Art of Andrew C.C. Huang
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
"In the Mood for Love"
Painting by Andrew C.C. Huang
Poem by Andrew C.C. Huang
When our path cross again, so unexpectedly the other day,
On that tattered street where everyone else bizarrely moved on with their lives,
A torrent of tempest washed over the sky and a tremor swept across the earth within one glance of your eyes
You asked me, why did I not stay?
Why did I not choose to share life with you?
I hesitated for a while before replying,
That hesitation lasted for an eternity
In which an old world was reopened by a chance encounter
And an old wound torn open by a question
Once we had promised eternity to each other
When you drowned in the lake of melancholia
I had rescued you with the pledge of eternal love
Once when the world seemed full of threatening tempest
We bravely shut out the menacing forces
To seek warmth in the sanctuary of our love
Once we had scorned at those ordinary beings
Who do not know what love is
How lucky we felt, that we had truly and deeply
surrendered ourselves to each other
Our scorn on the ordinary invited god’s punishment
For fate forbids the arrogance of our sacred exclusiveness of love
And we learned in such painful way,
That our eternal love could be so easily broken by the fleeting frets of the mundane world
Still, our pledge is never undone –
I continue to hear the echo of your giggle in every innocent laughters
And you continue to wonder why I had not chosen to share my life with you
But I did choose to be with you,
Only that my will could not combat against the force of fate
So when you asked me, so very casually, in that afternoon on the street
Why had I not stayed with you
Another eternity passed yet again in a few seconds
And all I could muster up to say was,
"The Esthetic of Sadness"
Painting and poem by Andrew C.C. Huang
The Esthetic of Sadness
Sad -- but not lonely
The evening breeze and the remnants of dusak rouge would keep me company
Even my downward eyelashes still have the elegance of butterflies
My beloved has gone But I still learn to maintain my dignity
Even if sad, I will continue to be beautiful
"The Esthetic of Sadness" final version
Painting by Andrew C.C. Huang
Monday, January 23, 2006
Painting by Andrew C.C. Huang
"You Are Right After All"
Poem by Andrew C.C. Huang
When I encountered your beloved one
And smiling politely and chat to him
I finally realized that you were right after all
He is the one for you --- and I am not.
How many sleepless nights I have spent wondering about your intention and calculation
Teasing me with your sunflower smiles and alienating me with you tantrums
I walked on the tight rope of suspense for six months for you
Only to find out a story with no ending
Now that fate has led our paths to cross again
After I have almost forgotten about you
And I found out in the most astonishing surprise
That you have loved me after all
You are right after all
Should you have stayed with me, you would only have lived in unfulfillness
He is the one for you – who will bring you happiness
Should you have stayed with me, you would have strayed into a difficult path
Too painful for what you are born for
When I see your beloved one
And realized that I have stood in your way to your path of happiness
My heart aches so, because I have loved you so much
And then I realized that your sunflower smiles were never fated for me
You are right after all
When you taught me the difference between“tantamount”and“paramount”
Tantamount is your passion to your beloved one
Paramount is the love I have place on you even if you have returned passion unapproved
Now that fate will bring our paths apart again
And I finally realize that you are right after all
Only after a heartache so strong will I grow stronger and more mature
To go on with my path to look for another sunflower smile
You are right after all
Only afte my heart is bruised so heavily
Will I realize that
If I love someone, I have to set her free and wish her happiness
That night at the beach when sea waves splashed onto us
when our tears become undistinguishable from the wave droplets
I realized in agony that our forbidden love would never come through
for we come from two different worlds that would never connect
You are right after all
I wish you all the joy and happiness
I am not the one for you
But I want you to fly across the vast sea of hurdles and shackles
to find your beloved and happiness
Painting by Andrew C.C. Huang
Poem by Andrew C.C. Huang
(Originally printed in Chien Kuan Poetry Quarterly)
Insomnia -- sleepless night
after tossing back and forth in bed
I get up to face this dreadful space and time
...throbbing thoughts in an expanding space
I start to face myself
my thoughts is a mirror that shines a light into my soul
reflection is the surface of the blue lake
throught which I dive into the water of my inner life
anger, love, lust, regret, frustration...
I swim amidst the currents of emotions that are my inner life
I swim along, contemplating on
why I have lost the loves of my life
whether it's through god's design
or by the choice of you and mine
for a night full of crowding darkness and shimmering thoughts
always make me reminisce about the loves of my life
Noise of TV... clamour of passing cars... loneliness
loneliness amidst noise is the most dreadful thing
I start to speak to myself
-- a conversation with my tightly controlled naked soul –
who are you? why are you here?
why were you loved, liked, despised or hated?
will your loves come back and will your foes leave?
I start to converse with my past loves
where have you gone to?
are you in heaven?
Or are you in your next life?
will you come back to me again?
I start to question god
why all these sadness and despair in life
for what godly purpose are these for
Insomnia...slowly fading away
sleepiness slowly creep up upon me
I look at the timid dawning lights and crawl into bed
to continue my conversation in another sleepless night
憤怒 愛慕 欲望 懊悔 失意
電視的吵聲 車輛的喧嘩 寂寞
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Painting by Andrew C.C. Huang
"The Religion of beauty"
Poem by Andrew C.C. Huang
The religion of beauty is so all-powerful
that we are all once its disciples
beauty is deceiving --
in that it deceives the beholders into believing that
beauty equates virtue
no matter how many times you have fallen
into the trap of this deadly but lovely deception
but oh who can forget the soul-elevating electric wattage
one feels when beauty's glimmer of a smile
shines upon one's ordinary face
beauty is rarely innocent
for its owners are always aware of its power
but they have slowly mastered the craft
of radiating beauty whilst feigning innocence
because the combination of beauty and innocence
is the most powerful elixir
that is capable of leaving everyone enchanted and inebriated
sending them up the mountain and down into the sea
for the sake of protecting this preciously innocent beauty
beauty's traitors are rarely self-willed
they often abandon this powerful religion
when their hearts have been hurt by the
cunny calculation behind a beauty's smile
but when beauty's glow comes around and shines on them again
they come back -- faithful defenders of beauty as ever
"Between Time and Thought"
Painting by Andrew C.C. Huang
(Originally printed in Chien Quan Poetry Quaterly)
Between Thought and Time
The tug of war between thought and time
Time is an all-powerful god
youth to ebb, cheek blush to fade, and intelligence to weaken
Our thoughts always crave for beauty and eternity
The river of time continues to flow
Watches and clocks dancing in the sky
Constantly reminding us how trivial and transient our existence are
Luckily there is that candle light in front of the window of eternity
Memory -- it always records your beauty and laughters we once share
Memory will always be there, before and after death, until eternity
年華老去 紅顏退色 智力衰退
記憶永遠存在 死亡之前或之後 直到永遠
Monday, January 16, 2006
Tim yip vs. 8 masters
Working with Tsui Hark, Wayne Wang, Stanley Kwan, Clara Law, Tsai Ming-liang, Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige
2005-03-11 / Taiwan News, Contributing Writer / By Andrew Huang
The name Tim Yip probably needs no introduction for any movie buff for he is the world famous Oscar winner for Ang Lee's kungfu masterpiece "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." However, the amazing depth and range of Yip's talent is well worth exploring for any art lover.
