Guillén: You mentioned in your Q&A that I Don't Want To Sleep Alone brought you healing. I was curious how it brought you healing?
Tsai Ming-Liang: I feel like a lucky and blessed person because I can always seek answers to the questions I have of life through making films (although often you don't find answers, but, you do find more questions). Sometimes I do find temporary remedies or exits; for example, when my father passed away. There I really felt the fear of death. I made the film What Time Is It Over There?, which was related to my father's death. It did not solve my fear towards death, but it made me more sensitive and it made me brave enough to confront death. My family drew together and became stronger through this experience. During the filming of I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, in the scene where Rawang was nursing Hsiao Kang, I could really feel it, it was so strong, that sense of being touched was so familiar.
MG: Was it significant at this point in your life to make this film--your first--in Malaysia?
Tsai: Indeed it was very important, but at the same time every movie is important. I've come to realize that the interesting thing about making these movies is that it's kind of like the cycle of life. Often I find you don't need to make an effort to find them; these elements come to you. Why I went back to Malaysia? I was born there. I was raised there. I do have a degree of emotional attachment to Malaysia. I never thought of going back to Malaysia; but, it just occurred. It felt like my home in Malaysia wanted me to come back; the timing was right. Just like in the movie Goodbye, Dragon Inn the movie house was calling me to make a movie over there. If I wouldn't have done it, the movie house was going to be demolished anyway. So you see, in all my movies you see elements of myself. You see the music that I like. You see the architectual spaces and buildings that I like.
MG: Returning to the image of the caretaking, where Rawang was taking care of Hsiao Kang; that spoke to me. My partner of 12 years passed of AIDS and in his final years I took care of him. Bathing him when he was too weak to clean himself and sleeping with him when he was frightened became the clearest way we could love each other. I wanted to commend you for portraying such a simple depth. It reminded me of something the diarist Anaïs Nin wrote when she talked about the large dimension granted small actions.
Tsai: I always hoped that the audience would find these small, subtle details in my movies because you don't see them elsewhere in other movies. Movies nowadays are all about stories. They're in a hurry to impress you with a storyline. Within your lifetime you have to hear thousands and thousands of stories. We often forget to reflect upon the small things in our lives. That's why, I believe, my movies are important. To me the most important thing is not whether the audience likes my movies, or whether they are liked more by festival audiences than the general public; the most important thing to me is whether the movie is important to me. People may fall asleep with my movies; but, when I see kung fu movies, I fall asleep as well. So my movies went from nobody wanting to see them to last year when 130,000 people went to see my movies.
MG: When did that change?
Tsai: [Jokingly speaking in English] I worked hard. [Laughs, returning to Taiwanese.] Before 2001, no one wanted to see Taiwanese movies. Everyone loved Hollywood movies. Gradually audiences wanted to see other movies. But the quality of audiences has not really changed and it's because they have not been given the opportunity to see movies that are different. How can you expect them to all of a sudden accept my movies? I realized that it was up to me to offer this opportunity so starting in 2001 I went out on the street and started to sell my own tickets. [Laughs, and once again in English] The first morning I sell three hundred tickets to five people. [Returning to Taiwanese] I toured around the island, going to universities to give seminars and speeches and then tickets started to sell. Filmmakers need to confront this problem. They need to address it progressively.
MG: Do you consider yourself an auteur director?
Tsai: I see myself as a very normal director. I don't understand why there are so many movies about fighting.
MG: And yet you've gone on record saying how much you liked François Truffaut's 400 Blows, which moreoreless kickstarted auteur theory.
Tsai: In my early days before I was 20 years old all the movies were influenced by Hollywood. And that's what you thought movies were. I very much envy European teens because they are exposed to such diverse film culture, but, at the same time I am concerned that they are losing this privilege.
MG: I Don't Want To Sleep Alone also reminded me of something Milan Kundera wrote in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where he said that the person you love is not the person you have sex with; the person you love is the person you sleep with. I felt this truth in your film.
Tsai: [Making a gesture of sweeping goosebumps from his arm.] I am very touched by your comment. Sometimes we take sex too seriously. At the beginning of a relationship you have a lot of sex, of course, but over time that passion ceases and you start questioning whether you are still in love or not. Your partner might feel the same way as well.
