Friday, 22 August 2008

Malaysia and Mr Tsai

This article was published in Sight & Sound in November, 2007.

With two films about to be released theatrically, something of a catch-up for the UK, and a 50th birthday retrospective at the National Film Theatre in November, Tsai Ming-liang seems suddenly back with the wordless, delinquent version of a vengeance. As well as the vaudeville and pornographic pleasures of The Wayward Cloud (like The Hole, but with watermelons) from 2005, British audiences will now get to see I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone – his first feature made in his native Malaysia. It’s the latest in a series of cinematically refined, intensely personal films from one of the key figures of Taiwan’s second generation New Wave – whose members include the rather better known Ang Lee.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone stars regular lead Lee Kang-sheng acting in two roles: one as a comatose man and the other as a migrant worker badly beaten up on the streets and cared for by a local named Rawang, played by Norman Bin Atun, who Tsai found, in characteristic fashion, selling fried cakes on the street. Onstage in Toronto last year Tsai mentioned that the experience of making this film brought him ‘healing’; the moments where Lee is being cared for by the Malaysian man is certainly deeply touching. In both roles he is given a full bed-wash by another in varying degrees of sympathy towards his plight, and in both, the iconography of death, the sluicing and sponging and preparation for burial, is very clear. It’s taken Tsai, by his own admission, some time to come to terms with the idea of death, a subject he approached first in What Time is It There? the most emotionally haunted of all his films.

Tsai began writing the script for I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone in 1999 during a period spent back in Malaysia, during which time he became intrigued by the skeletal half-built building that presides over the whole film. He walked past it every day, and gazed upon it. The building was, he says, a poignant relic of the economic crash of the 1990’s when the building was abandoned before it was completed; the deep dark pool of water in its centre, a familiar Tsai motif, is one of his dark mirrors of the soul – like Dr Dee’s obsidian scrying glass in the British Museum.

He never went into the building at the time but was so determined to use the building he began filming other scenes before permission came through; it was late in coming thanks to an accident that had taken place there some months earlier, but he doesn’t elaborate what kind of accident. Certainly the place looks dangerous, the steel cabling from the unfinished concrete standing up like thousands of bristles. It’s a curious building in which to find healing – but its isolation and incompletion appealed to Tsai.

Tsai admits he was initially anxious about working in Kuala Lumpur, but soon found that its mixed-ethnicity demographic worked in his favour. He was also able to use – and this is one of his favourite things – onscreen songs from different ethnic groups. ‘Shooting on the street in Malaysia wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be because they were very natural,’ he told me. He was using his regular crew from Taipei. ‘In Taiwan the Chinese people are very aware of cameras and tend to shun the cameras but in Malaysia, somehow, they are more relaxed and act more naturally.’

This was never more in evidence than when he was filming scenes set in an off-street restaurant. Tsai had arranged for extras to arrive; but in the end he used actual customers who were already there, and quite amenable. There’s a point in the film where the famous smog descends on the city and as the smoke machines cranked up he asked the customers whether they wanted to leave. They didn’t and continued chatting as his crew handed out the face masks.

Tsai has been identified, not quite correctly, as a chronicler of Taipei’s bored and alienated youth and fluctuating cityscapes since his first full feature Rebels of the Neon God in 1992 – a film that bought him almost instantaneous international success. Though he is largely considered a Taiwanese director, his emotional links are overseas. Born in Kuching, East Malaysia, in 1957, the son of a farmer who also operated a stall in the city centre, Tsai spent much of his childhood lurking in local movie theatres watching films from China, Taiwan, The Philippines, India and Hong Kong. But it wasn’t till he went to university in Taipei that he was to see the kind of auteurist cinema that was going to influence his own art – especially the works of Antonioni, Fassbinder, Bresson and, above all others, Truffaut.

