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The Star eCentral: Movie Buzz

Tsai Ming-liang: Then and now

Posted: 08 Feb 2014 08:00 AM PST

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 world-renowned 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."


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