This fall, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang returned to the United States for the first time since 2009, embarking on a miniature tour of Chicago, Boston, New York, and Washington, DC. He came on the occasion of MoMA’s recent gargantuan retrospective of his work, Tsai Ming-Liang: In Dialogue with Time, Memory, and Self. Titles in the series ranged from his early work to his acclaimed international breakthrough Goodbye, Dragon Inn to his most recent feature, Days (one of our top 10 films of last year).
Tsai is one of the world’s most prominent practitioners of so-called “slow cinema” — quiet, contemplative films that are short on narrative and long on takes. He’s done a great deal to shape viewers’ appreciation and understanding of the loose genre. He crafts sparse scenarios and then observes his characters with tremendous patience, often in languid long takes. His Walker series of short films, for instance, follows his longtime collaborator and muse, Lee Kang-Sheng, as he plays a monk who moves through various settings in extreme slow motion, contrasting the bustle and pace of modern life. Though protracted, Tsai’s style is the opposite of boring; in demanding the viewer’s attention and readjusting expectations around the cinematic use of time, he allows for incredible moments of human connection and discovery.
Ahead of the retrospective, I was able to sit down and talk with Tsai. We discussed filmmaking as the art of waiting, moviegoing practices in Taiwan versus North America and Europe, and more. Many thanks to Vincent Cheng for translating our conversation. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Hyperallergic: You use duration as a tool in your films in a much more purposeful way than many directors. When shooting, what guides how long you hold a shot, and how you edit it all later?
Tsai Ming-liang: During production, when the camera’s rolling, most of the time I am in a state of waiting. I’m waiting for the sudden emergence of reality and truth. These moments are few and far between. Maybe it happens two minutes into a shot, and then it will happen again at four minutes. I will want both of those instances in the film. But before we hit those two-minute and four-minute moments, the in-between process that seems meaningless and boring, that’s just as important. Without that time, you won’t be able to observe those two instances of sudden truth and reality. That’s the reason I need to show it all.
I tend not to give my actors a lot of information or instruction before any scene. I will give them something very simple: “This is what you want to do, this is the environment you are in, and this is the scenario.” They’ll go with their own interpretations of the scene, and then I will not even say “Cut.” I’ll keep the camera rolling to see what they do after they think they have executed the scene. I want them to remain in the scenario. Sometimes I find a lot more truth and reality in what they do during what they consider the post-execution part. Those are things I’m waiting for as well, with those long shots.
During editing, I also intentionally try to avoid precision in the rhythm or tempo, because doing so creates effects that I don’t want in my film. I want to tease out a certain rhythm and tempo without being precise. That’s the reason the duration tends to be much longer than expected.
H: A retrospective this comprehensive provides a good opportunity to look back on your career. If filmmaking is a process of waiting, do you think you’ve found ways to “wait better” over the years? Or to “wait differently,” perhaps?
TM-L: I’m one of those directors that will readily accept and have positive reactions to my old work. But I do think it depends on where I am at the moment. At my age, I don’t think I could make the films I did when I was in my 30s, and I don’t think when I was in my 30s I could make the films that I did later, when I was in my 40s. I am constantly changing. I’m aging, and I’m not the same person when making each film. Each time, there’s always some way I want to push the envelope, and each time I motivate myself to push a little further. I’m surprised when I look at my previous films and find I’ve forgotten what I was feeling when I made some choices. Rather than look back too much, it’s better to think about what I can do now. It has a lot to do with my strength and energy. I’m just not as energetic as when I was in my 30s, so my work will be very different. You don’t know what you’ll make until you reach that age and you’re in the moment of shooting.
H: What’s something specific that stood out to you about one of your older films, re-viewing it recently?
TM-L: Right now, we are in the process of restoring The Wayward Cloud, and looking at some choices I made, I wouldn’t let them pass now. It’s in the narrative. At one point, the actress at a porn shoot faints, and Shiang-chyi [the female lead] takes her back to her place. But then the producer takes the actress out, without any details of why he was there or how he found her. I don’t think that makes sense anymore. Now I would probably give a little more detail, maybe add one more scene or some explanation so that it will make sense.
Obviously, at the time I had a reason for letting this pass, although now I don’t remember what it was. And I have never been asked by any audience about this particular missing plot detail. But I also tell myself not to take this so seriously: “This is just a film, and it’s a film you made when you were young.” When I was younger, there are a lot of impulses that I would just follow without really second guessing them.
H: In more recent years, your work has been less concerned with plot anyway, and more with being with its characters in their spaces.
TM-L: I grew tired of the supposed necessity of having these narrative elements. I think that showing in museums as a practice has a huge impact on me. I am a lover of painting, and I paint myself. So my later works are very much about using filmic language in its purest form. The focus for me is more about composition and light. Those are more important than a plotline, or any dialogue.
In Taiwan right now, I’m showing films such as Your Face or the Walker series in movie theaters, and the purpose is for the audience to have a completely different experience than what they’re so used to. I want people to know this can be done, even though it might not be very profitable. It’s to expand your frame of reference, to make your idea of what art means more inclusive.
H: Has collaborating with art institutions driven this shift, or did your interest in it lead you to those institutions? Or is it a mixture of both?
TM-L: I’ve always had a problem with such boundaries or categories. My films tend to be called “arthouse films.” To me, that means a film that’s been marginalized by the market, by the industry. That’s not a compliment. It doesn’t mean I have a higher artistic value. When I go to Europe, I will see people of all different ages lining up to see Flowers of Shanghai or Yi Yi. You don’t see that in Taiwan or most of Asia. I think that it has a lot to do with the idea of the art museum, that Western audiences will go to arthouse cinemas because they are used to that concept. It’s not very common in Asia, the art museum as a practice. I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to cultivate this new generation of filmgoers, exposing them to the art museum idea through my films.
I got so many new opportunities after Goodbye, Dragon Inn. The art circles in Taiwan actually came to me wanting to collaborate. That was unprecedented; in the past there was a very deep divide — again, this idea that somehow films are separate from the contemporary art scene. This was the beginning many productive collaborations. I went to the Venice Biennale in 2007 with It’s a Dream. In 2009, the Louvre commissioned me to make Face. In 2014, my film Stray Dogs was released in Taiwan in a museum, not in a conventional cinema. The Walker series has a home in an exhibition space in Taiwan. Next month, I’m going to the Pompidou to show The Night, and the all the films in the Walker series will be shown simultaneously in the same installation. The audience can pick what they want to watch. I hope that one day we can do the same in the United States.
Tsai Ming-liang Retrospective runs at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, Paris, France) from November 25, 2022-January 2, 2023.
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