This interview was originally published in Skrien, no. 2 March 2002, and appears here thanks to the kind permission of the editor.
Lee Kang-Sheng, aka Hsiao-Kang, the main actor in every film by Tsai Ming Liang, plays a street seller of watches in What Time is it There? His father has just died and his mother is obsessively praying for the safe return of his father’s spirit. When Hsiao-Kang feeds a cockroach to the enormous fish in the living room, his mother worries that it could have been the reincarnation of her husband. The spirit of his father could return in any object or living creature: in the plant on the balcony, in the fish itself, or maybe in the watch he sells to a girl who is leaving for Paris. Hsiao-Kang has become afraid of the dark. He doesn’t dare to go to the bathroom at night. Mother and son each find their own way in surviving the sudden death of the father. And since they cannot help each other, or understand the others’ healing process, they grow further and further apart.
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Nanouk Leopold: In the beginning of the film there is a scene where someone in a video-store asks for a Yu Ming, Lin Dai or a Grace Chang movie. What kind of films are these?
Tsai Ming-Liang: These are films from the ’50s and ’60s and also some from the ’70s. Yu Ming, Lin Dai and Grace Chang are the great stars from the Hong Kong films of my childhood. In my film The Hole, I used some songs by Grace Chang. I am always searching for videos of these films so I can watch them again. And when I look at them I always think: they have really gone, they exist no longer in this world, there are no stars any more like in those days. And then I think: I am really not up-to-date, I am living in the wrong period if I like these films so much.
NL: I read somewhere that you used to go to the cinema a lot with your grandparents. Did you go to see these films with them?
TML: Among others. But mostly we went to see Cantonese films. Period drama, for instance, about the imperial dynasties. Or old fashioned fight films. Or very strange films from the Fillipines. And also sometimes an American film. My grandparents went to anything really, and I went with them.
NL: You’re a great fan of François Truffaut. In What time is it there?, Jean-Pierre Léaud has a part where he plays himself. When did you see a Truffaut film for the first time?
TML: It must have been when I was already in Taiwan, as a student. There is a film archive there where they have many of these kinds of films. But the first time I saw a film by Truffaut was in a very old cinema. A film with Isabelle Adjani. She played a woman who is looking for her lover, an army officer, do you know which one this is? (L’Histoire de Adele H, 1975) This film moved me very much. And afterwards I went in search of other films made by Truffaut.
NL: When I look at your films I think you have more affinity with a director like Bresson than Truffaut.
TML: I like Bresson very much, but Truffaut for me is different. He has created his own world, which he films again and again. He always has the same preoccupations that find their way back into his films. And I like that very much.
But in terms of form, my films might resemble a little those by Bresson. I appreciate his attitude towards his actors.
NL: Did these kinds of films change the way you thought about what film could be?
TML: The European films of the Nouvelle Vague or the New German Cinema films were indeed very different. And they moved me enormously. I was moved just as much by the films of my childhood. But I think European films are closer to me because they are about modern life and ordinary, modern men. And I have the idea they are more realistic, true to life.
If I look back I might say these films have meant something else to me than the films of my childhood. But at the time I wasn’t aware of this. Maybe now I am more capable of thinking what a film actually can do. In the past, in a way, all films used to look alike. Another actress meant another face, but the way the story was told was about the same. If you then look at these European films, these are films where the role of the director is much bigger. I can see that now. This creates another kind of film. Now I am much more focused on the ideas I, as a director, put into my film and the effect this might have on the public. Now I can also think about what I can give myself by making a particular film.
NL: What do you give yourself?
TML: (smiles) That is difficult to say. But usually it means there will be a change in my perspective on a certain subject.
I will not film something because I already know what it is. I will film something because I am interested in it. And while filming I discover all sorts of things to do with this interest. So my scenarios are never really finished. Coincidently What Time is it There? is my first film made with a truly finished scenario. Because I couldn’t find financing to make this film I had a lot of time to work on the script…(giggles).
NL: How is it that you could not find financing?
TML: There were a few French production companies interested, but they all thought an Asian film would be very cheap…(laughs)
NL: What was the difference from, for instance, your last film, The Hole? What did you start filming with if you didn’t have a finished scenario?
TML: With The Hole I had some sort of finished script. But when we found the location for the building it was so beautiful that we didn’t use the script any more. Of all my films, The Hole is actually the film where I used least a scenario.
NL: So all you took from the old scenario were the characters, the hole in the ground and the building?
TML: Even the idea of the hole in the floor came later…(!). In my other films I use many different locations. This means you have to know beforehand how you are going to construct the film. But when I had found this building I knew: now I am safe. This will be the only location we use, so I am free to do what I want. I used to live in the same kind of building. And many things in the film have to do with my experiences living in a building like this.