After winning that history-making Academy Award for best costume design in 2000 for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Yip has moved on and continues to expand his range as an artist. As multi-talented artist, Yip is at once a prose writer, fiction writer (with at least four books of fiction published under his credit so far), a fashion/costume designer, set designer, painter and art director.
However, it's Yip's art design for mega-production movies by world-class director such as Ang Lee that put him under the international spotlight. Never one to rest on his laurels, Yip will be bringing us yet another work of master caliber this year. It's none other than the upcoming kungfu epic "The Promise" by China master Chen Kaige of "Farewell, My Concubine" fame. This time though, Yip gets to design the costumes, the sets and the overall art direction. "The Promise," yet another unprecedented collaboration between two artistic giants, will be released toward the end of 2005 and already claims the title of "the event Chinese movie of the year."
During his trip to Taipei to supervise the art design for "The Tempest" - a Chinese Peking opera adaptation of Shakespeare's play directed by Hong Kong master Tsui Hark with design by Tim Yip and Taiwan's premier actor Wu Hsing-kuo as the lead - I sat down with Yip to discuss his journey as an art designer in the film industry.
For an artist of his caliber, Yip has virtually collaborated with almost every major Chinese director in his career. The list of Yip's collaborators reads like a "Who's Who" of Chinese cinema's almanac. During this interview, Yip candidly shares his thoughts with me about his experience with this long list of Chinese master directors.
Yip's collaboration with Hong Kong kungfu master Tsui Hark started with the modern gangster classic "A Better Tomorrow" starring Chow Yen-Fat, Leslie Chow and Ti Long. This collaboration came about totally by accident. Tsui saw an award-winning painting by Yip in a contest and decided to hire Yip to be the managing art director for "A Better Tomorrow."
"That was my debut work in a movie. Tsui is very easy-going in person and has always been very nice to me. We became good friends over the years," says Yip. "Tsui is someone who is full of energy, full of ideas. He moves around, makes his decisions and executes his plans as fast as his fast-rolling thoughts."
Tsui and Yip's next collaboration came two decades later with the 2004 world premier of "The Tempest" musical adaptation in Taipei. Tsui arrived in Taipei only two weeks before the show's opening. "It's crazy and exhilarating at the same time," says Yip. "He puts his ideas into the production and transformed the show within two weeks. He is the only one who could pull off a stunt like that - he's a genius."
Despite the grand entrance with Tsui's "A Better Tomorrow," Yip is at heart an artist who is devoted to his religion of pure high art and is averse to the derivative nature of Hong Kong's commercial filmmaking. Yip's collaboration with Hong Kong auteur Stanley Kwan's beautiful yet haunting ghost fable 1987 "The Rouge" ignited Yip's passion again in cinema. Here, he got to do what he wanted - designing beautiful, cutting-edge costumes for a movie.
Actor Leslie Cheung has long been worshipped for his near-perfect handsomeness and it was not a challenge to design costumes that would make him an opium-smoking, flirtatious playboy in the early republic era. However, transforming the unconventional pop diva Anita Mui into a ravishing courtesan who won the love of Cheung's affluent playboy was definitely a challenge.
Yip designed a sophisticated 30's Shanghai lady look complete with wavy combed hair, sensual red lips and sumptuous cheongsams (qipaos) that transformed the modern diva into a 30's Shanghai beauty with a scent of sadness. Yip's design enabled Mui to be considered a "beauty" for the first time in the audiences' eyes. This retro look was so successful that Mui kept going back to revisit this image in her later movies such as the 1990 historical epic "The Last Princess of Manchuria" and the 1991 early republic romance classic "Au Remoir, Mon Amour" with Tony Leung Ka Fai of the French movie "Lover" fame.
"Stanley is very easy to communicate with," Yip says. "He is able to accept good ideas readily. Stanley is a so-called 'women's director.' Because he possesses such a sensitive mind, he is able to delve into the female psyche and direct movies about legendary females such as 'The Rouge,' Full Moon in New York' (with Maggie Cheung) and 'The Actress' (which won Cheung a best actress award at Berlin Festival)."
Yip and Asian American director Wayne Wang of the "Joy Luck Club" fame collaborate on Wang's early movie "Eat a Bowl of Tea" in 1989. The movie stars Russell Wong ("The Joy Luck Club") as an Asian American young man who goes to China to look a suitable bride to bring back to America.
"Eat a Bowl of Tea' is a low-budget work in the beginning of Wang's career. But during that era, the cost of shooting in China was very cheap and therefore the visual feel of the movie has a very high quality feel," says Yip, who designed the costume and set for this early Wang gem. "Wang is a very nice person. Even though he belongs to the early era of Chinese immigrants in America, he is not pigeonholed as an 'Asian' director. Wang is an intellectual. He does Chinese immigrant movies like 'The Joy Luck Club.' However, he is also able to pull off totally American movies such as the 1995 film 'Smoke' starring Harvey Keitel and William Hurt and the 1999 movie 'Anywhere but Here' starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman."
Yip collaborated with Law on the costume drama 1993 "Tempting Monk" starring Joan Chen and Wu Hsing-kuo. The movie is adapted from a very short novella by Hong Kong author Li Pi Hwa. The story is about the general (Wu) who falls in love with the princess (Chen) on the first sight. However, because of a rebellion plan in the court, the two have to elope in order to escape the possible sad end. The couple enjoys a romantic period during their escape until the princess is unfortunately killed by the imperial agents. Heart-broken, the general goes up to a remote mountain and becomes a monk. However, a ravishing beauty who looks exactly like the princess suddenly appears at the mountain and plays havoc with the monk's feelings. Is she the princess miraculously resurrected, a twin or a look-alike? It turns out that this woman is a look-alike imperial assassin sent by the court to kill him.
Yip's design for this movie is beautiful, and shockingly avant-garde. Long before China master Zhang Yimou used the four-color scheme to divide the four different version of reality for the Kungfu epic "Hero," Yip and Law used a red-and-blue two-color scheme to separate the movie's two parts.
The first half is mostly composed of Joan Chen's red gowns, red makeup and a banquet full of frolicking blushing faces and elaborate festive balls of red tones. The second half is even more daring than the first half. Both Chen and Wu shaved their heads and put on blue-toned makeup with blue lips. The monk and the nun who teases and then tries to kill him roam against the backdrop of blue-grey mountain and temples. The design of "Tempting Monk" is astoundingly beautiful, brow-raising and way ahead of it's time even by today's standard.
Asked about if Law and Yip had considered that the avant-garde, highbrow design of "Tempting Monk" might scare away the audiences and made it a box office bomb, Yip laughs, "Of course we thought about that possibility."
"However, both Law and I have that artistic bravado to go for what we want. We knew the risks but decided to go for it," says Yip. "This movie would not have been made if we were afraid of failure. Law is what I considered a so-called 勖ale' director. She is arrogant, opinionated, highly educated, aggressive, proud and daring - and these are compliments to her."