After graduating in 1982 he stayed on in Taiwan and went on to work in the theatre (four plays, including the deadpan one-man show A Wardrobe in the Room) and ten plays for local television, eight of which he directed. This particular section of work has hardly ever been shown in the West but it was during this apprenticeship that he developed his fastidious and formal visual style, in 1991 casting the completely unknown Lee Kang-sheng in a 30-minute TV drama called Boys.

It seems that Lee was working as a guard at a video arcade at the time, sitting on a stationary motorcycle, when, like Pasolini on the prowl in Rome, Tsai spotted him, talked to him and gave him his telephone number. He was enchanted by his indifference and working-class solemnity; Lee later refused to take standard directions during filming and insisted on reacting on his own slow impassive way. It’s no exaggeration to say that Tsai found his celebrated and characteristic style, stripped of contrived emotion, through the eccentricities of his lead actor.

Lee curiously mutable face has been in all of Tsai’s feature films since 1992 – they include Rebels of the Neon God (92), Vive L’Amour (94), The River (96), The Hole (98), What Time is It There? (01) and Goodbye Dragon Inn (03). His character has evolved from the rebellious youth of Rebels of the Neon God (where he is the incarnation of the Chinese god Nezha – the god of the title – a headstrong deity who defies his parents) into something sadder and more battered in recent films, including a porn actor in Wayward Cloud.

Perhaps they might never have met; perhaps Tsai might have walked down another street that day and perhaps Lee wouldn’t have been leaning against his motorcycle (motorcycles have a freighted presence in many of Tsai’s films). It’s hard to think of another director with quite such an intense artistic relationship with his leading man. Lee’s own life informs the films of Tsai quite as much as Tsai himself. Lee’s real-life neck injury on the set on Rebels of the Neon God became the central motif for his character in The River – to date Tsai’s best-known film, convincingly declared a masterpiece by Jonathan Rosenbaum, with its celebrated scene where a closeted gay father accidentally has sex with his own son in the mists of a sauna.

Tsai says he could not imagine making a film without Lee, but then again, a solitary man himself, who will not go into a restaurant to eat if it is crowded, he does tend to work with the same comfortably familiar people. He usually uses the same cinematographer (Liao Pen-jung) and draws from the same small group of actors, including Chen Chao-yung and Yang Kwei-mai (intended as the porn actress in Wayward Cloud but ‘she didn’t want to film naked’). However it is the presence of Lee that most informs and the works of a director who, quite uniquely, balances the ascetic with the over-ripe.

‘I don’t talk to him every day, but most days, since we work in the same office,’ observes Tsai of Lee. ‘However I do talk on the phone to his nephew every day, who is seven years old’. He’s also involved in Lee’s fledgling directorial career – Lee’s second film Help Me Eros was in competition in Venice this year, with Tsai on board as a producer and art-designer. I suggest that his position on Lee’s films were a role reversal, but he just laughs. ‘It’s not just those roles – I’m also helping to distribute and publicise Help Me Eros in Taiwan for its January release. As for the art-direction, that was just to save the production money. We have the same mentality and the same beliefs, and I don’t agree with those people who say he is simply copying my style. If he isn’t influenced by my films, who would be his influence?’

It’s been noted that Tsai seems to enjoy his bad boy image, and, despite his personal delicacy and reticence, his themes can be lurid. Wayward Cloud includes a great deal of pulpy sex with watermelons. But on a more serious note Tsai is especially good at depicting private moments – showing the things that people do alone when they are not observed. Sex is an important force in Tsai’s films, but it’s rarely connected to love; the default position of a Tsai character is usually masturbation. A kindred spirit, the poet John Donne, once wrote of the ‘spermatique issue of ripe menstruous boiles’ and the ‘ranke sweaty froth’ of insalubrious sex, the sweat on the brows and lips of lovers co-mingled and encoffined by small spaces. Froth inevitably tends to at some point; it wouldn’t be a Tsai film without ranke sweaty froth and congruent bodily spillage.

