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Tsai Ming-Liang: What Is Cinema?

Tsai Ming-Liang at Asia Society New York on Nov. 15, 2009. (Barbara Nelson)

Tsai Ming-Liang at Asia Society New York on Nov. 15, 2009. (Barbara Nelson)

NEW YORK, November 15, 2009 - Internationally-acclaimed Taiwan-based film director Tsai Ming-Liang appeared in-person at Asia Society, New York for his film retrospective Faces of Tsai-Ming Liang (November 13-21, 2009), accompanied by actor Lee Kang-Sheng, who has appeared in every single Tsai film. An uncompromising film artist who has a unique vision on his words, images, and sounds, Tsai started his on-stage discussion with the series curator, La Frances Hui, Senior Program Officer of Cultural Programs, Asia Society, with a 45-minute monologue that reflected on the meaning of cinema. Situating his cinematic art in the history of Taiwan cinema, the director meditated on the changes in the film industry, audience reception, and a film distribution system that fails to cultivate an art film audience. The following is a transcript of the director's talk.


Tsai Ming-Liang: The first time I felt a turning point in my work was when Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) came out. That film entered competition at Venice Film Festival. It didn't receive an award but the journalists and film critics who went to Venice to interview me all strangely asked the same question: "What is cinema?" I get excited when people ask me what cinema is. Before that, nobody ever asked me that question, as if we didn't need to discuss it.

The film was later shown in Taipei. For a long time, the Taipei society was puzzled why a film like that could exist. A critic for the Golden Horse film award said that this kind of film damaged the film market, that it'd better be nonexistent.  

When Goodbye, Dragon Inn was screened, I met the audience after one screening. A young person raised his hand and stood up. He said, "Director, I am 18 years old. I have never watched any Taiwan films. I only watch American films. This is the first time I watch a Taiwan film, and it is because you sold me a ticket on the street." He said he couldn't tell immediately whether he liked the film. But he felt very different after watching it. He said, "I saw color. I heard sound." I thought how the young person felt was very meaningful.

To put it simply, after making films for so many years, I care about one thing. In addition to expressing an idea, there's one thing I care about a lot, which is the question: "What is cinema?" I care more and more about my artistic medium and what I am doing with it.

The distance between my films and the market, and why people can't accept my films is because my films are not narrative-based. Also, my films are slow. There's the same male lead. There's no music, no dialogue, no performance.

I look back at my own viewing experience. I grew up in the '60s in Malaysia going to big movie theaters with over 1000 seats—the golden age of movie-going. It was basic entertainment to go to the cinema. I saw many varieties of films in Malaysia—from Hollywood, Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland Chinese, Southeast Asian, Indian, to local Malaysian films. When I went to college in Taiwan at the age of 20, the films available in Taiwan were similar with some differences. There weren't any left-wing films from Hong Kong and mainland China, but there were Hollywood films, other Hong Kong films, and local Taiwan films. One principle was the same: they were all popular films. They were for entertainment.

When I was in college, my big discovery was the film archive in Taiwan. They began to have international film festivals. And then martial law was lifted. The social norm changed and there were lots of pirated videos coming into Taiwan. When I was in Malaysia, most audiences didn't know about European art films. Neither did they know about Japanese art films and American independent films. When I was in college, I started watching French New Wave, German New Cinema, older Japanese films, and Shanghai films from the '30s. I started to form a new idea of film.

I started to understand cinema as a creative expression back then. There's a director behind a film, an idea developed by André Bazin, the auteur theory, in the '50s. A film is created by an auteur. In Europe, there were commercial films and art films. But in Asia, with the exception of Japan, this distinction didn't exist.

Next: "In Taiwan, art films never existed."