Yip's most successful work was his team-up with Ang Lee in the year 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." This masterpiece created a new genre called kungfu-plus-drama. It overcame American audiences' dislike for reading subtitles, broke box-office records everywhere, and made cinematic history by becoming the first Chinese movie to win four Oscars. Yip himself won an Oscar for best costume design.
Yip's simple-lined chivalrous swordsman dress for Chow Yun Fat, the earthy but elaborately embroidered swordswoman dresses for Michelle Yeow, the lavish gowns and simple dresses for Zhang Ziyi, and the ethnic, strong-colored dress with rough fabric for Chang Chen have by now become symbolic of the colors and atmosphere of "Chineseness" for the western audience. Yip is currently in discussion with Lee about teaming up again for another movie.
"Lee is the director who is most easy to communicate with. He is a gentleman and an intellectual," says Yip. "He loves creative challenges and will work for years to achieve his result. It's a dream working with him."
Taiwan's internationally acclaimed art-house master Tsai Ming-liang is known and celebrated for his dark, minimalistic, existential pieces such as the 1994 Venice-winning "Vive L'Amour," the 1997 Berlin-winning "The River," the 1998 Cannes-winning "The Hole," and the 2003 Venice-winning "Goodbye, Dragon Inn."
Tsai's movies are usually moody pieces that contemplate on the emptiness and dejection of modern life. Tsai's style is apparent the opposite of Yip's trademark lavish beauty. How did these two end up working together on the movie 2001 movie "What Time Is It Over There?" The movie is centers on the disoriented youth Kang who becomes afraid of darkness after his father dies. Making a living as a cheap knock-off watch vender on a overpass in Taipei, Kang sells his own watch to a girl who left to Paris the next day. Kang starts missing that girl on the other side of the earth while his mother starts to believe that their dilapidated apartment is haunted by the ghost of Kang's father.
"We were personal friends before we worked together. I think the reason I designed for his movie is because we are kindred spirits," says Yip. "We are both very introspective, shy, reserved, and with a lot of ideas spinning around in our own minds."
Yip and China's internationally acclaimed master Zhang Yimou of "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" fame collaborated on the eight-minute trailer for the 2008 Olympics commissioned by Beijing government.
Zhang claims that he aimed to show the distinctive aura of Chinese culture by using motifs from Tang Dynasty and the color gold. No stranger to tackling east-meet-west production, Zhang has directed Pucci's classic opera "Turandot" in Italy and then in Beijing, both receiving high acclaims. Yip, with his name almost becoming synonymous with "Chinese glory" since his Oscar win for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," undoubtedly delivered his splendid designs yet again.
The coupling of these two artistic giants seemed destined to become another landmark. However, something inexplicable happened and things turned awry.
"I still don't know what happened exactly. I handed the designs to them," Yip explains. "However, the effect I expected did not come through in the finished product. After that commercial was aired, the audiences dissed it."
"The good thing that came out of it is the friendship between me and Yimou. We became friends. Yimou is known for his authority and austerity in front of his actors and crews," says Yip. "However, when he is working with someone whom he trusts can deliver the product, he lightens up and is very relaxed. I was very surprised to see that side of him," says Yip. "Zhang Yimou! He is constantly joking and laughing in front of me. Yimou! He is so full of energy."
Yip's latest work is a collaboration with China's Chen Kaige of the "Farewell, My Concubine" fame. This mega-budget movie entitled "The Promise" or "Wu Ji" in Chinese, is Chen's first attempt in the kungfu genre. It's clearly the latest chapter of the Chinese-master-meets-kungfu crave after Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and Zhang Yimou's back-to-back "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers."
However, despite the unavoidable action sequences, "The Promise" leans less toward kungfu and more toward fantasy. It has been described as the Chinese version of Peter Jackson's acclaimed "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It took six months for Chen to finish the shooting. However, because of the amount of special effects needed for the movie is extensive, the post-production period will be longer than the shooting. "The Promise" is slated to be released at the end of 2005.
In this production, Yip is responsible for the art direction, costume and makeup design, and set design. In other words, whatever you see on the screen is designed by Yip.
"The story of "The Promise' is very supernatural," says Yip. "I decided to go with the avant-garde, daring color scheme as used in Clara Law's "Tempting Monk'."
The cast of "The Promise" includes Hong Kong star Cecilia Chang (Tsui Hark's "Legend of the Zu"), Hong Kong star Nicolas Tse (Jackie Chan's "New Police Story"), Japanese superstar Hiroyuki Sanada (of Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai") and Korean star Jang Don-Jan (star of "Taegukie," the all-time box office champion in Korea).
Cecilia Chang's main color tone is yellow, Nicolas Tse's main color is black while Jang and Sanada both use brown as their characters' color.
"Director Chen Kaige is a very talented, intelligent, arrogant and a no-nonsense kind of person. I had a rough time communicating with him during the first few weeks," Yip says. "After that, we got over the bumps and get to understand each other. We worked together to try to produce the best possible work we could do."
"The Promise' will be a movie that truly pushes the envelope of Chinese filmmaking again," says Yip. "I am proud to be part of it and look forward to seeing the result."
10 classic Chinese romances
2005-03-14 / Taiwan News, Contributing Writer / By Andrew Huang
If life is a journey of intertwining joys and pains, then the fortitude needed during those low points is essential for survival. For anyone going through a forlorn period, there are few better ways to relive your past highs than by experiencing it vicariously through a movie - the dream-making machine designed to send us flying past the ruins of our emotional past.
Maggie Cheung, left, and Tony Leung in "In the Mood for Love." Most of the time, a memorable romance works best with a sad ending because nothing moves the audience more than unrequited love. That said, a few happy-ending movies also make this list.
All the classic Chinese romance movies appeared in the second half of the 20th century because greater China was too fraught with political turmoil to concern itself with romance during the first half century.
1. The Kingdom and the Beauty
Directed by the celebrated costume drama master Li Han-Hsiang, "The Kingdom and the Beauty" in 1959 recounts the ancient folk tale about the playful Chen Te of the Ming Dynasty, who dresses up as an ordinary civilian for fun and ends up falling in love with a ravishing beauty Li Fong in the country side. After the romantic courtship, King Chen Te goes back to the imperial court and returns to his old ways of frolicking and womanizing. Realizing that her beloved king would not come back, Li Fong is heartbroken and falls ill. At the behest of Li Fong's brother, the remorseful king orchestrates a lavish wedding carriage to go to the country to propose to Li Fong. Unfortunately, upon his arrival, the king gets enough time only to profess his love for Li Fong before she dies.
"The Kingdom and the Beauty" is made in the Chinese musical style "Huang Mei Tiao" or "Yellow Plume Tune" that was in rage in the 50s and 60s. Shaw Brothers Studio's top superstar Lin Tai portrays the role of Li Fong. The legendary Lin Tai possesses that rare combination of Caucasian sculptured facial features and Asian elegance. During her reign at the Shaw Brothers as its top leading lady, the beauty starred as the female lead in the studio's every major production. However, despite her superstardom from all those romance movies, her personal life was played out like one of her more heart-wrenching movies. Lin commited suicide at the age of 31.
