Tsai Ming Liang: Asian Filmmaker Of The Year
Malaysianborn director to create history at the Pusan International Film Festival.
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.
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.
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.