Malaysian-Chinese director Tsai Ming-liang was at the forefront of the “Second New Wave” of Taiwanese cinema, winning awards at film festivals across the world. He tells Isabelle Hon about his childhood, his impressions of Hong Kong and the joy of rice cookers.
When I was a kid, I used to live in an apartment in Malaysia where I was surrounded by coconut trees. When they were blown by the wind it felt like a forest.
I used to play hide and seek with other kids in the neighborhood. The people, the grass, the chickens running around—everything was so real, unlike how the new generation farms and fishes on the computer.
When I go back, the grassland is still there. It used to be solid, but now it has turned soft, since the children don’t come to play anymore.
Unlike cinemas located in shopping malls nowadays, cinemas were often standalone buildings in the the 60s.
Going to the cinema used to be such a big deal: We went with my whole family, including grandparents.
I grew up with Cantonese operas and films performed by Lam Ka-sing and Fung Bo-bo, who was more or less the same age as me when she was still a child star.
But movies now are all made with computers.
Old movies described the relationships between people, and movies today don’t: They deem it as ‘lo beng’ [old fashioned].
When I was younger I was raised on the works of Eileen Chang. I also enjoyed watching films by Francois Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and many others.
My first visit to Hong Kong was 1997. I felt psychologically connected with this city. Later I chose to film “Walker” here.
The whole movie is about [Taiwanese actor and frequent collaborator] Lee Kang-sheng’s slow walk through the city. I found it interesting that only old people noticed, stopped and watched, while youngsters were indifferent and just walked past.
But I’m not as familiar with Hong Kong as I used to be. It changes so rapidly that I can’t keep up any more.
One of my films is about Lee Kang-sheng slowly walking alone in Marseille. People thought he was a beggar and gave him money.
A person gave him two Euros. Later an old lady gave him five, but felt it was too much and took the two Euros as change. When she found out it was a film performance, she took back the whole five Euros.
In another short film of mine, “Diamond Sutra,” I filmed Lee walking slowly in front of a rice cooker, which took exactly 20 minutes to cook a pot of rice.
To observe the process of rice cooking is fun. From none to done. When you think it’s over, it still gives you an extra burst of steam. Just like life.
When “Walker” was first published on the mainland website Youku, there were 10,000 messages criticizing me.
I want my works to be seen but I couldn’t care less about the opinions. I know my works will only be appreciated by a small group of people. A lot of people refuse to open themselves up to new things.
I haven’t had a script for a film production for a very long time. A script to me is for gathering funds and simply to let others know what I want to do.
But when it comes to the production stage, I take the most minimal approach. I throw away things I don’t need.
Whenever investors come to me to shoot a movie, I tell them: My movies might not be liked by most of the public, but only adored by small part of audience. Do you still want it?
They still wanted it, so eventually they lost money.
Investors always have too many requests. You want this, you want that: So why don’t you film it yourself?
I don’t make a lot of money with my films. I just make enough for my basic needs.
Some professors ask me to give some suggestions or advice to film students. It’s funny. They should know far better what they want from their students than I would. I don’t even know them.
Sometimes I feel I don’t belong to the world I live in—I’m more like the Europeans living in the 60s. I have changed and found my own way of life.
Nowadays, movies seem to be made for people to judge and criticize online.
I never think about whether I should continue to make films or not. Maybe yes? Or maybe no.
Anyway, I am old. I won’t think about tomorrow.
"Vive L'Amour" (1994)
Need to Know…
Tsai Ming-liang’s film honors include the Golden Lion for “Vive L’Amour” at the 1994 Venice Film Festival and the Silver Bear for “The River” at the 47th Berlin International Film Festival. Check out his work during the Summer International Film Festival, Including “Walker” on Aug 23, 7:30pm. Through Aug 25, cinefan.com.hk.