2. "Madam White Snake"
Directed by Yue Fong, "Madam White Snake" in 1962 recounts the popular tale of a forbidden love affair between a white snake and a handsome male student. Set in Soong Dynasty, the story is about a white snake which has practiced Taoist magic for 1,000 years in order to take the human form. White encounters the handsome Hsu during a journey in the famed West Lake. The two fall in love, become married, and have a child. Unfortunately, one day a monk named Fa passes by, recognizes the snake, and vows to break up their union. Angered by Fa's threat, White goes to Fa's Gold Mountain Temple to wage a battle with her supernatural power. With a new pregnancy weakening her power, White loses the fight. Fa imprisons White under a giant Bell. Unable to help his beloved wife, Hsu crashed himself against the bell and dies.
Released by Shaw Brothers, the movie's lead is again the legendary Lin Tai. The classic romantic scene is the West Lake encounter where Hsu borrows an umbrella from White while sailing on a boat in the rain.
3 "Love Eterne"
"Love Eterne" in 1963 is the all-time most popular love story in Chinese history. It's been called the Chinese equivalent of "Romeo and Juliet" except that it's aimed at adult audience. More aptly, it's the Chinese equivalent of "Gone with the Wind" - the all-time most popular Chinese movie if you factor in inflation and ticket sales.
The story of "Love Eterne" recounts the forbidden love affair between the poor male student Liang and the heiress Tsu. Set against China's Soong Dynasty when women were expected to learn only the wifely crafts such as cooking and embroidering, Tsu dons male attire in order to go to study in an academy and falls in love with Liang. After graduation, Liang promises to visit Tsu but is delayed. When he arrives at Tsu's family, he finds the beautiful and saddened Tsu already betrothed to a man from another wealthy family by her parents. Liang goes back home depressed and dies shortly. On her wedding day, Tsu jumps out of her wedding carriage half way and jumps into an abyss miraculously opened up by the tomb of Liang. The two lovers' spirits fly away together as butterflies.
There have been numerous movie or TV version of "Love Eterne." The most popular and definitive one is the 1976 movie version directed by master Li Han-Hsiang. The movie was so popular that audiences lined up for blocks in order to purchase the tickets. Many fanatics even went to see the movie in theaters 10 to 20 times. In an interview with the New York Times three years ago, Ang Lee also cited "Love Eterne" as the movie that influenced him the most.
4. "Outside the Window"
Brigitte Lin, the most famous female star and the love goddess of the Chinese world, made her film debut in this movie in 1972. Adapted from the best-selling debut romance novel by Taiwan's Chiung Yao, "Outside the Window" is a semi-biographical story about a young female student who falls in love with her teacher and ends up marrying him. However, after the marriage and a child, the heroine is forced to seek divorce and walk out on her family due to social pressure.
This debut novel jumpstarted Chiung Yao as the most successful romance novelist of all time in modern China while the movie catapulted Brigitte Lin as the most successful Chinese female star in the 20th century. Because of its controversial subject matter of teacher-student relationship, this hugely famous movie was banned and was rarely seen by the audience.
5. "Dream of the Red Chamber"
Directed again by master Li Han-Hsiang, this 1977 movie adaptation of the acclaimed and popular Chinese novel is considered the best version among the numerous adaptations. The story of "Dream of the Red Chamber" tells the interweaving love stories, friendship and enmity among a cast of over a 1000 characters in an aristocratic family in the late Ching Dynasty.
A young Brigitte Lin dons the male costume to portray the male lead Chia Pao-yu while the young Sylvia Chang portrays the female lead Lin Tai-yu. The core of this adaptation is the romance between Chia and Lin. Chia and Lin grow up together and have come to consider each other life mate. However, at the night of Chia's wedding, he discovers that he has been tricked and that the real wife the family has arranged for him is the other cousin Pao Tsai. Betrayed, the fragile Tai-yu ends up dying. Facing the death of his beloved and a newly discovered corruption case that threatens to undo the entire clan, the disillusioned Pao-yu becomes a monk and disappears.
In 1977, seven different movie studios in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan all announced their plans to make a movie adaptation of "Dream of the Red Chamber." The race was, and studios scrambled to complete the movie and produce the best version. In the end, several small studios and TV stations released their version of "Dream of the Red Chamber" all in 1977. However, when master Li's movie opened, audiences flocked to the theaters and made it an instant classic.
6. "An Autumn Tale"
This romance classic in 1987 is directed by the acclaimed art-house Hong Kong auteur Mabel Cheung with superstars Chow Yun Fat and Sherie Chung as its leads. In the greed decade of the 80's when romance was out and gangster flicks, action films and ironic comedies were in, this classic worked through the audience's cynicism to become a hugely popular romance movie.
"An Autumn Tale" recounts an unlikely romance between an attractive Hong Kong student studying in New York and a street-smart but sincere guy Boat who makes his living by bullying his way through the Chinatown streets. Li is a beautiful college student who moves from Hong Kong to study in New York in order to accompany her boyfriend, a handsome but womanizing heir of a wealthy family. Upon arriving in New York, Li finds out that her boyfriend has landed a new girlfriend already and is moving to Boston.
Heart-broken, Li spends her days in a dazed state. Concerned and smitten by this girl from a differerent world, Boat takes Li out to cheer her up. An unlikely romance starts to blossom between these two. On the day of Li's birthday, Boat prepares a party for her. Unexpectedly, Li's ex-boyfriend shows up to claim that he still loves her. The next day, Li moves to Boston with her ex boyfriend.
Years later, Li comes back to New York to take a stroll on a beach with her niece. Li tells the niece that she used to have a dear friend who dreamt about opening a pier restaurant on this beach. The curious niece asks, "do you mean the restaurant over there?" Li shows up at the entrance of the restaurant with Boat ecstatic but speechless. Finally, he manages to utter the sentence "table for two?"
Chow has since moved on to become an international superstar mainly working in Hollywood. Chung has retired but continues to be movie legend chased by fans and the media.
7. "A Chinese Ghost Story"
Produced by Hong Kong master Tsui Hark and directed by Ching Siu-Tung, "A Chinese Ghost Story" in 1987 tells the forbidden love story between a beautiful female ghost and a poor male student. Adapted from a short story from China's ancient ghost fable collection "Liao Tsai Chi Yi," the screenwriter's outlandish turns the original four-page story into a full-fledge cinematic masterpiece.
The story starts with an astonishing prelude of a mysterious beauty who tempts a male student and then sucks his spirit and blood dry. This ravishing beauty is a ghost named Hsiao Chien who is controlled by a 1,000-year-old tree monster who uses her to seduce innocent males and drain away their spirits. Hsiao Chien encounters the gentlemanly student Ning and falls in love with him. However, a monk who lives nearby decides to interrupt and kills Hsiao Chien but finds out that she is a ghost with a kind heart. A final showdown between the tree monster camp and the monk proves that justice wins when the monster is killed. However, it's time for Hsiao Chien's ghost to leave and go to be reincarnated as a new person in her next life. The saddened Ning sees his beloved one go.
