Farewell to Taiwanese cinema, but not to love

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

If Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang threw a dinner party, it’s easy to guess who would be invited. Tsai has staunchly and consistently worked with the same small cluster of actors from his 1992 debut film “Rebels of the Neon God” through to “Stray Dogs,” which will open in Tokyo on Sept. 6, under the Japan title “Picnic.” Some of these actors are closer to him than family.

Tsai is known as one of Asian cinema’s most enduring auteurs. He has a style that rejects conventional cinema logic while propounding a particularly stark aesthetic. In his homeland of Taiwan, Tsai’s reputation is that of a difficult and unapproachable artist. “Stray Dogs,” a Mandarin-language film released originally as “Jiao You,” opened in Taiwan earlier this year, but not before winning the grand jury prize at the Venice Film Festival.

“I didn’t think it would open at all. It’s not for everyone, but then, none of my films are,” Tsai tells The Japan Times on a trip to Tokyo.

Anyone who has followed Tsai’s work (nine feature films in all) will know that they seem to bleed into one another; you see the same faces again and again (Lee Kang-sheng, for example, stars in every film) in similar roles that connect and intertwine in a series of ambiguous relationships (even within families). Another thing you can count on with Tsai’s films: You’re likely to see extensive urination, eating and sex, though not necessarily at the same time — no guarantees there.

“I just love watching my characters be themselves,” says Tsai, after sauntering down the street to procure a bentō lunch with miso soup. He is dressed in a loose shirt, slacks and flip-flops and his leading actor, and romantic partner of more than 20 years, Lee (the same one who has starred in every Tsai film), is beside him in shorts and sneakers. They seem more comfortable together than many married couples and incredibly attuned to each other, if not bursting with love.

“At this point, I feel like ‘Hsiao Kang’ is my son,” says Tsai, referring to Lee’s nickname, which is also the name of the character Lee has played in Tsai’s films.

“I discovered his brilliant talent, and I watched him grow. He’s much more than a lover in that respect. All these years, I protected and nurtured him, and now that he has matured, it’s almost the other way around: I’ve gotten old and so has Lee, and now he’s more likely to protect me. He continues to be an enormous presence in my life,” says Tsai, who, at 56, is a decade older than Lee.

Not many Asian filmmakers — or men for that matter — are so frank, but then, Tsai has never been anything but brutally clear about his sexual inclinations and desires

“If anyone wants to know me or what turns me on, all they have to do is study Hsiao Kang. He is the defining factor behind my personality and all my films. He defies all rationale and explanation. He just is. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to make movies. I think I may even cease to exist.”

Tsai says all this simply as a matter of fact, without ardor. He happened upon Lee when the latter was working at a video-game arcade in Taiwan. He literally plucked Lee out of obscurity and stood him in front of a camera. “But I never groomed him into an actor. I didn’t have to — he’s a natural-born artist, who has no need to act. All he has to do is be himself and the movie is already there.”

Tsai says “Stray Dogs” will be his last film, and from this point on he’ll only make experimental short films (with Lee as the centerpiece). When I asked him why, he gives a broad smile.

“I can only describe it as destiny. I have reached the end of one journey and now I will start another, though I can’t say for sure what that is.”

It may be fitting that Tsai’s final feature film has Lee playing the role of a homeless man with two children; the once-lithe Asian lad is older and heavier now, and the youthful moodiness that characterized his earlier roles has soured into middle-aged moroseness. This is Lee’s last feature collaboration with Tsai, but just as the director says, Lee’s role has remained the same: seemingly devoid of emotion, aspiration, responsibilities and obligations. As Hsiao Kang, Lee wanders the streets of Taipei, urinates in empty lots or stuffs his face with discarded meals from a convenience store. His sole source of income is a job as a “human advertisement” — standing at an intersection holding a real estate sign for hours on end.

At night he leads his kids to a public bathroom, where they wash themselves over a filthy sink and change into pajamas. Later, the trio make their way into a building set for demolition, where Hsiao Kang has laid out a mattress and mosquito net. There’s no back story to tell us how or why they are in this predicament. The kids (played by Lee’s real-life niece and nephew) seem to long for financial stability or to go to school, at least, but their dad is indifferent to their needs and seems relatively OK with things as they are. But there are indications he’s unraveling: He drinks and smokes heavily, though he can hardly afford the expense.

” ‘Stray Dogs’ is less political than you may think,” says Tsai. “Yes, it deals with poverty in Taiwan, and maybe some viewers in Europe will see it as a reflection of their own troubled economies. But I didn’t make the movie with such grand intentions.”

What motivated Tsai to make the film was the sight of a group of people holding advertising boards in the pouring rain at a freeway intersection in Taiwan.

“I saw them and immediately I got to thinking that I wanted to see Hsiao Kang do that, and to see his face when he was doing it. That was the starting point,” says Tsai.

So does he think about women at all? “Of course,” he says with a laugh. “All my actresses are talented, educated, accomplished women who have their own lives and interests. I admire them very much. But they don’t need me at all. Hsiao Kang is different. His fate is completely linked to mine. We are together, all the time. I can’t imagine living my life any other way.”