Tsai Ming Liang: Asian Filmmaker Of The Year

Malaysian­born di­rec­tor to cre­ate his­tory at the Pu­san In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By MICHAEL CHEANG cschuin@thes­tar.com.my

H IS films don’t make much money, are of­ten artis­tic, sober­ing and snail-paced re­flec­tions of the hu­man con­di­tion. And he didn’t even re­lease any film this year.

So why then is the Pu­san In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, ar­guably Asia’s premier an­nual film fes­ti­val, be­stow­ing upon Tsai Ming Liang its high­est award – the Asian Filmmaker Of The Year?

With the hon­our, the di­rec­tor will be the first per­son from Malaysia to re­ceive the pres­ti­gious award that was given out only by the fes­ti­val or­gan­is­ers since 2003. He will be join­ing the es­teemed com­pany of past re­cip­i­ents that in­cludes Iran’s Mohsen Makhmal­baf, Tai­wan’s Hou Hsiao Hsien and Ed­ward Yang, Hong Kong’s Andy Lau and Yash Cho­pra of In­dia.

“Maybe they thought my ap­proach (to film­mak­ing) was more unique! I have a very al­ter­na­tive ap­proach or school of thought to­wards film, and maybe that is what they like (about me),” said the noted au­teur dur­ing a re­cent phone in­ter­view from his adopted home in Tai­wan.

Ac­cord­ing to him, the Pu­san Film Fes­ti­val, which is into its 15th edi­tion when it opens to­day in the port city of South Korea, has al­ways been keep­ing an eye on the devel­op­ment of Asian film­mak­ers.

“Pu­san is prob­a­bly one of Asia’s biggest film fes­ti­vals, and has been pro­mot­ing Asian films very strongly these past years. Al­most ev­ery sin­gle film I have made has been screened there, start­ing with my first film Rebels Of The Neon God,” said the 53-year-old na­tive of Kuching.

“They also un­der­stand that the stand­ing of Asian films in world cin­ema is quite un­cer­tain, and that it is not easy for many young di­rec­tors to make it be­cause they have to con­tend with the re­cep­tion of the nor­mal mass au­di­ences.”

Tsai notes that ev­ery filmmaker has his or her own dif­fer­ent path.

“Most film­mak­ers these days have to strug­gle with mak­ing movies for mass au­di­ences and to make money. But I have al­ready gone past that sort of think­ing, so I don’t think about that any­more,” said the filmmaker, who used to hawk tick­ets to his movies on the streets out­side cine­mas in a bid to fill up the halls.

“I guess they (Pu­san Film Fes­ti­val or­gan­is­ers) saw my ap­proach as a way to pro­tect the sanc­tity of film, and to use an­other point of view to look at film – one that is not just about mar­ket­ing or to be like the Amer­i­cans, where ev­ery­thing I film has to ful­fil the tastes of the gen­eral au­di­ence,” he said with a chuckle.

Movie mav­er­ick

Tsai has al­ways been an out­cast of sorts when it comes to film­mak­ing. Apart from his 1992 de­but Rebels Of The Neon God, the di­rec­tor’s nine films in­clude Vive L’Amour (which won him the top Golden Lion tro­phy at the 1994 Venice Film Fes­ti­val), The River (1997), The Hole (1998), What Time Is It There? (2001), Good­bye, Dragon Inn (2003), The Way­ward Cloud (2005), I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (2006) and Face (2009).

Many of those works have won awards at ac­claimed film fes­ti­vals though the com­mon cin­ema­goer may strug­gle to name even one of his movies, let alone watch them.

His movies tend to be artis­tic, slow-paced, thought-pro­vok­ing af­fairs, a far cry from the ex­plo­sion-, spe­cial ef­fects-heavy Hollywood out­ings one sees in cine­mas these days.

Tsai views his role as a filmmaker as some­thing more than just en­ter­tain­ing peo­ple – he wants to give peo­ple an al­ter­na­tive to all the block­buster fluff in the cine­mas.

“I think movie­go­ers are get­ting shal­lower these days – they only go for big block­busters with big stars, or very un­o­rig­i­nal films. There is noth­ing spe­cial and noth­ing new for au­di­ences these days,” he lamented. “I tend to film only my own orig­i­nal ma­te­rial, which does not pan­der to gen­eral au­di­ences. This gives peo­ple an al­ter­na­tive, a chance to watch some­thing new that they have never seen be­fore.”

He also doesn’t mind if cin­ema own­ers don’t want to show his films in their halls. “My films don’t have to be shown in the cine­mas – I could travel all around Tai­wan show­ing the films in smaller venues. Peo­ple can still watch my films, and I re­tain my hon­our and re­spect as well as my cre­ative free­dom. I don’t have to com­pete with the Hollywood movies, and I’m not judged by the box of­fice,” he pro­fessed.

Mu­seum film

Well, the gen­eral moviego­ing crowd may not ap­pre­ci­ate his movies, but his cre­ativ­ity and artis­tic ap­proach to film has snagged him a new set of fans – those in the mod­ern art world.

He has had sev­eral mod­ern art in­stal­la­tion pieces acquired by the Taipei Fine Arts Mu­seum in Tai­wan, and other works to be dis­played in mu­se­ums in Ja­pan and China as well.

He was also com­mis­sioned by a mu­seum in Taipei to make a 23minute short film called It’s A Dream, which was shown at the mu­seum for six months. Com­pare this to an av­er­age movie that will prob­a­bly last about a month in the cine­mas be­fore be­ing re­placed by an­other film, and you can see why Tsai is lean­ing in­creas­ingly to­wards mu­se­ums as a much bet­ter av­enue to show­case his movies.

“One al­most never watches a nor­mal movie more than once. But some old clas­sic art films are still be­ing shown in mu­se­ums, and re­searched and stud­ied by schol­ars. No scholar would go and re­search a James Bond movie!” he said, adding that in a mu­seum, his movies are not sub­ject to the au­di­ences’ whims and fan­cies or box-of­fice re­sults.

“In a mu­seum, my film be­comes more eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble to au­di­ences who want an al­ter­na­tive. Most peo­ple would hes­i­tate to buy a ticket to a movie if they know it is an art film, and most cine­mas wouldn’t screen them. But when that film is in a mu­seum, any­one can come watch it any­time they want!”

His proud­est work so far, how­ever, is hav­ing his film Face com­mis­sioned by Paris’ famed the Lou­vre Mu­seum as part of its new se­ries, “The Lou­vre In­vites Film­mak­ers”.

“Hav­ing a film ac­cepted into the Lou­vre is a great hon­our for me. It makes me feel as though my orig­i­nal pro­duc­tions are be­ing ac­cepted, and not just be­cause of my box­of­fice re­turns. It’s as though my film has been ac­cepted and given the stamp of ap­proval,” he con­cluded.

Tsai will re­ceive his Asian Filmmaker Of The Year Award in Pu­san on Mon­day. This year’s fes­ti­val runs from Oct 7 to 15.

Au­teur ex­traor­di­naire: Tsai Ming Liang in the

hal­lowed halls of the Lou­vre, where his work has found ac­cep­tance.

Tsai’s of­fthe-wall movie, Face, show­cased at the Lou­vre, Paris.

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