This enormously successful movie catapulted Taiwanese actress Joey Wong to superstardom and confirmed Leslie Cheung as the superstar of his generation. "A Chinese Ghost Story" spawns two sequels and ushered in a craze of romantic ghost movies in the 90's.
8. "New Endless Love"
Directed by the acclaimed Hong Kong director Derek Yee in 1994, this heart-warming tale about the romance between a girl with a cancer and a down-on-his-luck, struggling Jazz singer strikes a chord among many audiences' hearts. The movie propels Miss Hong Kong and acting newcomer Anita Yuen Yong Yi to superstardom and wins her the coveted best actress award in Hong Kong's version of the Oscars for her movie debut. It also established character actor Lau Ching Wan as a box office draw. Hong Kong superstar Carina Lau takes a supporting role here as the glamorous and ambitious ex-girlfriend of the singer. The movie's enormous popularity also propels the theme song entitled "New Endless Love" from the film's soundtrack to the top of Taiwan's KTV. To this day, the song "New Endless Love" remains the number must-sing song in any KTV session.
9. "Comrade, Not a Love Story" a.k.a. "Tian Mi Mi"
This heart-felt movie directed by Hong Kong's Peter Chan 1996 lures the current reigning superstar Maggie Cheung out of her hiatus in France back to Hong Kong for yet another classic movie.
Cheung portrays mainland Chinese Qiao who grew up in Canton and is fluent in Cantonese while Lai plays the other mainlander Xiao. The two move to Hong Kong to seek new lives. Qiao orders the innocent Xiao around to run errands for her. A love starts to develop between those two. After bungled attempt to make money in the stock market, Qiao becomes broke and ends up working as a massage girl in the red light district. When a gangster who frequents Qiao has to run from the police, she decides to follow him to repay his kindness. Separated by fate for many years, Qiao and Xiao ends up running into each other in New York's Chinatown.
10. "In the Mood for Love"
Hong Kong master's moody masterpiece "In the Mood for Love," starring superstars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, is a classic that seems dull the first time but grows on you after each repeated viewing. The story recounts the doomed love affair between a journalist and a married woman in 60's Shanghai.
Tony Leung won the unprecedented glory of Best Actor Award in Cannes for this role while Christopher Doyle and William Chang shared the Special Technical Prize in Cannes in 2000. Even for a director acclaimed for his supreme taste in esthetics, the art direction and visual beauty of this movie arguably ranks as the most beautiful work in Wong's long body of works.
Return of the kungfu master
Tsui Hark discusses his envelope-pushing epic 'Seven Swords'
2005-07-29 / Taiwan News, Contributing Writer / By Andrew C.C. Huang
Director Tsui Hark checks the camera during the filming of "Seven Swords."/ tsui hark workshop
After the awe-inspiring "Once Upon a Time in China" series and the acclaimed of "Legend of the Swordsmen" trilogy, Hong Kong master Tsui Hark returns to glorious form with the highly anticipated kungfu epic "Seven Swords," which opens this week simultaneously in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. A staggering kungfu romance, "Seven Swords" has been selected as the opening film at the prestigious Venice International Film Festival next month.
"During these past few years, we are seeing kungfu movie becoming a global phenomena. Kungfu movie is one of the most precious cultural treasure from Chinese culture. I feel really proud we have this chance to introduce Chinese culture to audiences worldwide," Tsui says in an exclusive interview at Taipei's Sherwood Hotel.
As the master who launched the kungfu new wave in the 80s and 90s with the celebrated "Once Upon a Time in China" series with Jet Li and "Legend of the Swordsmen" trilogy with superstar Brigitte Lin, no one is more versed with the theory and vocabulary of kungfu movies than Tsui.
"With this movie, my challenge is to take the kungfu movie genre to a new direction," says Tsui. "I want to bring kungfu movie to a new level of realism."
Tsui explains his passion for the genre. "Kungfu is the essence of Chinese culture. It is deeply interwoven into the fabric of our daily life. We all grew up watching kungfu movies and reading kungfu novels. When I was a kid, I used to play games with my friends in which we would portray famous characters from kungfu movies and pretend to kill each other."
The goal of creating a new realism is first realized in the premise of the movie's story. During an exclusive interview with Taiwan News earlier this year, Tsui told me that "with 'Seven Swords,' I am interested in exploring the theme of financial pressures and other challenges for survival faced by the swordsmen."
"This is a theme that has not been explored by any kungfu movies before. We don't see the ordinary side of them where they have to eat, have to go to the toilet, and have to survive with little money. Tsui said in that interview. "'Seven Swords' is an attempt to connect the kungfu world with the real world. In the end, the biggest damage is not done by a supreme martial arts skill, but by the economic pressure to survive. I want to bring the audience a brand new feeling for the kungfu movie."
This ambitious goal is splendidly realized with the premise of the story. In the beginning of "Seven Swords," it's shown to the audiences that the newly established Ching dynasty court has decreed a new rule that outlawed all martial art practices in order to squash resurgent forces.
A reward system is further established in order to completely uproot martial art. The court rewards any decapitated head of a martial art practitioners by the head count and by the ability of the killed swordsman. As a result, massacres break out among various gangster swordsmen camps in order to seek reward money. The riveting opening action scene shows various swordsmen, innocent children and elderly massacred by a swordsmen gang lead by the movie's principal villain Fire-Wind.
To further achieve the aim of realism, two pivotal elements are carefully orchestrated in order to create a kungfu movie with a new degree of realism -- action scenes and costumes.
"We are so used to seeing kungfu movie as a genre with mythic characters, legendary characters and melodramatic storyline. It has become a genre of fantasy where swordsmen fly around, and we take it for granted," says Tsui. "I want to bring kungfu movie to a new direction by adding realism into it, to bring it back to the basics."
The action scenes in "Seven Swords" are executed with a refreshing realness that sees the swordsmen fighting with hard-hitting clankiness. All the weapons featured in the movie, while stylishly designed and elaborately decorated, all have a heavy feel to them and reflect the sense of danger of real-life weapons.
In an early scene where the village girl Wu, portrayed by Hong Kong actress Charlie Yeung, faces the danger of being assassinated by a gangster swordsman for reward money, audiences see the effort Yeung exerts in order lift her heavy sword to defend herself.
Tsui also demands his actors to perform all of their own action scenes.
"I pretty much hurt with every part of my body with every scene except for the one where I fell from a horse. Very often you don't notice the pain when you are shooting the scene. But when I get back to my lodge at the end of the day, I discover that some part of my body has been hurt," says actress Yeung. "Before this film, I never knew I could go through this much pain for a movie shoot."
Actor Duncan Lai concurs, "I am a very athletic person. But shooting this movie was extremely difficult. If you ask me which scenes were difficult, I would say pretty much every scene is very difficult. However, after the movie is finished and when I see the final film, I feel that all the pains were worth it."
The only exception might be actor Donnie Yen, who is in life a master of martial arts. Because of his real-life virtuosic kungfu skills, Yen was paired with superstar Jet Li for spectacular face-off action scenes twice in Tsui's "Once Upon a Time in China" and in Zhang Yimou's "Hero."
