The sto­ry­teller

A timely doc­u­men­tary called Past Present gives the masses a unique glimpse into the life of Malaysian film­maker Tsai Ming-liang.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By AL­LAN KOAY star2@thes­tar.com.my

This is a true story, yet it could have come right out of a Tsai Ming-liang film. Univer­sity lec­turer and film­maker saw Tiong Guan made his first film, a short ti­tled G16 G17, back in 2007. Drip­ping with nos­tal­gia for the old cine­mas of yore, the film fit­tingly fea­tured some of the best known faces in the Malaysian film scene. Di­rec­tors Yas­min Ah­mad and ho Yuhang, and film his­to­rian has­san Muthalib were among those who ap­peared in G16 G17 sit­ting in an old cin­ema hall, their faces lit by the flick­er­ing light of the movie be­ing played be­fore them.

saw was not only pay­ing trib­ute to his par­ents, but here was the idea that the present is watch­ing the past, and the past still echoes in the present.

Just a few years be­fore that, in 2003, Tsai, the most in­ter­na­tion­ally cel­e­brated Malaysian film­maker, made Good­bye Dragon Inn, an equally nos­tal­gic, and haunt­ing, med­i­ta­tion on the death of cin­ema. Tsai had hap­pened upon an old cin­ema in the Yonghe dis­trict in Taipei that was about to be torn down, and took the op­por­tu­nity to shoot the film there.

Co­in­ci­den­tally, saw also shot his film in an aban­doned cin­ema back in his home­town of Raub, Pa­hang, be­fore it was de­mol­ished. it was the cin­ema he had fre­quented as a boy.

This real-life rhyming ef­fect cul­mi­nated in the meet­ing of the two film­mak­ers. in 2010, saw de­cided to make a doc­u­men­tary about Tsai, and three years later, the film, Past Present, pre­miered at the Bu­san in­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

“i met him in 2005 at the Asi­aPa­cific Film Fes­ti­val and i in­ter­viewed him in 2009 for my doctoral the­sis on film cen­sor­ship,” said saw.

“We kept in touch and af­ter i had de­cided to make the doc­u­men­tary, i phoned him and told him that i would like to film his mem­o­ries of his childhood. i ex­plained to him what i wanted to do and i re­mem­ber telling him that i am not go­ing to make a doc­u­men­tary about his films.”

There was one prob­lem – Tsai doesn’t like to be filmed. he had been the sub­ject of sev­eral doc­u­men­taries al­ready, yet that has never made it eas­ier for him to be in front of the cam­era. But saw per­sisted, call­ing him fre­quently to ex­plain his ideas.

“As time passed, he man­aged to per­suade me to agree as i feel that he is my friend and we are both Malaysian,” Tsai wrote in Chi­nese, in an e-mail in­ter­view from Tai­wan where he is still based to­day.

Past Present is the first Malaysian­made fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary on Tsai. Rather than a straight­for­ward bi­og­ra­phy of the di­rec­tor, the doc­u­men­tary ex­plores what makes Tsai the kind of film­maker that he is to­day. it re­traces the places of his childhood in Kuch­ing, sarawak, most im­por­tantly the cine­mas he used to haunt where he grew up on a steady diet of shaw Bros mar­tial arts movies and other clas­sics.

Dur­ing our 2003 in­ter­view, Tsai de­scribed his grow­ing-up years as “like a purely cin­e­matic time.”

“i grew up in a fam­ily that re­ally loved to watch films,” he had said.

The el­ders of his fam­ily were noo­dle-sell­ers, and he spent most of his time with his grand­par­ents who would take him to the cine­mas reg­u­larly. he never imag­ined that one day he would be­come a worl­drenowned film­maker.

Tsai is one of the fea­tured di­rec­tors in the book, Speak­ing In Im­ages, by Michael Berry that com­piles a se­ries of in­ter­views with con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese film­mak­ers. it was this book that in­spired saw to make Past Present. he was in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia in 2010 when he came across the book in a li­brary.

“i went to a nearby park and started read­ing the in­ter­view that Berry did with Tsai,” said saw, “and i fell in love with the part where he talked about his childhood ex­pe­ri­ence of go­ing to cine­mas twice ev­ery evening with his ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents.

