My Art Director is Time - Interview with Tsai Ming Liang

in 50th Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival

by Élise Domenach

Tsai Ming Liang’s ”Stray Dogs” (Jiao you), that won the Grand Jury Prize  at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, won two prestigious awards at the Golden Horse Film Festival: the Taiwanese master was named Best Director, and the Best Actor award went to Lee Kang-sheng. No doubt the film was by far the best Taiwanese offering this year. And Tsai is at the height of his craft. On the morning after the award ceremony, he welcomed us in his café in Taipei, located in the former assembly hall of the Japanese colonial government.

”Stray Dogs” is your first film shot in Taipei since ”Goodbye Dragon Inn” in 2003. Why did you return to Taipei? And how did you choose the main location – an abandoned building left in ruins?

In fact, I have always directed films that are close to my life and to my city Taipei. So it was natural to shoot here. Three or four years ago I received an invitation from the public television in Taiwan, to shoot a film based on a screenplay about a father and his children. I envisioned Lee Kang-sheng for this part. So I decided to rewrite the story. I thought of this man I saw ten years ago in the streets of Taipei who was holding up an advertisement sign. It was not for housing, like in the movie, but for tour packages. But this image was still engraved in my memory years later. It gave me the idea for Hsiao Kang’s character.

The location is both a faithful mirror of Taipei’s economic depression and a powerfully imaginative place, full of mystery and artistic paintings. Did you change many things before you shot there?

The whole world is like this place: realistic and imaginative, if you look at it in the right way! I didn’t want to change bits of the place before shooting. I liked it very much as it was. Finding the right location for a story is very important for me. And this place was obviously right for me. In fact, my artistic director was quite mad at me, because I forbade him to even dust the place, or step on fallen leaves. I wanted everything to appear just as it was. He just worked on the lights and solved some technical problems, like water dropping.

It’s surprising because the walls look like abstract paintings, when the little girl tells a story about frogs looking for a king, for example…

That is because I observed the place. I am not interested in visualizing a script. I want to display a narrative in visual terms. So, the locations are like characters; they have things to say. I spend a lot of time observing it. My real art director is time. There are things that cannot be done artificially…

Where does this frogs story come from? Is it a traditional Taiwanese folk tale?

No. It was improvised by the little girl. That’s why shooting this kind of scene with children is very stressful. You never know what will happen. It’s really important who is co-starring with children actors. In this scene we had a great actress: Chen Shiang-chyi. I could just give some basic concepts to the actress, like ‘walls can cry’. As for the kids, the only thing I could do was relax them as much as possible.

There is a nice evolution between the three women characters in the film – the first woman abandons them, the last one cares for them. Would “poetics of care”  be a fair description of your cinema? The two sources for hope in your films are caring and contemplation. They seem to be the two ending notes, in ”Stray Dogs”. Do you think they prevail in life, and in this particular film?

I think the women characters in my films are strong and independent. They are the ones that make decisions. Women live longer and they are more caring. So, portraying women as the hopeful elements in life is natural to me.  But I think it’s also very important to measure what is the comfortable distance between people.

Edited by Yael Shuv