The cinema of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang demands and rewards patience. His penchant for long static shots in his various feature and short films, where entire scenes unfold right before one’s eyes, don’t merely move at a glacial pace, they demand you slow down alongside them. Over the course of ten features and various short films, his collaboration with the actor Lee Kang-sheng has represented and reimagined their contemporary Taiwan as an erotically charged urban playground. Serving as the director’s muse, Lee Kang-sheng has consistently played variations of the same laconic character, Hsiao-kang, who’s been a young salesman lustfully longing for some connection in Vive L’amour (1994), a street vendor immediately smitten by a beguiling young woman in What Time Is It There? (2001) and even a porn actor in The Wayward Cloud (2005). Tsai Ming-liang’s interest in alienation and the way emotional closeness can elude us even as sexual intimacy is ripe for the taking makes his recent foray into virtual reality (VR) intriguing. The Deserted (2018), which premiered at the 74th Venice Film Festival, finds the filmmaker further engaging his audience, plopping them into a ghostly fifty-five-minute-long film where spirits haunt their surroundings, a mostly empty room in a ramshackle house that looks out onto a lush green exterior. At its centre is Lee Kang-sheng – his body, here more present than ever – who yet again serves as a sensuous beckoning to take in all that surrounds you.
Manuel Betancourt: I wanted to start by talking about bodies. It strikes me that your filmography is a study in the limits and beauty of the body – both in motion and at rest. Whether a still shot or someone walking across a hallway into a porn shoot, the body is central to your filmography. What do you hope to capture about the human body in your work?
Tsai Ming-liang: I really like to film bodies. And I really like to film people’s faces. I think film was invented for this type of gaze, for letting us look closely at bodies and faces. Especially close-ups. That’s what they’re for, really. Take, for example, my film The River (1997). In that film you can see Miao Tien, who plays the older man, the father of Hsiao-kang, Lee Kang-sheng’s character. Miao Tien is an actor who got his start and cut his teeth doing martial arts films. That’s what he did for most of his early career. In those roles he was never asked to undress. That’s just not something you see in those kinds of films – not when you’re the hero of a martial arts flick. But I asked him to do so in The River towards the end of that film, in the scene at the bathhouse. I asked him, for that scene, specifically, if he’d be willing to undress so that we could see his naked body. He’d never done that before. But he did it for me, for the film. And that was very brave, in a way. Because there are a lot of choices when it comes to what kind of people we see on the big screen. Some bodies are put up there for us to be seduced by them. They are shot and positioned to encourage such a seduction. And we are seduced. However, the first time I saw something that was different, in a way, was when I caught an American film directed by Roman Polanski. I don’t know what it’s called in English. In Chinese, its title is The Story of the Lost Child. Do you know this film?
Manuel: I don’t know. Let me look it up.
Tsai: That is the first film where I saw the image of an old man and an old woman’s naked body. They were presented, though, with no semblance of seduction. They were both completely undressed. And you never see this! Do you know which film I’m talking about?
Manuel: Could it be Rosemary’s Baby?
Tsai: Yes. That’s it.
Manuel: I definitely know now which scene you’re talking about. It does really offer a very different kind of nakedness.
Tsai: In all my films you can see Lee Kang-sheng. And in the third film we did together, The River, it’s all about Hsiao-kang’s illness. Or rather, it’s all about Lee Kang-sheng’s illness. Because the film is based on real life. By the time we’d finished shooting our first film, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), Lee Kang-sheng was already experiencing some symptoms that gave way to a more serious illness. His neck was aching, for example, and it couldn’t be helped. I took him to various doctors over a period of ten months. That’s how long it took him to feel better! So when we shot The River I asked him to revisit that ache, those pains. What you see in the film is a kind of overlap between what happened in real life and what happens on screen. And that’s something you can trace through my other films as well.
Manuel: You mention you were drawn to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby by the way it confronted you with images of naked bodies we’re not used to seeing on the big screen. And, especially, in ways we’re not accustomed to seeing – even these many decades later. The aim, as you note, is never to (just) seduce or titillate. It strikes me that this is precisely what your filmmaking accomplishes. These long, slow takes that are all over your work encourage a kind of voyeurism – and voyeurism indeed shows up in your work too – but it never stops there. What do you think audiences take away from you privileging that kind of voyeuristic sensibility?
