what time is it there?
An Interview with Tsai Ming-Liang
by Samantha Culp and Tyler Coburn
Translators: Ken Chen, Bingyi Huang, James Tweedie, Susan Yu
Drawing by Sophia Dixon, from Tsai Ming-Liang's What Time is it There?

There has been a tension in Taiwanese cinema since the 1980s between art-house films and films for the masses. Art-house movies have often done poorly in Taiwan, criticized for being too obscure, too slow in pace and lacking in plot. How do you view this tension between art and the commodity?

In Taiwan, there is a huge distance between the artistic quality of a film and the audience. The artistic component of the film helps in overseas distribution, but matters little in Taiwan, where commercial success is the main concern. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is the only director who has had success both commercially and artistically, though few people in Taiwan appreciate his films on the artistic level. [Usually] in Taiwan, art films will be screened at ten in the morning for only two people, and by the end of the day, they will be out of the theatres. This type of [art film] market needs to be nurtured in Taiwan. Recently, I gave 70 lectures for What Time is it There? in Taiwan and as a result, over 50,000 people showed up to watch the movie. In Taipei, my new film [Goodbye Dragon Inn, 2003] had seven screenings and only one person left during them. I guess it's just a process.

I was determined to detach myself from commercial filmmaking. I think its important for us to realize where our values lie, only if you understand your own work very clearly can you understand where you are. I personally have gone to the streets and sold tickets, I'm trying very hard to combat [the mainstream], otherwise we will only have Hollywood and McDonald's in this world. Otherwise we'd only have genre films; film would only be one thing.

How did you first become involved in cinema? What about the cinematic form was particularly appealing to you?

My childhood really was a golden age for movies, in the '60s and '70s there was no other entertainment, all we had was movies. My grandparents were such fans they had to watch one movie a day. They lived in a small city in Malaysia where there were seven or eight huge theatres. [My grandparents] would sell noodles on the side of the street, and take turns to see movies; sometimes I double-shifted and saw the movie with each of them. Later I had to go back to my hometown, because my father found out I was just watching movies everyday.

[In college] I chose theatre without really knowing what difference there was between theatre and film. After graduation, I did theatre, experimental theatre, TV, but never thought would turn into film director. I didn't know I would be here today.

Film really chose me, this type of film chose me. Unfortunately I don't have a swimming pool, my films are more abstruse. (laughs)

As your films use verbal dialogue sparingly, it puts an even greater emphasis is put on the relationship between your characters and the urban spaces of Taipei. What is the place of this dynamic in your films?

The themes I am dealing with are small, localized. They are all about my feelings and understanding of life. The urban space is only a background for me. I throw my character into a space and isolate them. That space could be very populated or very empty. I believe that humans are not different in nature whether they are in a crowd or on a toilet. Their isolation or sense of loneliness is for me an effective way of representing human nature.

I'm very careful with the quality of a setting, including its colors and sense of age, because the character is in a state of isolation. He has no chance to talk - therefore I often have to rely on the setting and the elements of the setting to convey these feelings in the viewer. I spend much of my time looking for sites. When I find a great site, it will alter my feelings. I will start to feel like the sites have their own characters.

Your body of work seems to question the status of the erotic in the modern city. The sense of alienation that inhabits your characters is frequently augmented by libidinal repression. Certain of your films - Vive L'Amour, The River, What Time is it There? - conclude with failed or distorted realizations of sexual desire. How do you view the role of the erotic in these works?

I want to express the failure of erotic desire to be realized in contemporary urban space. I would like to make my films about disappearing, like The Skywalk is Gone [2002] and Goodbye Dragon Inn. The whole theatre is disappearing in that film! This subject is important to me because society changes so fast and everything disappears so fast - historical sites, culture. One day I walked to the area where Lee Kang-Sheng was selling watches [in What Time is it There?], and I realized that 'the skywalk is gone.' It happens in Asia like that, things just disappear. People in their forties have no way of finding traces of their childhood. Modern people are afraid of disappearance. Living in Taipei, for example, we constantly have to deal with compelling visual change. We ask the question: what do you love the most? Who do you love the most? You will lose them - it will happen in modern society. My films ask the question: how we can face the disappearance? The loss?

Illness is a pervasive theme in your work, be it the mysterious sickness in The River or the apocalyptic disease in The Hole.. You also made My New Friends, a 1997 documentary about AIDS. What is the significance of this theme to you?

To answer, I need to return to the issue of the human body. The body of course has its interior as well as its exterior properties. I feel that the cause of sickness nowadays is people not exploring their internal realities. The reason why I decided to incorporate sickness into The River was because I witnessed this episode when Lee Kang-Sheng became sick. It lasted for nine months. That was the first time that I began to understand the relationship between human psychology and illness. I realized that he probably got sick because he wasn't able to adapt to the changes in his life, such as becoming involved in a filmmaking circle. I think it's true for everyone that we have a hard time confronting and recognizing the dark corners of the mind.

How do you approach writing your scripts? Do you provide much space for improvisation and spontaneity when shooting?

My scripts are very small. They're like poetry, only containing instructions on how to make my films. When I write my scripts, there is no dialogue for the actors, but I communicate a lot with them so that when they are in settings, they have an idea of how to communicate their characters. This style lets actors experience life and act in the film. My actors are not like Hollywood actors-they are not taught how to act or speak. My actors seem like real people. You don't think of them as performing. I always give the actors a lot of time within the shot. I wait and then they act naturally. This is the best technique.