Famous Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang discovers painting

TAIPEI – Tsai Ming-lian, one of Taiwan’s most famous directors, lives in “renovated ruins” in the Taipei hills surrounded by abandoned houses.

The outskirts of the capital are full of this kind of buildings, where hikers can still find old furniture, lighting fixtures and even wall hangings left by the old inhabitants. They can be difficult to date, such is the rate of degradation of the subtropical climate of the island.

It’s a decent home for 63-year-old Malaysian-born Tsai, who has built a four-decade career in his adopted homeland of Taiwan, creating slow-moving dream-like films that are more visual art than commercial cinema. , with long takes and increasingly scattered dialogues.

Since winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1994 for his work “Vive L’Amour” about three people unwittingly sharing an empty apartment in Taipei, Tsai has been a regular on the art cinema circuit. and test. His latest film, “Days”, which follows two men going about their daily lives in Bangkok, was screened at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival where he won the Teddy Award from the jury for LGBT-themed films.

The commercial release of “Days”, however, and Tsai’s other projects, have been halted thanks to COVID. The pandemic triggered the start of mood swings for Tsai, which left him uncertain about how and when to start his next business.

“I spend a lot of time waiting,” Tsai told Nikkei Asia in an interview. “I’m going to finish my plans. I’m not canceling, but postponing them. It’s like I’m waiting for the pandemic to pass. But you know it won’t pass quickly. Everyone is aware of that. We don’t. not know how fast or slowly we will go through this. Therefore, I feel stuck. “

Above: Tsai, 63, born in Malaysia, has built a four-decade career in his adopted country Taiwan, creating slow-moving dream-like films that are more visual arts than commercial cinema. Bottom: Tsai’s portrait of her lead actor and muse, Lee Kang-sheng, from a scene from ‘Days’. (Photos courtesy of Tsai Ming-liang)

Like many of Tsai’s films, “Days” is full of extended shots of its actors doing things on their own: walking, lying, eating. It’s a characteristic style that can be found in many of his other images, including a series of experimental films such as 2014’s “Journey to the West,” which follows an anonymous Buddhist monk as he slowly walks through various urban environments.

The loneliness and loneliness of Tsai’s characters is an echo of his personal life, as he enjoys spending time alone since his childhood in Malaysia.

“I like solitude. In my upbringing I sometimes had many opportunities to form close relationships with others. But other times I had the opportunity to be in solitude. I especially liked those moments of loneliness. You can remember, imagine, do what you love, show what you really are, “Tsai said.” I don’t see loneliness as something negative. More likely, it has many positive meanings. For example, you can have more imagination because of loneliness. You may miss someone you love because of the loneliness. “

The isolation imposed by COVID, however, is something new for Tsai – “forced” loneliness full of restrictions, fear and uncertainty.

“It’s a slightly different feeling. You get worried when you see people. You know what I mean? In COVID, when you go to the market to pick up something, you are intentionally avoiding the crowd. Or when you notice someone. ‘one comes up to you, you dodge a bit, “Tsai said.” You’re afraid people will come in contact with you, and vice versa. It’s a different kind of alienation, with a hint of fear. “

To deal with his mood swings and anxiety, Tsai turned to his self-taught hobby, painting. In addition to recreating scenes from “Days,” Tsai’s other projects include a series of paintings inspired by his collection of vintage chairs and sofas, as well as painting on cabinets.

Above: The pandemic triggered the start of mood swings for Tsai, making him uncertain about when to start his next business: “Therefore, I feel stuck. Bottom: Anong Houngheuangsy, who plays Non, a Laotian immigrant to Thailand in ‘Days’, and Tsai Ming-liang. (Photos courtesy of Tsai Ming-liang)

Even with Taiwan under “soft lockdown” since May – after nearly a year and a half of successfully containing the disease – the pandemic is not Tsai’s first experience of unrest on the island. First arrived in 1977, two years after the death of authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan was still a very conservative society under martial rule.

Tsai recalls how, despite the fashion of the 1970s, young men could be asked to have their hair cut by a police officer if it was deemed too long. Even as a student in the Film and Drama Department of the University of Chinese Culture, Tsai had to take a “Military Bases 101” course.

His status as a foreigner – even of Chinese origin – gave him a greater sense of freedom and rebellion compared to many of his comrades. Building on this experience, Tsai produced the first sparks of creativity, forcing him to express the feelings of restriction and confinement aroused by Taiwan’s repressive society.

Gradually over the next decade, Taiwanese society began to thaw until martial law was finally repealed after 38 years in 1987. The one-party rule did not end until the premieres were held. democratic elections in 1996. This period coincided with the rise of neorealist cinema known as “New Taiwanese Cinema,” the island’s most commercial film industry lost ground to Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Tsai remembers how many Taiwanese “were still learning to use their newly acquired rights and freedoms” and set out to build what is arguably the most open society in Asia today. Much of this came from the high rate of information and culture flowing in from abroad, he said.

Never afraid to diversify, Tsai’s work has shifted from the more story-driven style of his previous films to his current “personal style” of directing which features a “slower pace and stronger emphasis on l ‘image and aesthetics, “he said. “Little by little, I came to think less about the story, and more about the aesthetic and the image. Because of this change in style, from history to image and aesthetics, art museums discovered my films. They thought my job was perfect. “

Above: Unfinished portrait of Anong Houngheuangsy in a scene from “Days”. Bottom: Tsai’s other projects during COVID lockdowns include a series of paintings inspired by his collection of vintage chairs. (Photos courtesy of Tsai Ming-liang)

Although the greatest recognition Tsai has received for his work has been in Europe, he has a dedicated following in his country, where his films are considered a vital part of Taiwan’s lighter ‘second new wave’, alongside from Ang Lee’s early films. But where Lee moved to Hollywood cinema, Tsai wasn’t afraid to extract elements like dialogue and a character-driven narrative as he matured as a director.

Even though he lacks inspiration in the present, Tsai’s tendency to use his own life or even painful experiences or those of those close to him means that there is a possibility that COVID will appear in one of his upcoming films.

The plot of “The River” from 1997 is directly inspired by the life of Lee Kang-sheng, the lead actor and muse of Tsai, who had struggled with months of neck pain while filming “Vive L ‘. Love”. Tsai’s 2001 work “What Time Is It Here?” was inspired by her experiences of grief and those of Lee.

“When (Lee’s) father passed away, I saw the sadness that lingered on his face,” Tsai said. “One day on a plane, I looked at his sleepy and melancholy face. I woke him up and told him that I had decided to shoot a movie about the death of a father. My father is also deceased! But I had forgotten about it. Then Lee’s dark face reminded me of how I felt when my father passed away. So I made a movie called “What time is it here?”

Ideally, Lee lives in the same building as Tsai – as has been their long-time practice – so he hasn’t lost the bond with his creative partner even though the cinema itself has stalled. For now, Tsai is eager to reconnect with the world and “become liberated and free”. What this world will look like after the pandemic remains to be seen.

About Edward Weddle

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