Filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang says his work should be appreciated slowly
Many viewers find Tsai Ming-liang's ongoing art project challenging, but his work needs to be watched patiently to be understood
The latest phase of filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang's ongoing experimental art project Walker takes the action (or the lack of it) to Marseille, where a monk, played by actor Lee Kang-sheng, is seen walking on the lively streets of the southern French city at a snail's pace.
How this cinematic journey, which began in Hong Kong last year, moved so swiftly to France reaffirms the Malaysian-born, Taiwan-based director's cosy relationship with the country, and highlights Europe's love of his work.
A well-known French cinephile, 56-year-old Tsai is an admirer of the works of French New Wave filmmaker Francois Truffaut. Tsai referenced Truffaut's The 400 Blows in What Time Is It There?, a 2001 film which featured a time and space swap between Taipei and Paris.
The French have returned Tsai's admiration. Tsai was made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 2002, and was commissioned by the Louvre Museum to make Face, a 2009 film shot entirely within the famed museum.
"I never imagined Lee Kang-sheng would arrive so quickly to pursue his meditative walk in Europe," Tsai says jokingly. "Nevertheless the choice of Marseille was not sudden or unexpected. As we say in China, 'I was already feeling in advance a strong affinity with this place.'"
His connection with Marseille - France's second-largest city, and this year's European Capital of Culture - dates back to 2002, when Jean-Pierre Rehm took over the artistic direction of the International Film Festival Marseille (FID) and invited Tsai to screen his short film, A Conversation with God, in its international competition.
Tsai returned the next year as president of the jury, and his No Form had its international premiere at the FID in 2012. In July, Tsai was invited to be the honorary president of the 24th edition of the FID.
Speaking in Marseille, Tsai says: "I always wonder why there is such genuine interest in my work in Europe and, more specifically, in France. Maybe the fact that cinema was born in this country makes viewers look deeper than they do in Asia, where viewers look primarily at the commercial aspect.
"That is why I feel much more at ease working in France. I am grateful to Jean-Pierre Rehm, who is capable of watching my films from a different perspective, finding them interesting quite independently of their form, thereby supporting me and actively contributing to the evolution of my art."
Walker was certainly poorly received in Asia. Originally part of Beautiful 2012, a larger project comprising four shorts produced by mainland internet television site Youku, the first Walker instalment generated negative reactions on the Youku website. The experience upset him a lot, Tsai says.
"There have been more than four million clicks to see the video, but an even greater number of people wrote in to complain about it. They said they found it unbearable, that Lee Kang-sheng was walking too slowly, that someone should push him, or hit him on the head to make him react," he says.
" Walker was made as a conscious act of rebellion against the way cinema is perceived in today's society. Commercial cinema has a certain number of requirements: there must be a narrative structure, a story, the actors must perform, and there must be some action and some music," Tsai adds.
"Well, I am not interested in any of these things anymore," the director asserts. So despite the bad reviews, Tsai went on to produce two more parts of this unique pilgrimage story in 2012 - No Form and Diamond Sutra, both of them shot in Taiwan.
Tsai is adamant that his films are works of art. He claims that his artistic form possesses a spiritual component, and needs to be detached from all restraining conventions.
"For me, the principal element of the Walker project is that it is an actualisation of the pilgrimage from China to India made by the Buddhist monk Xuanzang, back in the seventh century," he says.
"Lee Kang-sheng, who plays the monk, has to walk, wearing a robe, through different places. His slow pace potentially exposes him to danger; he has a direction, but not a precise goal. His destination is an indefinite place he may never reach."
Tsai explains that the idea for the Walker project originated in a theatre monologue he staged for the National Theatre of Taipei. "In a scene that touched me profoundly, Lee walked extremely slowly for 30 minutes. There was no plot, sound, dialogue or action
"The walking no longer seemed the same, and all that remained was the slow flow of time and a previously inexperienced sense of our very existence," Tsai says.
This was a genuine revelation for the director, and a real gift from his cinematic alter-ego, Lee. "I was deeply moved by the time he took to walk this short distance. Suddenly, I realised that, during the last 20 years I have been working with him, I was unconsciously longing for this moment to arrive."
The idea dawned on him that, "I had a big chance to film the same person over a long period of time, and to be able to follow his transformation through ageing.
"Many people think this is a meaningless limitation, but I believe it gives me enormous freedom. By lingering on the same actor, I have been able to find my own idea, my own definition of cinema."
Tsai says that when he gets a film commissioned, he requires three things: "I need money, I need freedom and I need Lee Kang-sheng."
On a more serious note, he asserts that, "I am not a filmmaker who tells stories, I am a filmmaker who creates images. I would like to explain to the viewing public that, more than anything else, watching a film is about watching images.
"To be able to appreciate details like the transformation of the light, or the particularity of a sound, we need time," the director says.
"To end with, I would like to ask you: Is it forbidden to walk slowly? I still don't know exactly the path of Lee Kang-sheng's walk through Marseille, but I know that it will be one way of reconsidering the rhythm of our life in today's society.
"If you are interested and you are in Marseille in September, come and join Lee Kang-sheng in the city streets," says Tsai.