Because of Yen's success as an action star in "Iron Monkey" and "Hero" both released in the U.S. by Miramax, Yen often works as an action director in Hollywood.
"I do not use a stunt double. Because of my level of kungfu skill, it's pretty much impossible for any stunt double to perform the action I am supposed to do. I do all the action by myself," says Yen.
In addition, the stylishly designed costumes seen in "Seven Swords" are mostly earth-toned garments and all have a worn look to them.
/ tsui hark workshop
"In many kungfu movies, we see a lot of stylish costumes that don't look like that could be worn in real life," says Tsui. "When we are recreating the clothes worn by people in an ancient period, I want to take into account the lifestyle and needs of the people at the time.
"I choose mostly dark colored costume for this movie because that's what the story demands. The story takes place in the desert and countryside. When living there, these swordsmen's clothes will become dirty, darker and have stains on them," explains Tsui.
"With the scenes in the ice mountains, you see the swordsmen wearing fur coats and hats that cover their ears because the temperature is icy there," Tsui adds. "I also give my actors the options of choosing their own accessories. Some of them wear backpacks to store their swords and weapon. The pack should be worn in a place that's convenient for the character to draw out his sword anytime. Some characters wear scarves over their necks. I let the actors choose whether they want to tuck the scarf inside or wrap it around the neck."
During the shooting of the movie, Tsui also demands his actors to take care and arrange their own costumes in this movie so that the actors would really require the sense that these are their daily life clothing rather than simply costumes for a movie.
To push the realism to a new height, most of the actors in "Seven Swords" do not wear makeup except when it's required for the character such as the Korean concubine Luzhu portrayed by Korean superstar Kim So-yeon of the blockbuster TV series "My Anchorwoman" fame.
"Not only do I not wear makeup in this movie, I also have to get my face dirty and tumble into the mud and water in this movie," laughs actress Yeung. "The mud in the Hsinjiang area, where we shot the movie, became my facial (mask)."
"I waited for 12 years in order to work with Tsui Hark again," says actor Yen. "I was very pleasantly surprised when I read the script Tsui sent me. I thought, with a good script like this in the hand of master Tsui Hark, this movie has the potential to surpass many of the previous kungfu movies."
Yen, who has mostly been an action star so far in his career, also gets to develop himself further as an actor and emerges as the principal male lead as the oldest Seven Swords Chu in this movie. In "Seven Swords," Chu rescues the Korean concubine girl Luzhu owned by the gangster lord Fire-Wind (portrayed by Chinese thespian Sun Honglei) and then falls in love with her. Because of this conflict, the love triangle later on leads to the confrontation in which Fire-Wind forces Luzhu to leave Chu or see Chu die.
"There are two different kinds of actors. There are actors who are very in tune with their emotions and have known how to perform since the beginning. Then there are actors who learn slowly and develop through the years," says Yen. "I would say I belong to the second category."
"The most important thing for an actor is to get into the character and show his inner life. Once you understand the psyche of your character, everything else will follow naturally. The facial expression, the hand movements, the body language, and the action," adds Yen.
"I am very proud of my work in this movie. Chu is a very complicated character with a lot of inner conflicts," says Yen. "I am glad to say that I did not disappoint Tsui. I pulled it off."
"At the end of the day, action is only a package. A good movie needs a good story. It needs many good elements in order to make it work," Yen adds. "That's what 'Seven Swords' is for me. I don't see it as just a kungfu movie or an action movie. I would call this movie a 'kungfu drama.'"
Korean superstar Kim emerges as the principal female lead in this movie as the slave girl Luzhu who is caught between the love of Chu the oldest Seven Swords and the menacing domination of the gangster lord Fire-Wind.
"I grew up watching Tsui's movies and am a big fan of him," says Kim. "It's an honor to have the chance to work with master Tsui."
In a difficult scene in the movie where the gangster lord Fire-Wind is raping his newly acquired concubine Luzhu, actor Sun climbs onto the back of Kim and bite her skin in a brutal and sadomasochist fashion.
Tsui Hark, center, directs Leon Lai, left, and Charlie Yeung on the set of "Seven Swords."/tsui hark workshop / tsui hark workshop
"Sun is a seasoned, great actor. He is the one who suggested the biting for that rape scene," says Kim. "He told Tsui to communicate with me. I struggled for days but agreed to do it because it's for the sake of the story."
"I grow up in Korea, which is a pretty conservative country. In my daily life, I am pretty conservative and do not wear clothes that are too revealing," Kim explains. "Doing that rape scene was very difficult for me. I was exhausted for days. But after seeing the finished movie and seeing how fantatstic it works for the story, I feel some remorse now and think I should have gone further with that scene."
"Seven Swords" is adapted from the kungfu novel series by the writer Liang Yu Shiung. According to Tsui, "Seven Swords" is the first and the prelude movie and he plans to develop the movie into a series in the future with seven more sequels in which every one of the Seven Swords character will be featured as the lead.
Tsui's passion for cinema is telling in his willingness to become involved in every aspect of the filmmaking - even being an extra. As the actor Dai says, Tsui volunteered to do several scenes as an extra, where his face won't be shown on film.
One example is when Dai needs to shoot a scene where he uses a sword to chop off the head of a small-time villain. Dai is called upon by Tsui to the location, where Tsui is waiting leisurely, eating a cup of instant noodles. "Are you ready?" Tsui asked. Dai answered yes. Thus Dai shot the scene where he waves his swords against the minor criminal. Then Tsui told the cinematographer to film him from the back side where he slided his head to the side in a gesture of being killed.
Sunday, January 15, 2006
Chen Kaige Fulfills His Promise
--- China master Chen Kaige discusses his latest fantasy epic “The Promise”
By Andrew C.C. Huang
(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News on December 25, Friday 2005)
The most anticipated Chinese-language movie this year, China master Chen Kaige’s first foray in the kungfu genre “The Promise” is a brilliant latest chapter in the kungfu-drama subgenre in the vein of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger,” “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
As Ang Lee says, “every Chinese director wants to direct a kungfu movie.” Three major directors have jumped into the water while Wong Kar Wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien and John Woo have announced their plans to venture into the genre too. There is no dispute in the inexplicable universal appeal in the kungfu movie genre to the global audience.
Kungfu movies is the equivalent of the super hero movies inspired by comic books in the western world. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is the Chinese counterpart to George Lucas’ “Star Wars” series in which the common people’s desires for a better world is projected into the hero’s journey in the movie. Like the comic book genre in the U.S., the kungfu novel genre was once a disdained and even banned genre that has finally become mainstream culture sweeping across the globe because it reflects and speaks to the people’s desires world-wide.
Chen Kaige’s “The Promise” recounts the story of the Princess Qinsheng who is so ravishingly beautiful that every man falls in love with her on sight. Qinsheng stays at the King’s extravagant court but lives a loveless life because she made a pledge with the Goddess of Fate to give up love in exchange for material fulfillment. Her sad fate turns when the slave Kunlen kills the King and rescues her away. During the escape, she is captured by the Duke of North as an object of love. The General Quanming sends his slave to rescue Qinsheng and claims her as lover. Torn between the loves of three men, Qinsheng gradually finds out what her pledge with the Goddess with lead her to in a surprise ending.