MG: Further, what has been of continuing concern for me as a gay-identified male from San Francisco is how American queer culture endeavors to ingratiate itself and appropriate gender-variant expression in other cultures. It is as if American queers are intent upon commodifying gender-variant experience around the world; colonializing it if you will. What I appreciated about your film was the suggestion that men could love each other without it having to be a sexual relationship.
Tsai: In the Buddhist view, interpersonal relationships are very different. It is not something that happens occasionally, that happens by chance. Sometimes a lot of the interpersonal relationship goes beyond love; it's not just love. And when you're young you think that love is the only thing you're after. As we get older, as we grow, we find there are so many other things that come with the interpersonal relationship, not just love.
MG: That being said, however, your films have often focused on the need for sexual contact. Do you envision making films where sex is not so important?
Tsai: Sex will always be important because it is a subject that is of interest to our society because, in China, we never had the effort to understand it really.
MG: Well, in the United States sex sells everything; but, that doesn't mean we understand it any more than the Chinese really. I have to ask the obvious question: what do two men and a woman on a mattress floating on a brackish pool of water have to do with Amadeus Mozart and The Magic Flute?
Tsai: [Laughs.] It doesn't have to do anything with Mozart.
MG: [Laughs.] Okay. I just wanted to ask!
Tsai: But I do feel a little bit of connection. With your understanding of Mozart, of course, you know that he was a wandering soul as well. And he ended up penniless at the end of his life.
MG: With my limited understanding of your films, the dark water is important. It was important that the dark water appear because water, in general, is so important in your films. I understand a fortune teller prophecied that you would find this dark water?
Tsai: Yes. This water is particularly important because it is stagnant. Actually one of the lyrics from one of the songs on the soundtrack speaks about the dead water. This water symbolizes a memory that we have forgotten. That's why I have Rawang and Hsiao Kang sit there and look at this lost memory. Because they have found something that was part of the memory: that they had once been together. They were from different backgrounds. They didn't speak each others' language but they ended up together.
MG: You are the master of the long take. Have you ever thought of making a movie that is one continuous long take, like Hitchcock's exercise in Rope?
Tsai: I've never thought about that experiment. It's good if you have the experience of wanting to experiment, of course, but pretty much every movie is some kind of experiment. I guess my experiment is that I like to keep shooting Lee Kang-Sheng in all my movies. I like to keep shooting him as he ages.
MG: You have made us become involved with his body, that's for sure, and the affect of time upon his body as a temporal indicator or an aesthetic of the ephemeral. I'm also intrigued by your new "discovery", Norman Bin Atun, he's quite lovely. Will you work with him again?
Tsai: I will.
MG: Where did you find Norman?
Tsai: He was a local in Malaysia. He's probably back selling fried cakes in the street.
MG: Did you pay him well?
Tsai: [Laughs.] Of course. But I had to evaluate the opportunity cost.
MG: Rawang's heartbreak in the film was truly heartfelt.
Tsai: He liked shooting the movie. It was a good experience for him.
MG: You have repeatedly worked with cinematographer Liao Pen-jung. Do you see yourself continuing to work with him?
Tsai: I like Liao very much. He had shot a lot of commercial films actually but he himself thought it would be good to work with me. It's like finding a pen that you like alot. You try many different pens and then you happen to pick one up that you find most comfortable. And then you just want to use that pen all the time.
MG: The way he lit the abandoned building and the way he framed the scenes was impressive. My favorite image from I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, also beautifully photographed by Liao, was the shot of the moth on Hsiao's shoulder. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Tsai: That particular scene was the one that all of a sudden made me realize what I was doing. Or what I wanted to do. The whole movie is like a dream. It's like the story I was telling the other night about the great philosopher Tzoang Tzu who dreamt of a butterfly but when he woke up he wasn't sure if he wasn't still actually in the dream of the butterfly who dreamt of becoming Tzoang Tzu. That particular scene, that particular frame that you're talking about, made the movie philosophical.
MG: Indeed. It was beautiful. Well, Tsai, thank you so much. I love your films.
Tsai: Thank you.