INTERVIEW: Cities and Loneliness; Tsai Ming-Liang's "What Time Is It There?"
by Mark Peranson
(indieWIRE/ 01.22.02) — Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang meticulously films the despair of the psychologically blocked with a coy and careful drollness. His latest film “What Time Is It There?” is instantly recognizable: from the first six-minute shot onwards, Tsai presents characters wracked with alienated reticence. Melancholy is the strongest emotion in this film, and it’s usually expressed with wordless perversion.
Hsaio-kang (Lee Kang-sheng, the director’s alter ego) sells watches on the streets of Taipei. A few days after his father’s death, he is approached by a girl in her late 20s, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), who is heading off to Paris and wants a watch that keeps track of the time in both zones. Meanwhile, Hsiao-kang’s disconsolate mother becomes obsessed with the idea that her husband may be reincarnated, perhaps as a cockroach, perhaps as a fish named Fatty. Hsiao-kang longs for Shiang-chyi, and begins to change the clocks in Taipei to Paris time; as a tourist abroad who doesn’t speak the language, Shiang-chyi also experiences severe dislocation.
Absurdly precise in its compositions, “What Time Is It There?” bears all of Tsai’s familiar formal conceits: a static camera, extremely long takes, little dialogue and no music. Tsai creates a minimalist work that plays like a cross between Fassbinder, Bresson and Tati. Both Paris and Taipei, though, are unrecognizable stages for the theatre-trained director’s personal dramatics. In conversation, Tsai is prone to interjecting peals of laughter in the middle of what often are long and thoughtful responses. Still, there are a few areas he’s tired of talking about, like his professional relationship with the omnipresent Lee Kang-sheng. Tsai also seemed a bit tired when we spoke during the Vancouver International Film Festival last fall, which found the director nearing the tail end of a full month of promotion. His hard work might pay off, though, as “What Time Is It There?” should be his North American breakthrough. The film was released in New York by Wellspring Media on Jan. 11.
indieWIRE: First off, a simple question: Why did you make this film?
Tsai Ming-liang: There are so many things in life that we have to face, but the thing that especially concerned me was the passing away of my father in 1992. I’ve always felt that I had to do something about this, otherwise I couldn’t do anything else. Basically I had to have this movie done so I could move forward. After it was completed, I was relieved. I feel like I have achieved something.
iW: Why did it take so long to examine your father’s death?
Tsai: When my father passed away, I was scared to face it — I even said I would never make a movie about ghosts. But in 1997, Kang-sheng’s father passed away. We were very close to each other, and it felt like another father of mine had died. I started to think about death again. I could not pretend that it didn’t happen, so I decided to make this movie.
iW: Do you think this is a ghost story?
Tsai: Yes. Actually, my father’s ghost exists. We had a very smooth production process when we made the movie because we had the protection of my father’s ghost. It was like a charm. When we made the movie, especially during the scenes inside the apartment, if an actor did not really get it, I would call Kang-sheng’s father’s name, or say “Uncle, come out and help me.” Suddenly the actors would become very good. So I think that it is a real ghost story movie. But there aren’t only ghosts in the film. There are some other gods, like in the Chinese tradition, especially in Buddhism. I think Kang-sheng acted as well as he did because the spirit of his dead people helped him to perform.
iW: How do you feel that Buddhism has influenced the way that you make films? There is a calmness to this film in particular.
Tsai: Buddhism definitely has an influence on my movies. A few days ago a friend of mine’s mother watched the movie and told me that it was a movie about Buddhism. I believe that the real Buddhism is a religion about people seeking their own spirituality and wisdom from deep down inside, not from the outside world. Part of my movie is about this kind of spiritual issue.
iW: I heard that before you made “What Time Is It There?” you were considering making a film with a bigger budget.
Tsai: There is no such project! My previous movies were very low-budget, so when I wanted to make my next movie, I was talking of this one. There would be more money and better quality because of shooting in Paris, so I think that’s where the rumor comes from. The budget for this is about double the budget of “The River,” but it was still very tight We hired a better cameraman [Benoit Delhomme] and we had the film printed in Paris, which is more expensive than printing in Taiwan. There was also an improvement in the sound quality.
iW: Do you like Paris? Do you spent a lot of time there?
Tsai: I like Paris very much, but I don’t think I belong there. Before I made the film I rented an apartment in Paris and stayed there for a month. I thought that by moving to a new city full of strangers, I might feel more relaxed and discover a new self that I did not know before. But that didn’t happen. I think that has to do with the fact that I don’t speak French or English very well, and personality-wise I always carry myself on my own back. In Taipei, if I see a very crowded restaurant, I would never go in.
iW: In all of your films, Kang-sheng is isolated in Taipei. You were born in Malaysia, but now live in Taipei. Is it different being isolated as a national in Taipei, or being a foreigner in Paris? Or are they somewhat similar?
Tsai: Actually, I have no direct answer for that question, In real life, I do not enjoy the crowd, I like to be myself. Loneliness and isolation are part of human nature. Some people put a value or price tag on isolation , but others are very afraid of it –they have to get involved, go to a crowded place. But that does not mean that you aren’t isolated in a crowd. Thus, we have very pretentious human relationships, because people fear this social elements of isolation. I have to face isolation like I faced death. This is why in most of my movies you will find Kang-sheng isolated when he’s with another character, or in a scene by himself. I enjoy putting characters in environments where it seems like they have no relationships with others because I want to think about what kind of distance we should keep between each other. I also like to put people in situations where they do not have love, because I want to know how much love we need, and what kind of relationships we want.
iW: Many critics lump together contemporary Taipei filmmaking under the rubric of urban alienation, but you’re talking more about isolation as part of human nature. Is this is a shift with “What Time Is It There?”
Tsai: Yes, you’re right. In my first movie, “Rebels of the Neon God,” I put more emphasis on the relationship between humans and the environment. But since then, especially after “The River,” I’ve tried to blur the background. I have no interest in different cities or locations anymore. In “The River,” even though you can see the city of Taipei, it’s still just a place. In “What Time Is It There?,” the story takes place in Paris, but we cannot really tell it’s in Paris.
iW: Just to clarify, does “What Time Is It There?” express how you, yourself, feel about Paris and Taipei?
Tsai: It’s more about how I feel about the cities — it’s not just a backdrop, though these elements are there. It’s the same thing about Vancouver. I have been here a few times before, but I cannot remember anything, no landmarks or particular elements of beauty. My impression of the city is just the hotel in which I stayed.
iW: Do you feel the same way about New York?
Tsai: My first time in New York was last July, and I thought it was the most exciting city I had ever seen, with the high skyscrapers and the uncomfortable subway system. I was kind of attracted to that discomfort. And also the rough people, the people with attitude, it’s kind of exciting. But two months later I didn’t remember anything about New York, and after going there again for the New York Film Festival, I still feel that I don’t know anything about the city. I’m not sure why I feel that way right now, or whether there was a change after Sept. 11th.
iW: You have mentioned that your experience of traveling to film festivals influenced this film. You’ve also been quite negative about festivals.
Tsai: Yes, I find it very ridiculous for festivals to show hundreds of movies so people will rush from one movie to another so that they can see a beautiful face. It’s a like a buffet; there are so many choices, so you don’t enjoy every single dish. It’s a joyful process to make a movie, but to do the publicity and promotion is very painful. Some audiences have become slow and insensitive, which is why I am hesitant to go to different festivals. I remember that when Woody Allen won the Oscar for “Annie Hall,” he was not there to receive the award . He was playing a clarinet in a nightclub, I think that’s a very good attitude to have.
[Mark Peranson is the editor of Cinema Scope.]