The Inquisition: Taiwanese art-house actor Lee Kang-sheng

The Taiwanese actor has established himself at the forefront of the international art house scene

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 11:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 July, 2014, 11:23pm

48 HOURS: After working on so many Tsai Ming-liang projects, you were finally named best actor at last year's Golden Horse awards for your role in Stray Dogs (2013). Do you feel vindicated?

LEE KANG-SHENG: The impact of that award was actually quite substantial, because it introduced a lot of people to us [Lee and Tsai] and our films. I've been in this business for 22 years and I'm a bit like the character I played in Stray Dogs: a human billboard standing on the street and advertising real estate. That's exactly how I feel about my position in the film industry. The films Tsai and I make are more on the art house and non-mainstream front — not many people watch them.

Even in Taiwan?

Even in Taiwan, indeed. So when I acted in that film, I very much shared my character's feelings.

Tsai told the Venice Film Festival that Stray Dogs will be his last film, but that doesn't look to be such a certainty any more. What's all that about?

Actually, he was physically unwell at that time. When we shot Stray Dogs he had also taken on other projects and he was extremely busy. Once he called me in the middle of the night and said he felt really unwell. I had to take him to hospital on two other occasions, because his blood pressure got too high. He was facing immense pressure and feeling negative about his body, and that's why he thought about retiring. But I think he's recovered quite a bit since.

Judging from your previous films, and especially the 14-minute single take towards the end of Stray Dogs, you like to stage the longest takes possible. Is that the case?

Before Stray Dogs, we were shooting on film and thus restricted to 10 minutes for each take. But since we're working with digital now, we can go all the way up to 40 minutes for a take. Tsai is letting his actors do longer takes nowadays. We've done takes that went for about 20 minutes, but the investors asked him to shorten them. When we're filming, a take often lasts 30 minutes.

Considering its extreme pacing, you could make the case that Stray Dogs is more of an art piece than a feature film

Tsai has been gradually leaning towards this direction ever since he shot Visage (2009) at the Louvre. When we were shooting Stray Dogs, he kept in mind that the film could be shown in museums. That's why he doesn't care too much about the length of each sequence.

Somehow, you two manage to go even slower with the Walker project [dressed as a Buddhist monk, Lee walks at a snail's pace in a series of experimental short films and theatre productions]. Is it difficult to walk so slowly?

The difficulty comes from the fact that I had never been trained to walk so slowly in my daily life. I think this may be regarded as a form of religious practice, or a kind of art performance. It takes willpower to walk so slowly. When I made the first two films of the series [2012's No Form and Walker], I swayed from side to side because it demands good balance. When I was walking in Hong Kong or other Chinese cities, people often showed sympathy for me, or even gave me money. I was quite afraid of that happening, because they'd block the camera and I'd have to do it again.

You've done a lot of crazy stuff in Tsai's films. Can you think of anything that you wouldn't do if he asked you to?

Let me ask you this: which scene in our films would you consider crazy?

I think there are a lot

That's what I think, too. When I first worked with Tsai, I realised there's so much in his films that you wouldn't see in any other films. I've had my own struggles, too, because the director wants everything real. If my character needs to pee, he would demand me to pee for real. We are still adapting to his methods.