“he was also elab­o­rat­ing on the 1960s, about the old stand-alone cine­mas, the names of those cine­mas and the films he watched back then. Read­ing this par­tic­u­lar part of the in­ter­view made me think of the sto­ries that my mother told me about those old cine­mas in my home­town with names like Odeon, Cathay and Ju­bilee.”

saw then be­came cu­ri­ous about why Tsai made the films he made, “to ex­plore the link be­tween his past and the films he makes in the present.”

“i of­ten con­tem­plate about how peo­ple turned out to be who they are, how the past af­fects some­one, in­clud­ing the en­vi­ron­ment one grew up in, the peo­ple, cul­ture and so­ci­ety one was sur­rounded by,” saw ex­plained.

he then pooled to­gether funds from lo­cal and for­eign in­vestors, and spent the next three years shoot­ing and putting the film to­gether, seek­ing out in­ter­views with other fa­mous di­rec­tors such as Ang Lee and Apichat­pong Weerasethakul.

The film pre­miered at the Bu­san in­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val last year to good re­sponse. it was also screened at the Taipei Golden horse Film Fes­ti­val. There are still other in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­val en­gage­ments com­ing up. it also screened at the re­cent Tropfest south­east Asia in Pe­nang.

Tsai re­called the mak­ing of the doc­u­men­tary, of re­trac­ing his past and meet­ing old friends and neigh­bours.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence was like go­ing into a tun­nel back to my past,” he wrote in his e-mail. “What i saw was cruel. The ‘scene’ and those fa­mil­iar build­ings were now old and di­lap­i­dated and some had even dis­ap­peared.

“The peo­ple that i know are old now, some have al­ready passed away. At one point, i turned to Tiong Guan and asked him, ‘Why bring me back here to de­stroy my mem­o­ries?’”

said saw: “i think (Tsai) is a pri­vate per­son but as the film­ing pro­gressed, he grad­u­ally opened up and be­came more com­fort­able with us.”

Tsai is clearly a crea­ture of nos­tal­gia, and he re­called a time when there were no com­put­ers, TVs, video games, re­frig­er­a­tors or even elec­tric fans, and chil­dren, in­clud­ing him, used to play in a field near his house.

“At night, i would go to the cin­ema to watch films,” he wrote. “My home­work was done by my grand­par­ents. Will there ever be bet­ter times than those?”

Un­for­tu­nately, Tsai has an­nounced his re­tire­ment from film­mak­ing. his last film, Stray Dogs, won the Grand Jury Prize in Venice and he picked up the Best Di­rec­tor award at the re­cent Golden horse cer­e­mony. in Venice, he was re­ported as say­ing, “i hope ( Stray Dogs) will be my last film.”

said Apichat­pong dur­ing his re­cent visit to KL: “(Tsai) was a big in­flu­ence on me and made me con­tinue mak­ing films. so it’s such a shock, and sad for me, when he said he would stop mak­ing films. Tsai makes you feel there is some­thing larger out­side of the frames of his films. This doc­u­men­tary is very im­por­tant.”

said saw: “As some­one who loves cin­ema, i feel sad. i share Apichat­pong’s sen­ti­ment that it will be a big loss if he stops mak­ing films. But as Tsai’s friend, i think it is not a bad thing if he re­tires, so that he can rest more, which is bet­ter for his health. i know how hard he works and mak­ing films is dif­fi­cult.”

Tsai says in the doc­u­men­tary that he orig­i­nally planned to make only 10 films in his en­tire ca­reer, and he has al­ready done so.

“At my age, there is noth­ing that is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant,’ wrote Tsai in his e-mail.

“There is noth­ing that i must do. i would love to ex­pe­ri­ence a life where there is noth­ing to do, not cre­at­ing any­thing. i am en­vi­ous of the trees in the jun­gle, they just stand there alive. i am also en­vi­ous of wild birds, in­no­cently fly­ing in the air.

“Ac­tu­ally, i don’t want to do any­thing. Life is short. i don’t want to spend it do­ing things and work­ing.”

Once upon a time: PastPre­sent, the doc­u­men­tary on film­maker Tsai Ming-liang, re­traces the places in Kuch­ing, Sarawak, where Tsai spent his for­ma­tive years, to find out what makes him the film­maker he is to­day.

Saw Tiong Guan (left), di­rec­tor of PastPre­sent, and the sub­ject of his film, Tsai Ming-liang, at the aban­doned Cathay cin­ema in Kuch­ing where Tsai grew up.

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