It’s eight o’clock in the evening and Tsai Ming-liang is walking down the lanes of Sonagachi in Kolkata. Business is slowly stirring, women are emerging out of cavernous doorways, snack vendors are re-frying afternoon’s pakodas. Ming-liang walks past them all and stands in front of an old noticeboard where peeled film posters and damp patches form a collage of shapes and textures. “It’s a face,” he says. Standing in Asia’s second largest red-light district, surrounded by all the markers of urban despair that is quintessential to his oeuvre, the Malaysia-born, Taiwan-based auteur revered by art-house film lovers across the world, is distracted by a face on the wall. “I don’t know if I will set a film here. But I like the energy of the place,” says Ming-liang.
Ming-liang, 57, is in India to attend the Kolkata International Film Festival (recently concluded), where a retrospective of his best-known works was held. For six days, hundreds of cinema lovers in the city lined up in front of the Nandan complex to watch his films that present a harrowing, austere, poignant and yet, humorous examination of urban ennui. “I was happy to see so many people turn up for the screenings. I was also happy to see so many people of the older generation there,” says Ming-liang. A few hours before his tour of Sonagachi, he was advised not to visit the red-light area by the festival authorities. “He didn’t argue but he silently made it very clear that he will do whatever he pleases,” says Tami Xu Qian Chun, his translator. Ming-liang maintains a zen-like calm about this issue, as well as over the technical glitches that marred the screening of his latest film, Journey to the West, where a few minutes of the eight-minute opening shot was fast-forwarded, resulting in temporary outrage in the hall.
Released this summer, Journey to the West is also Ming-liang’s most philosophical work till date. The film is a montage of 14 shots of a Buddhist monk, played by Lee Kang-sheng, moving very slowly through the streets of sunny Marseille. “For the monk, who is walking at a snail’s pace, time means one thing. For the rest of the world, it means something else. I am deeply influenced by Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang), who embarked on a legendary pilgrimage along the Silk Route to India, from where he brought Buddhist teachings back to China,” says Ming-liang, who finds it difficult to identify himself just as a Taiwanese filmmaker.
After spending the first 20 years of his life in Kuching, Malaysia, he moved to Taipei, Taiwan, in the 1970s. In his interviews, Ming-liang has constantly referred to a certain sense of unbelonging that allows him to offer his audience an intimate study of his characters, their internal conflicts and the way they negotiate space and time in their lives. “How do I show my nationality? My stories are stories of people around the world. Quite a few of them are set in France. In true Buddhist fashion, I would say I want my films to be like the moon, a beautiful flower, a gurgling stream. I want them to be there without any particular context. I want them to be seen and experienced,” he says.
Last year, Ming-liang won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival for Stray Dogs. The film, a disturbing tale about a homeless family living on the desperately mean streets of Taipei, had the same haunting stillness that brought him to the forefront of world cinema with films like 2001’s What Time is it There? (about a mother and son coming to terms with the death of their father juxtaposed with a Taiwanese girl’s visit to Paris), 2005’s The Wayward Cloud (a dark and dystopic film set in a future Taiwan which is facing acute water shortage and the government encourages people to drink watermelon juice) and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (the 2006 film was initially banned in Malaysia because it depicted the condition of migrant labourers in the country poorly). In these films, Ming-liang told stories of urban isolation by letting his characters just be in their immediate settings — he also made a political decision to convey the message of hope at the end. “People feel that being alone is a bad thing, that it means you will rot if you don’t reach out. I feel that being alone gives you the luxury of hearing yourself,” says Ming-liang.
But the Hollywood-saturated Taiwanese film industry has repeatedly let Ming-liang down. In the 1990s, when directors like Ang Lee and Ming-liang were spearheading the Second New Wave of Taiwanese cinema and earning laurels around the world, their films were running to virtually empty halls at home. However, unlike Lee, who went on to embrace Hollywood and make blockbusters such as Hulk and Life of Pi, Ming-liang remained decidedly art-house. “When I made my earlier films I personally sold tickets on the streets. I would sell about a thousand tickets and go back to a theatre. It was only then that they allotted a slot for my film. In the past 20 years, I have tried to widen the horizon of the audience, make them aware of different styles of expression,” he says.
It’s easy to understand why Ming-liang has such a troubled relationship with mainstream cinema audiences in Taiwan. Often, his films are a series of beautifully composed, arresting scenes with no discernible connection. Instead of background music, Ming-liang relies on urban sounds for his soundtrack — the constant rumble of traffic, the chirping of birds, clanking utensils. At times, the camera lingers long after the characters move out of the frame, staring resolutely into emptiness. “My films try to tell the audience the reality of being at a certain place at a certain time. I am not concerned with a definite story,” he says. Yet, it would be foolhardy not to recognise the storyteller in Ming-liang. His 2003 film, Goodbye Dragon Inn, which takes place in the 90 minutes of the last feature at an old Taipei cinema that is closing down, ties four different stories to their logical conclusion in that exact time. “I made Goodbye Dragon Inn as a tribute to all the standalone theatres that are closing around the world with the advent of multiplexes. I wanted to tell the stories of these grand cinema houses that saw generations of movie goers and their stories,” says Ming-liang.
He completes his tour of Sonagachi with a hermit-like detachment, absorbing the sights without betraying any emotion. “I am directing a set of ‘walking’ films, Journey to the West was the first of the series. I hope to set a film in India. Since Hiuen Tsang travelled to this country, I want to film it here. I find it fascinating to see so many people on the roads here, they seem to be in a rush to go nowhere in particular,” he says.