Tsai: I’m suddenly reminded of a memory of when I was very young. I was in primary school back in the 1960s. I grew up in Malaysia, where I lived in a small town. At that time, Malaysia was extremely conservative but also, curiously, quite liberal and open in many ways. I remember that they used to show these sex films in movie theatres. Children, of course, were not allowed to see these films, you know, there was an age restriction. But I remember one time, going to the cinema and well, back then theatres didn’t have air conditioners. All they had were these ceiling fans to get air circulating through the screening. And to help that, they didn’t close the doors. There was only a kind of cloth, a curtain or sorts, to make sure the theatre remained in darkness. So I remember once being right outside, hiding and seeing, because the curtain kept flapping due to the fan. Suddenly, a woman’s breast! I could see the curtain lifting and revealing this breast. This was a Japanese porn picture. It was the first time I’d ever seen a woman’s breast; I was extremely excited. That’s when I realised that this was the only place in cinema were we get to see people naked. Because generally we always wear clothes! We don’t take them off. In film, when people take them off, it’s used as an effect. To sell tickets. It is meant as entertainment. So, to go back to The River, I remember that when Miao Tien read the script, he made a point of asking about that scene where he was going to be naked. Not just naked but there’d be a sex scene. When he read that, he immediately asked me, ‘How are you going to film this?’ As I said, coming from a martial arts background, he’d gotten used to shooting things in a way that allows a lot of edits and cuts. But he also knew about my own kind of filmmaking, which are these long takes you’re talking about. And it’s not just that they’re long takes, they’re also usually done in one take, too. He said, ‘You need to tell me how you’re going to film this.’ Only, I didn’t know. So I told him I’d tell him when we were on location. But I’ll tell you, for me that scene is not about sex. I didn’t film it so that I could have two gay men having sex in order to attract a gay audience. It wasn’t anything like that. The scene is there because that film is about lust.
It’s about the darker side of lust. Not about showing beautiful bodies. On location I decided that the scene would have to be fairly slow, to keep it more authentic. In that sense the purpose of the scene is different.
Manuel: It’s true. They usually last so long that whatever titillation there is at the beginning is gone at the end. You exhaust that to get us somewhere else. I wanted to return to this idea of borrowing from real life and feeding it to your films, in particular when it comes to your relationship with Lee Kang-sheng. Since you’ve been working together for so long, I wanted to hear you talk about aging and how his changing body (even your own aging body) over the years has informed and inspired your work.
Tsai: Well, my body doesn’t come into this! There’s no desire in me to undress on the big screen! [Laughter] To me, Lee Kang-sheng has and always had a beautiful body. But his type of beauty is not classical. He’s not the typical film actor. His is a more natural beauty. Now that he’s older, though, it is a bit easier for him to gain some weight. He’s prone to becoming slightly fat, actually. Generally, I don’t mind if he does so when we’re not shooting. So I notice that he eats a lot when we’re not working on a project. But when I want to film him, for example in The Wayward Cloud, it’s important that he’s not too fat. That he be fit. Or when he shot Help Me Eros (2007), a film he directed himself, it was key that he slim down. Like when I made Visage (2009) for the Louvre. That was a film that had everything to do with Lee Kang-sheng’s face. For me, it was important to see the contours of his face, for them to be quite sharp, in fact. But aging? That doesn’t matter. We’re all growing older. Other directors may say, ‘Oh you’re getting old, I’m going to find a new actor because you’re no longer beautiful.’ Not me. I still want to continue working with him. Actually, though, something did change, my approach to Lee Kang-sheng shifted a bit when we did Stray Dogs (2013). That’s when I realised that he could use his age in order to embody the role better.
For that film, then, I made no requirements in terms of anything. No demands. That was a juncture for us when we got to that film. We realised that there were many other things that he could show. From that point onwards, my attitude became more relaxed. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the series of short films I’ve made with Lee Kang-sheng.
Manuel: The Walker series? The ones where he’s a slow-walking monk making his way through different urban spaces?
Tsai: Yes. I started making those around 2012. As we were making those shorts, Lee Kang-sheng’s illness returned. Some were shot while he was still recovering from it. His life was controlled by his illness, governed by it. For me, that actually became part of my method of filming. I had to recognise that he was ill. And he wasn’t just performing in my film but he was also in a stage play. All while trying to manage this ailment. Our bodies are not ours to control. So I decided to go along with it – not to try and control his body anymore. When I filmed those shorts, there would just be one take. I wouldn’t reject anything while I was shooting. When I was editing, I could determine what I could use. Because I couldn’t very well ask Lee Kang-sheng to do it again. It would have been too much. He wouldn’t have been able to do it. The Deserted, actually, is also related, in a way, to the relapse of his illness.
Manuel: One of the things I notice when I watch your films – and this may be purely my own personal experience – is that I’m pushed to think of my embodied presence. There’s a meditative quality to your films that pushes me inward as I get lost in your worlds. How does that inform a project like The Deserted, which, given its VR nature, quite literally involves and engages an audience member’s own embodied presence?