NL: One can see, also in your other films, that the space in which you film is very important for the outcome of the scenes. You will probably never work in a studio.
TML: Indeed not! Once I made a children’s programme for television and this of course was done in a studio. It was terribly difficult. Really hard to do.
NL: Is this also because a real place, when working on location, can provide a certain form of reality? Because the space in a way determines the mise en scène and thereby gives the scene a genuine character?
TML: Every location holds a certain form of life. I try to simplify the locations as much as possible and point out its traces of life. In my various scenarios, it works somewhat the same way. I want to define the essence of the matter, the main point of a place. This could be hidden in the colour, the atmosphere. Usually it takes me a long time to locate this main point.
NL: Was it the fish in the main house of the film What time is it there?
TML: (chuckles) We couldn’t move that fish. The aquarium was too heavy. Well, we could have moved it, but I liked it. That fish is also present in The River.
NL: He is like a silent spectator: present, but unable to speak. Does this have to do with the father?
TML: That fish lives in the house of Hsiao-Kang’s family, and in a way for me it is the father of Hsiao-Kang. I almost made a slip of the tongue, I wanted to say: that fish is the father of Hsiao-Kang…
NL: You began to say that you give yourself something in every film you make. Could it be that your films specialise in simplifying and defining what you can do where – place and action – thereby literally and figuratively creating a confined space in which you have absolute freedom to do what you want?
TML: On the one hand, it is a restriction; on the other it is very safe. Maybe I am always in search of a small confined space like this. I very much like to use them in my films. I like to film in hotel rooms, in elevators or on moving staircases. What counts is that the space itself is very clearly divided from the rest of the world. This might have to do with the subconscious. I do not like to have too many eyes focussed on me. And I cannot feel safe until I have excluded these eyes. This means I have to create boundaries. In my work I can do this.
NL: The scene where Hsiao-Kang pees in the plastic bag, was that written?
TML: Yes, that was already in the script. It comes from my own experience.
NL: Also the plastic bag?
TML: Yes. When my father died I became very much afraid of the dark. I thought I would see all sorts of things in the dark.
Just a few days ago, I was in Switzerland, in a hotel. When I closed my eyes I saw a person in front of me. I am scared of the dark. I always think there is a kind of space that opens up in the dark. A month after my father passed away I didn’t dare to go to the bathroom at night. So I had these bags.
NL: A great strength of film, and of your films in particular, lies in the small details you use to show the bigger issues. The smaller the example, the better. You are very precise. Showing Hsiao-Kang being afraid of the dark is taken over by the power of the details in this scene. Because he first blows into the plastic bag, to see if it won’t leak…
TML: (laughs) That’s just realistic. I do not think out these elements especially for the public. I just think the action has to be right. I try to record the fact of the action on film. I want the public to believe the action, to believe in its truth. This is very important. The same applies for the actors. Some actors act in such a way that one does not believe their actions, that they hold any truth or any relation to reality. This is why I do not want my actors to act. On the other hand, if you place a camera in front of a person, this person will start to act. This is why I am always searching for things I can leave out, especially in terms of the actors’ performance.
NL: It is also important, to keep the example of the plastic bag, that we cannot see the face of the actor in this scene. We are focussed on his movements, on the action, and not on what he might be thinking.
TML: True. In this shot I was filming his legs with enough light to capture the little movement of a muscle in the leg, so one will be able to understand what Hsiao-Kang is doing. Apart from this you also see the plastic bag filling up. And of course there is also the sound. I want it to look real. But I also want the public to feel they do not know where they stand. So the spectator has to take some time to see what is actually happening. I do not want to explain the action to the public. They need time to see for themselves. But they have to cooperate. I show of course the essence of the matter, the main point of a scene. But I want everyone for him or herself, with his or her own background, to look at the scene and to participate in the scene by thinking about it. And only then it is right. Because of this every viewer constructs his or her own film. He or she constructs his or her own film experience. And of course I hand him/her several things during the process. For me, this is one of the most important things of making films.
NL: Can you imagine going with your grandparents, with whom you started to look at films, to look at one of your own films?
TML: No, they would fall asleep (laughs). My younger brother has seen some of my films and he has assured me not to show them to anyone at my home village. They wouldn’t be able to handle it. So I never bring videotapes when I go home to Malaysia. People there often ask me if I brought a video and then I say: there are no videotapes of my films…(laughs out loud). The father of Hsiao-Kang has seen The River before he died in ’97. He said it was a porn movie (soft laugh). Up to a certain degree they are aware of what I do, of course. They can read about it in the paper, or they hear things from other people. For them it means I am working on something, doing some sort of job, that is what I do and it keeps me from the street.