I Don't Want to Sleep Alone - interview with Tsai Ming-liang

Paining with light


Tsai Ming-liang is one of the great contemporary filmmakers. Tony McKibbin meets him.

Like Béla Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-wai, Lars Von Trier and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Asian filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang has contributed in proving that if the great and justly remembered film culture of the 60s seemed centred on the major filmmaking nations of Europe, the arthouse masters of today can come from anywhere.

Ming-liang is actually Malaysian, born there in 1957, but at the age of twenty he moved to Taiwan, and though many of his films, noticeably Vive l’amour, The River and The Hole take place in Taipei, the important thing is less the city itself, than the urban aspect it exemplifies. What Time is it There? is partly set in Paris, and I Want to Sleep Alone in Kuala Lumpur.

On a cold day in Edinburgh he explains to me that in one of his favourite films -- Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre cent coups what he likes so much is 'that the central character communicates more with the city than with people.' The city is important, but the characters’ relationship with it is the thing.

This is because, he explains: 'I shoot a film not a story', and that the most important aspect 'is the attitude of looking.' He wants the viewer not just to relate to the characters, but 'I want the viewer to have a personal relationship with the objects in the film.' When asked about the mainly fixed frame he utilises, he modestly jokes, 'I like to be a painter. I like painting but I don’t have the talent to paint.' Nor even the inclination to storyboard, he insists. What interests him is ‘keeping a close look at the actor and location.'

Often working with the same actors -- most especially Lee Kang-sheng (Jean-Pierre Leaud to Ming-liang's Truffaut), Chen Shiang-chyi and the recently departed Lu Hsiao-ling -- he doesn’t so much cast them as utilise their life and observe their behaviour. 'After Rebels of the Neon God [1992], Lee had neck pain for nine months.' This proves central to the story in the later The River, where after playing a corpse in polluted water, Lee’s character can’t seem to get rid of a curious neck injury. 'Sometimes it is the life of the actor himself who inspires the film.' Though often Ming-liang simply observes the actors rather than retelling aspects of their lives: as he says 'when I usually say cut, the actors don’t stop. They like to find the situation in the film.' Where possible he tries to do as few takes as he can. But sometimes 'I am not sure if the actor is very natural -- so sometimes you do many shots.'

Not that Ming-liang is much of a realist. Sometimes his films are punctuated by musical interludes (The Hole, The Wayward Cloud) and he sees his films as open to interpretation and deliberately ambiguous. 'Movies shouldn’t be understandable’, he laughs 'like God -- films shouldn’t be readily comprehended.' They are, however, immensely meaningful, evident in the beautiful empathic conclusion of 1994's Vive l’amour and his new film I Don't Want To Sleep Alone. We may never know what this clearly insane filmmaker is banging on about but there is undeniably a warm-hearted spirit coursing through this remarkable filmmaker’s oeuvre.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 30-Thu 6 Dec. See Also Released.

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