BAKING HOT IN COSTUME as a human billboard, a character in his upcoming film, isn’t strange at all to auteur Tsai Ming-liang. In fact, Tsai might well be the only Golden Lion winner having to hawk tickets on the street to extend his movie runs.
Though Tsai enjoys the reputation of an internationally acclaimed filmmaker – winning prestigious awards in Venice, Cannes and Berlin – his slow-paced, realism films have not done as well as one might hope at the box office.
“Sometimes I give two talks a day at schools or galleries so I can sell tickets,” says the Malaysian-born, Taiwan-based filmmaker. “I need to sell 10,000 tickets before the movie opens to ensure it will run in the cinema for at least two weeks.”
Having been in the industry for almost 30 years, the 56-year-old filmmaker – one of the godfathers of Taiwan’s New Wave Cinema alongside the likes of Edward Yang De-chang and Hou Hsiao-hsien – is ready to retire from the silver screen.
“I’m not getting any younger,” says Tsai, whose Homegreen Films produces and distributes films independently.
“Making movies is not the same as manufacturing products in a factory. All my stories are original and I feel perhaps I’ve said enough.”
For what could be Tsai’s swansong, the working-titled The Diary of a Young Boy unmistakably has the filmmaker’s signature all over it. The story follows a jobless father, whose wife leaves him and the children because of poverty. Failing to pay the rent, the father is on the verge of being evicted.
The underdog takes on the minimum-wage job of a human billboard advertising luxurious condos. During his daily eight-hour stint, his children spend the day in a nearby shopping mall filled with scrumptiously packaged products.
“I won’t regret it if this ends up being my last film. I’d rather it be my last because I’ve never been freer,” Tsai says. “We wrote eight versions of the script and made changes on set every day during filming to avoid conventional storytelling.”
Tsai first got the idea to develop the story about 10 years ago, when he noticed the emergence of the so-called “sandwich men” bearing advertisements on their bodies.
“I was shocked that such a job even existed,” Tsai says. “The sad thing is we’ve all seen him, but after a while, we stop having feelings for him. As a filmmaker, I wish to bring such a character under the limelight.” Tsai has consistently explored reality in his features – troubled youth wasting their days at games arcades in Rebels of the Neon God, the confused and depressed couple in Vive L’Amour, the solitary and wounded son in The River, and the marginalised migrant worker in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.
“I’m not interested in filming the fabricated la dolce vita, the kind of processed fantasy that the majority of the audience expect filmmakers to serve them on a silver plate,” Tsai says. “Real-life events can be more cruel than films can portray, but still I want to show a segment of that, even though few people are willing to be confronted with it.”
Tsai’s often abstract and subtle cinematic language is the opposite of commercial films, yet he’s unapologetic about the grim grossing prospects.
“Commercial power is so strong that it changes people’s habits and tastes,” Tsai says. “There are so many commercial films that you don’t have time for anything else. You are cut off, and in the end you won’t be able to tell what’s good and what’s not.
“When you consider film an art form, you don’t want to always please your audience. You want to take them to the next level.
“I can’t imagine myself making a commercial movie. In the 20 years of my career, I never stopped looking for freedom. Without freedom, making a movie is like making canned food – everything !tastes the same but comes in different packaging. My movies are long-lasting and need to go !through fermentation. It’s a slow process, but it’s always ongoing.”
Tsai’s unparalleled style has earned him recognition at international film festivals and from film institutions.
In 1994, his Vive L’Amour, depicting a love triangle among three distraught city-dwellers sharing a flat, won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. His 2004 production, The Wayward Cloud, controversial for its erotic portrayal of romance in the time of drought, won numerous awards, including the FIPRESCI Award at the Cannes Film Festival and the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Tsai was knighted by the French government and was invited by the Louvre Museum to film Face to add to its official collection.
Face, an abstract interpretation of the Salomé myth shot inside the Louvre, has a starry cast, including French new wave giants Fanny Ardant, Jean-Pierre Leaud and model-turned-actress Laetitia Casta and Lee Kang-sheng, who worked with Tsai in all his movies. Face stirred up heated discussions in the film and the art industries.
Making Face made Tsai realise possibilities larger than cinema. Art galleries and museums across the globe offered to work with Tsai following the film’s release.
“It was a turning point in my career,” Tsai says. “Being invited by the Louvre gave me the recognition I longed for. It is clear that film can be collected as an art piece.”
Having tasted the hospitality of the art world, recent years have seen Tsai delving into various areas, from art installations to musicals. Such interests are likely to take up most of his time, post-cinema.
In 2007, Tsai explored the world of visual arts with an installation inspired by a derelict cinema in Malaysia, as part of a group exhibition at the Venice Biennale. The piece was consequently acquired by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum of Taiwan.
Three years ago, Tsai tried his hand at painting, which he had taught himself at an installation exhibition in Taipei’s Xue Xue Institute. He found 49 used and abandoned chairs, captured the images with oil paint strokes and juxtaposed the actual furniture against the painting.
He used a similar concept a year later, and transformed a boiler room established in 1937 under Japanese colonial rule into a theatre for his installations. 2Next year, his film retrospectives and art installations will also be shown in museums in Vienna and Brussels.
Tsai reckons that museums, galleries and even universities could be the alternative distribution channels to cinemas.
The filmmaker has been trying to break out of the system with his recent dealing of Face’s DVD rights. Instead of mass production, Tsai made only 10 copies of the DVD.
Each comes with a wooded box hand-painted by himself and priced at NT$1million (about HK$260,000). “I want it to be appreciated as an artwork. That way, it will be preserved and seen by a proper audience,” he says.
Tsai has also been pushing the boundaries through his recent experimental short films, including Walker, a 20-minute short, as part of Beautiful 2012, produced by Youku, China’s internet television site, alongside three other Asian filmmakers – Gu Changwei from Beijing, Ann! Hui On-wa from Hong Kong and Kim Tae-yong from Seoul.
The video, completely stripped of dialogue and plot, follows a red-robed monk walking at snail’s pace in the midst of Hong Kong’s bustling streets.
Walker garnered mixed reviews. Many critics found it impossible to understand the filmmaker’s message.
“Pieces like Walker are truly precious to me. I don’t think I had the courage to make such pieces before I turned 50,” he says.
“I have my own messages, and I don’t want to deliver them bluntly.”
Tsai is planning to make more Walker episodes in different cities – his hometown in Malaysia and France could be the next destinations.
“I feel like filming a modern-day Monk Xuanzang, who keeps moving forward just out of good will,” he says. “So, in the next 10 years, we’ll be walking. I don’t know what to expect, but I think it’s much better than making boring storytelling dramas. I want children to grow up with a variety of films, not just the commercial kinds.”