For Chen Kaige, there is no doubt that he is jumping on the bandwagon of the global highbrow kungfu. However, it’s a test of the director’s range to see if he could move from art-house piece into mega production while maintaining his heart. Chen has proved he could.
During Chen Kaige and his producer/actress wife’s press junket in Taipei last week, Chen said : “The comparison to ‘Lord of the Rings’ is unfitting. “Lord of the Rings’ is adapted from literature and is a trilogy while “The Promise” is based on our original play.”
Despite Chen’s denial, the comparison is inevitable. Both “The Promise” and “Lord of the Rings” series belong to fantasy genre. Even more eerily, both movies start with the similar caption epilogue that “in the beginning of the world, human beings and gods co-exist.” Both movies are mythology stories where gods, demons, demi-gods and human beings engage in existential battles before the world take its shape.
The theme of love run through in both movies as well. In “Lord of the Rings,” the fairy Arwen gave up her immortality in order to be with her beloved general Aragorn. In “The Promise,” Qinsheng breaks her promise with the Goddess and opts to forsake fortune and Princess status for the love of the slave Kunlen .
For the special effects needed for the movies, it took years for Chen to warm up to the idea of it. “I used to be really resistant about using special effects in movies. I think the movie’s story is the most important thing and I shy away from special effects,” said Chen. “However, in order to create the atmosphere of a fantasy world required by the story of ‘The Promise,’ I finally gave up my prejustice against special effects and tried my best to use it to serve the story.”
“The Promise” marks many first for Chen --- his first kungfu movie, his first fantasy genre movie and his first movie with a happy ending. “My past movies about China’s feudal past are heavy and serious. They are harder for the audience to swallow,” Chen explained. “But in my private life, I am not someone who is serious all the time. I want to enjoy my life too. Therefore, for “The Promise,” I decided to inject in some elements of my childhood fantasy and dreams to make it a more optimistic and happy movie.”
For a fantasy movie, Chen considers the setting and costume another characters in the movie. To achieve the ideal results, he invited Oscar winning designer Tim Yip to oversee the art direction and costume design.
“It’s essential for all the major characters to have very unique and distinctive images and costumes,” said Chen. “Tim did such a fantastic job in designing these characters.”
“I considered the several key settings as another character of this movie because they reflect the mood of the characters,” said Chen. “For the design of the Imperial city, the Parliament court and the Cherry Tree Villa, Tim did an excellent job too.”
Actress/producer Chen Hong, who is the wife of Chen Kaige, scolded her husband in jest at the press conference. “He did not even try to give me face (reputation)!” Chen laughed. “He corrected me as soon as my performances are not up to his standards as with all the other actors. I didn’t have any privilege as his wife and the producer of the movie. He told me ‘the Goddess has to speak slower and gesticulate faster’.”
Because Chen’s character is the Goddess of Fate or “Mansheng” in the movie, she spends her entire shooting time performing in front of the blue screen with wire work in order to create the effects of a goddess flying in the sky. “He is perfectionistic and relentless,” Chen Hong complained laughing. “I spent so much time hanging on the wire that my body was all bruised. But he told the crew not to let me down ‘just because I am the producer’. Then, of course, when we went home after a day’s shooting and he had to be nice to me to compensate me.”
As a kungfu fantasy movie, “The Promise” is in nature much closer to Hong Kong master Tsui Hark’s “Legend of the Zu” rather than Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger” or Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” which are set in a specific historic period in China. As with Tsui’s “Zu” series, the world of “The Promise” is a universe in its early birth where gods, monsters, ghouls and human beings co-exist, fight and fall in love with one another. As a result, “The Promise” is a big spectacular visual Pon Pon because all the characters in lavishing costumes literally spend most of their time flying through the sky in this movie. Gravity doesn’t really apply in a movie where all the major characters possess supernatural power.
Why does the kungfu genre cross all cultural barriers and speak to audiences world-wide? The spectacular action scene and the lavishing costumes do not hurt, but, ultimately, it’s the kungfu hero’s journey that speaks to all of us. Seeing the hero’s trials and tribulations on the screen, we are reminded again that fighting against the system and bettering one’s life are possible. We realize that we do not have to be the prisoners of fate’s misdoing or a corrupted system we didn’t create.
The serialized kungfu novels started flourishing after the founding of the Republic of China and peaked in the 70’s with Qing Yuan and Gu Long claiming the titles as the two modern master of kungfu novel.
Coming to birth after the Republic of China is not coincidence at all. Kungfu novels reflect the Chinese common people’s desire to go for freedom and independence and topple the inhumane tradition of China’s dynastic tradition. A common Chinese saying states that “kungfu novel is the fairytale story for adults.”
In every kungfu novel, the protagonist is always a poor underdog child with his parents wrongly killed a corrupted swordsman triad or the government. This child practices exceedingly hard to become a supreme kungfu master in order to exact revenge against the decaying swordsman triad or the corrupted government figures. “Go to hell, Confucianism,” all the kungfu novels imply. “We don’t want a rigid social hierarchy system where the young has to be beaten by the elders even if the young is right. We want a new China where everyone is equal and has at least the chance to compete fairly in life.”
Fighting against the system has its price. But the kungfu hero tells us that complying to lives we don’t want has a even better price. Through kungfu movies, we look at the hero’s struggle and contemplate about our own life and ideals. And then, we realize, what is life without ideals and dreams? As long as ideals and dreams exist, kungfu novels and movies will continue to flourish.
The Original Kungfu Master
--- Tsui Hark discusses the crafts of filmmaking
By Andrew Huang
Before there was “hero,” there were “swordsmen.” Before there was “crouching tiger,” there was “iron monkey.” After dabbling with contemporary realism drama such as “Time and Tide” and comedy such as “Master Q,” Hong Kong master Tsui Hark is coming back this year with a genre in which no one does it better – his latest kungfu epic “Seven Swords” to be released in July.
With Tsui as director and artistic director, “Seven Swords” also rounds up the world’s premier action director Yuen Ho Ping and China director Zhang Jinyen (who turned Jet Li into a star in China in the 80’s) of “Shaolin Temple” fame as consultant. Hong Kong star Leon Lai (“Three: Coming Home”), actress Charlie Yang (“New Police Story”) and rising heartthrob Duncan Chow are the main characters.
Adapted from kungfu author Liang Yusheng’s kungfu novels, “Seven Swords” takes place in 1644 when Ching government overthrew Ming Dynasty. In order to seek dominance of China, Ching government sent out imperial guards to hunt down rebellious swordsmen. In order to save the world from chaos, a hermetic monk sent out his protégés seven swords to aid the battle. Seven swords left their home the Sky Mountain and made a pact to meet at Chentang Lake a year later.
Yang becomes wounded in a battle and is rescued by the daughter of imperial general Na. The two end up falling in love and have a daughter. Ming is forced by his father to marry a duke. Yang asks Ming to elope but is refused. Ming decides to take the daughter to Chentang Lake for the meeting, where only Mu shows up. Yang gives his daughter to Mu to take back to Sky Mountain.