Yet he’s very precise amidst all this chaotic human debris. His visual style, while depicting considerable crudity, is highly sophisticated. Few directors can compose a shot with quite such fluid beauty, his camera fixed and unmoving, like a dead or paralysed man looking out into a room as people come and go. His editing is non-linear and works against accepted convention. His scripts, fifty pages long and written like poems, contain little or no dialogue, something which baffled his hero Jean-Pierre Léaud when it came to his cameo in What Time is it There?

Disease, often mysterious in nature, is a hovering and malignant presence in much of his work, but most especially in The Hole – where a virus makes people behave like cockroaches (Lee’s battle with a cockroach in Rebels of the Neon God is one of the first scenes we ever see him in). It’s possibly too crude a reduction to associate these fears with the shadow of AIDS, but there again Tsai did make a documentary about AIDS in 1995. In Tsai’s landscapes, rooms are dirty. Pipes leak. Buildings are crumbling. People strive alone. Life is bleak and then, as in The Hole, you get a musical number. Curious that, when you meet him, Tsai giggles so much, like a naughty schoolboy, but perhaps much of this is much less symbolic than is commonly supposed. He claims for example that he always gets flooded by water leaks in nearly every apartment he’s ever been in, including one in Paris.

Audiences schooled on Hollywood film-making have looked in vain for themes of redemption, but escapes are there, especially the escape of cinema itself, most perfectly expressed in his film about the closing down of a Taipei arthouse cinema Goodbye Dragon Inn. Totemic filmmakers and actors figure here and there; a cameo for Anne Hui in The River, for veterans Shih Chun and Miao Tien (another Tsai regular – the father in The River) in the front row watching themselves onscreen in Goodbye Dragon Inn, with Shih complaining that no-one goes to the movies anymore, and of course Jean-Pierre Léaud scowling in a cemetery in What Time is It There?

After he has finished his chores for Help Me, Eros he’s back in France making a film with Jean-Pierre Léaud; it’s a project in some way financed by the Louvre (in Torino, 2005, I teased him about the erotic possibilities of the statues and he admitted he had been thinking about it). He’s concerned about Léaud’s health. ‘I’m anxious about working with him as soon as possible because he’s getting quite frail and perhaps not so clear minded – at the same time you can’t rush the film because I need to work on the script. I feel that if Truffaut was still alive he would most probably like to make a film with him.’ He is, he explains, keen to trace the history of Léaud’s face from his boyhood on 400 Blows, its relative effect on the audience, and compare this to the ageing of Lee Kang-sheng at the same time. ‘I’m more and more only interested in faces,’ he says, which incidentally says something about his interest in the watermelon, since he casually mentions that he first noticed them on street stalls because ‘cut open they looked like faces’. Surely a close-up can’t be looming? Tsai laughs again, alarmed and intrigued at the very thought.

For many years British audiences have been oddly oblivious to modern Taiwanese cinema, partly because the films of Edward Yang (apart from the majestic Yi Yi) and Hou Hsiao-Hsien haven’t been distributed here. An Edward Yang retrospective at the NFT some years ago briefly helped open the gates, even prompting some supposedly august Anglo-Saxon critics to take note. Tsai considers Yang’s sad and untimely death earlier this year to be the end of an era. ‘The passing of Ed Yang represents the passing of an age in Taiwan,’ he observes. ‘Audiences have changed and Taiwanese cinema has changed’. Increasingly he’s finding funding abroad. US style blockbusters now predominate.

No Hollywood for Tsai, though - he’s too much his own man to follow the Ang Lee route. The two mean ostensibly have little in common apart from their mutual obsession with cooking and food, although they have been known to meet for dinner every now and then. When I met Ang Lee at the time of Brokeback Mountain we discussed Tsai briefly and he told me he had borrowed many of the gay elements of his films from his contemporary. ‘I always say,’ mused Ang Lee with his familiar probing smile, ‘that the relationship between the Hulk and his father is very Tsai Ming-liang’.

It made me see that film in a whole new light. Tsai Ming-liang had gone to Hollywood after all in the heart of a radioactive green beast.

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