The Malaysian-Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang appeared at the Leeds International Film Festival in November over a couple of days as part of an event organised by Leeds University Centre for World Cinemas and the Taipei Representative Office. On the first day he introduced a screening of his film The Wayward Cloud (2005) and on the next day he took part in a study morning at the university followed by an afternoon screening of his short film Madame Butterfly and a Q & A. Before the screening he was presented with the LIFF’s first Golden Owl Lifetime Achievement Award by the festival’s director Chris Fell.
Madame Butterfly is a 36 minute short film produced for the celebration of Puccini’s 150th anniversary in Lucca organised by the ‘Centro Studi Giacomo Puccini’. This French/Italian/Taiwan production was shot, in Malay, in Kuala Lumpur. I need to describe the short, but doing so doesn’t really offer spoilers since ‘narrative resolution’ in the conventional sense isn’t what this film is about. The scenario is very simple – a woman is seen in a Kuala Lumpur Bus Station, attempting to buy a ticket home. But she doesn’t have enough money left after paying a hotel bill that was bigger than she had budgeted for. Although the bus company are willing to accept her offer to pay slightly less, she attempts to phone her boyfriend who she blames for the size of the hotel bill. The whole film is presented in three long takes, shot by Tsai himself on a digital video format (he doesn’t tell us what format, but he implies that the camera was quite large). The first two takes cover the scenes in the bus station, ending with a close-up framing in which the woman finds a hair in the soft bread roll that she is eating. The third shot returns us to the hotel where the woman awoke earlier to find her lover already gone, leaving only a couple of hairs on the pillow.
I’m not familiar with the Madame Butterfly story, so I accepted Tsai’s explanation that his interpretation of the story is that it is about a woman waiting for her lover to return after they have parted. I’m not sure what I thought when I watched the film. I was fascinated by the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur’s bus station and this was effectively represented via Tsai’s camera which followed the woman as she moved through the crowds. As far as I could see, the camera was held quite low down which reminded me of the Ozu position of the child’s eye view (although of course Ozu didn’t move the camera to follow his characters in this way). I asked Tsai about this, but he denied that the camerawork was ‘designed’ in any way – he was simply trying to record what happened to the character. In the final scene, however, he told us that he waited with his actress all day in the bedroom, shooting her in bed asleep and waiting until the sun coming into the room provided the lighting that gave the image the mood or tone that he was looking for. Several critics have commented on this shot as depicting the ‘morning light’, but unless Tsai is playing with us, it must be the afternoon light.
The notion of a ‘playful’ director who tells us contradictory things about his work is something that accompanies many film ‘artists’. To sit in the wonderful surroundings of The Hyde Park Cinema in Leeds and to watch a short film and hear the director discuss his work is to experience a coherent art event. The audience, which was primarily composed of Chinese students in the stalls where I was sitting, had come to see the artist and were quite happy to listen to him for the best part of 45 mins before the Q & A proper. Tsai sees himself as an artist first rather than a filmmaker working in an industry. He isn’t worried by his relatively limited output. Now in his early 50s, Tsai has been involved in filmmaking for around twenty years in Taiwan and in that time he’s produced some twelve features and five short films or ‘segments’. That actually seems an impressive output to me but he stressed that he only works when he feels ‘creative’. (He also intimated that he felt old – God help the rest of us!).
There was surprisingly little discussion of the film as such and, as you might expect, Tsai didn’t wish to ‘explain’ it. It was clearly restricted in terms of budget and it should have used a song but the budget wouldn’t run to it. Thus one actor and the writer/director/camera operator comprised the crew. The sound is mostly ‘direct’.
Tsai was keen to promote his own status as an ‘artist’, claiming to be the only Asian film director to make ‘personal’ films and seeing the future as requiring arthouse cinemas to be more like galleries. He is clearly resigned to the death of ‘film as art’ for popular audiences suggesting that “audiences in Europe are changing – and not for the better”. The closure of traditional cinema palaces and the move to multiplexes in shopping malls means that “cinema is just another form of shopping”. (These ideas form the backdrop to Tsai’s 2003 feature Goodbye Dragon Inn, set in the last Taipei traditional cinema for its final screening – of King Hu’s 1961 classic film, Dragon Inn.) Tsai concluded that alongside galleries, universities were the only hope for future arthouse screenings. “Cinema must become culture”, he said. Perhaps we should get him into discussion with the new Culture Minister? It’s ironic that much as congratulations must go to Leeds University and the LIFF for bringing him over, elsewhere many UK university cinemas/film societies are increasingly showing mainstream films.
In the closing section, Tsai responded to the usual questions about influences, filmmakers he admires etc. In a follow-up to my Ozu question, he mentioned that Ann Hui had recently made a film that had the ‘atmosphere’ of Ozu. I think he was referring to The Way We Are (HK 2008). He confirmed his cinephilia by quoting Bazin on Chaplin and associated his decision to wait for the sun through the bedroom window in Madame Butterfly with a book written by “Kurosawa Akira’s assistant” called something like “Wait Until The Cloud Comes” – but I haven’t managed to find this title.
I had to dash for a bus so I missed the last few minutes, but it had been an entertaining afternoon and thanks must go to the Centre for World Cinemas and the LIFF and especially to the principal organiser Ming-Yeh Rawnsley who chaired the discussion and acted as translator.