Tsai: We’re actually not, as an audience, in the film. Not quite. Actually, when you’re watching this, you’re in my position as a director. As a director, I’m like a spectral presence, a ghost. Shooting a VR film, you don’t have access to a monitor, like you would on a regular camera where you could see what you’re doing. I would stay close to the camera and watch the acting. I was in the room when the VR was shot. Afterwards, I was cut out of the scene by a computer; they would erase me from the scene! I was disappeared, in a way. My presence is like a ghost in the film. But the audience is also inside this VR watching and sharing my line of vision – almost like a ghost too. Except the audience has more freedom. They can look at things that I didn’t care to look at, at the time. They can look left, right, up, down. But it’s determined by my vision. The audience is there but their body isn’t. It’s like a disembodied presence.
Manuel: In that sense, it feels like it truly belongs with the rest of your work. There’s always that tension between presence and absence. In VR, there’s a feeling of being there-but-not-there. It sounds like you’ve capitalised on that for this new project. Was that the most challenging aspect of reshaping a story for a VR setting?
Tsai: Well, when I first started to work on the VR films, one of my initial concerns was that I would have to deal with the expectations of the audience. How would they look at things? How would they observe things? Why would they observe things that I wanted them to look at? Why would they want to look in a certain direction? As an audience member, you’re dropped into this environment. When you’re watching a traditional film, you are in front of a screen. I know what you’re going to look at. When you’re dropped into this environment where you’ve been given a certain freedom, you become adrift as an audience member. You feel like, since you can turn around and have a 360 degree-view, there are all sorts of things to see. For me, that was also the reason why VR is very annoying. That experience reminds me of the Diamond Sutra in Buddhism. One of the many topics that are discussed there is that Bodhisattva asks the Buddha, How can my heart gain rest? How can I attain tranquility? What do I have to do to get to that point? For me, that is also something I wanted to address in this VR. When you’re dropped [into the space], immediately, you’re very restless. I asked myself, What can I do as a filmmaker to make you lose that anxiety? To get you to calm down? The easiest way to do this was to place myself against a wall. When you turn your head, then, you’ll find a wall blocking your view. There is literally nothing behind you to see. It was very easy.
When you’re inside a VR, your body – you suddenly become hyper-aware of your body!… All these things have to do with your increased sense of embodiment.
Manuel: You created a fourth wall, literally!
Tsai: Yes. I think that’s one of the problems that we have to solve when it comes to VR. Why do we have 360 degrees of freedom? I think it is a psychological issue. It has to do with the fact that when you’re inside of a VR, you’re more aware of your body. When you’re watching a regular movie, all that matters are your eyes. They’re all you use. The rest of your body doesn’t matter at that point. But when you’re inside a VR, your body – you suddenly become hyper-aware of your body! You perceive things like cold, the wind, the rain, the smell. All these things have to do with your increased sense of embodiment. This is something that is quite unique to VR. It makes you experience the film. Actually, what is really interesting about VR is that, before I made The Deserted, various VR companies had asked me to create a VR. I kept wondering, What is it about my films that makes people think I should do a VR? After a while, I realised that it’s because in my films there are all these long takes. These long takes make you, as a viewer, reflect. They make you retreat into yourself. I make you think. There’s an immersive quality to them. You’re very much aware of your own existence. I thought, well, maybe that’s one of the reasons. It also has to do with the fact that in VR it’s hard to use short takes. You cannot fully realise a VR film with lots of short takes. It doesn’t work that way. It has to do with time.
Manuel: VR projects force you to relinquish control. You create them but ultimately it is up to the person experiencing it to carry it through. From what I gather, that kind of loss of control strikes you as quite unsettling. But in another way you often relinquish control in your work when you put it out in the world. You have no control over how it’s received. You talked a bit about how making The River wasn’t about having two gay men having sex, though the film has obviously been framed in different ways in the United States and Europe. I’m curious what you make of those instances, when your films end up resonating in different ways once they travel the globe, especially when it comes to the erotic specificity that you nurture in your work.
Tsai: I don’t actually mind. The reception of my films is very different. I don’t need to control that. What is important to me is that people don’t have to understand my films. They don’t have to like my films. What is most important is that my films are not there to entertain. They’re not mainstream entertainment. I understand that different audiences will have different feelings and impressions of my films. It doesn’t matter. That’s fine by me. Just speaking of Taiwan in particular, I just want people to watch my films, in order for them to see that this type of film actually exists. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve pushed my work to be found in museums. I think that when children are exposed to different types of films and art in museums, maybe that’ll make them be less biased than children who have only been exposed to things like mainstream cinema and what they’ve watched on television. Maybe that’ll encourage some of them to become people who are interested in different, newer, freer ideas. What is important to me is that they’re not commercial. They have nothing to do with the market. It’s completely normal that people might not understand them. That’s fine. What makes me happy is that I hope to continue making the films I want to make. And to continue filming Lee Kang-sheng. That is my freedom.