18 years later, Yang’s daughter Yi has grown up has mastered the formidable Sky Mountain swordship. Yi sets out to seek revenge for her father. The remaining members of the former Seven Swords have become leaders for “Sky Earth Club.” Knowing that the Ching emperor Kangshi will pay a visit to the Wutai mountain, they orchestrate an assassination plan that would lead to unexpected end.
“With ‘Seven Swords,’ I am interested in exploring the theme of the pressure of finance and survival for the swordsmen,” Tsui says.
“This is a theme that hasn’t been explored by any kungfu movies before. All the swordsmen we see in kungfu movies roam about and battle. We don’t see the side when they have to eat, have to go to the toilet, and have to survive with money,” Tsui says. “The typical kungfu movie is divorced from the reality. ‘Seven Swords’ is an attempt to connect the kungfu world with the real world. In the end, the biggest damage is not done by a supreme martial art skill, but by the pressure of finance to survive. I want to bring to the audience a brand new feeling for the kungfu movie.”
Tsui is mostly acclaimed for creating the kungfu new wave and thus changing the Chinese film history in the 80’s and 90’s with the “Once Upon a Time in China” series and “Legend of the Swordsmen” trilogy.
If movie as a medium could be described as the combination of storytelling and visual images, then Tsui is the ultimate filmmaker who has got both elements down pat.
Tsui writes his own script whether it’s an original story or an adaptation of an existing literature. Known for his out-of-this-world imagination which creates characters or plot that capture and mesmerize the audience, Tsui’s adaptation of kungfu classic novels are acclaimed for his imaginative thinking and innovative updates.
One standout example is 1991’s “East the Invincible” -- part II of “Legend of the Swordsmen” trilogy. The series is adapted from the five-volume serialized novel by China’s all-time most famous kungfu author Jing Yong. While part I mostly sticks to the plotline of the original novel and is a commercial success. Tsui’s soaring imagination retains the original story but completely switches the focus of the characters in such an astonishing way that “East the Invincible” became a blockbuster and relaunched the by-then jaded kungfu genre into a new wave genre craved by the audience.
With “East the Invincible,” Tsui takes out a small villain part named East and turns him into the central character. East is a man who neutered himself in order to master a rare kungfu discipline so as to obtain supreme swordsmanship. After mastering this kungfu discipline, he becomes a she – a ravishing beauty who ends up falling in love with the novel’s original protagonist Ling Wu Chung.
While the idea of turning a small-part villain into a charismatic heroin/villain who dominates the whole movie, the casting is crucial to make this story work. Not one to disappoint, Tsui rounds up the inimitable Brigitte Lin (the goddess of love in the romance film cycle in Taiwan’s 70’s and then goddess of revenge since her “East” turn) to portray this enigmatic, sexually and morally ambiguous character. Lin possesses the rare kind of beauty that could make her a ravishing beauty as a woman and a rakish Greek god as a man. Jet Li is casted as the insouciant swordsman Ling who mistakes East as a woman and falls in love with her. Superstars/revered beauties Michelle Reis Lee and Rosamund Kwang are respective casted as Ling’s early object of love Yue and his later love Ying Ying in the original novel. However, in Tsui’s movie, Yue and Ying Ying compete for Ling’s love but ultimately lose out to the he/she East. After East crashes down the whole palace with her invincible kungfu skills, she falls down the cliff. Ling leaps down to grap East and ask him/her, “tell me the truth. Was it really you who slept with me that night?” The proud East refuses to answer, push Ling up the cliff, and falls down into the dark abyss.
Tsui is known for his cinematic genius and also for the erratic tantrums. However, when I met Tsui for this interview at Taipei’s National Theater, he appeared relaxed and amicable. We sat in the outdoor chairs outside of the box office in the cold winter in order to get the fresh air while sipping coffee. Tsui’s unique face is something one will never forget after seeing it: his face is the shape of a reverse triangle, currently with the bottom end sporting a mixture of black/gray mustache. His gazes are as piercing as an eagle’s. His poise is that of someone who has lived through many a kungfu tales on screen and in real life and is at ease and in charge everywhere.
Asked about how his ingenious idea of turning a minor villain into the central character came about, Tsui says, “When I am doing a movie, I have to find something that ‘moves’ me first regardless of the genres.”
“With Ching Yun’s ‘Legend of the Swordsmen,’ I looked at the materials and this small part named East who fascinated me,” Tsui explains. “He is such a small part in the book, yet he is interconnected with all the major characters and influenced the life of everyone in this story.”
“When I look at the material I am adapting, I try to find the infinite possibilities of exploring this story,” Tsui explains. “I use my imagination to push the possibilities to their limits, and then I slowly cut back to what is plausible and can be done on the screen.”
Asked about his penchant of radically reworking the original materials into something entirely new and fresh, Tsui denies and explains. “When I adapt an existing material onto the screen, I always stay faithful to the theme or message of the original story,” Tsui says. “However, I will locate that particular part of the story that touches me in the first place and blow it up. It’s still the same story but with different angles. I think in this day and age, we are always interested in seeing this artist’s particular point of view rather than no opinion.”
The other part of Tsui’s cinematic talent is his unrivalled standards of esthetic. Tsui is born in Vietnam and his family immigrated to Hong Kong when he turned 16. He began filming 8mm shorts at 13 and eventually was sent to college at the University of Texas in Austin. In 1970 he co-directed a 45-minute documentary "From Spikes to Spindles." In 1975 he moved to New York to become editorial of a local Chinese newspaper. During this phase, he became involved with a community theatre group.
He has love painting ever since he was a child. However, a mishap of a fire during his stay at University of Texas that burned all his paintings quenched his passion for painting for years. However, when he was filming his Hollywood movie “Double Team,” he became inspired by the leisurely pace of American life and picked up the habit of painting again.
Tsui usually draws sketches of the rough images of the characters and the set designs and handed them to his art director for exchanges of ideas. Tsui is also able to draw the comic book style shot-by-shot sketches for his movies – an ability not many directors can claim. The published book about Tsui’s “Legend of the Zu II” contains many photographs from the film and sketches and designs drawn personally by Tsui.
While “East the Invincible” officially launched the kungfu crave in the 90’s, Tsui has his passion and influence in two other projects – “Once Upon a Time in China” series with Jet Li and “The New Dragon Inn,” a tribute to kungfu master King Hu in the 70’s.
“I am a Cantonese and grew up watching the movie series of the hero Huang Fei-hong in my youth. For me, Huang is ultimate folk hero. He is a kungfu master, a heroic character and is friendly to the common people and close to our life,” Tsui says. “I have always wanted to do a Huang Fei-hong series as a director. What I have been waiting for is the right person who could symbolize the patriotic hero who is close to the people.”
That person comes in the dazzling form of non other than Jet Li. Li was a beloved kungfu movie star in China for years with his virtuosic kungfu skills and matinee good looks. Li is mostly known for the movie “Shaolin Temple” by director Zhang Jinyen during his China phase. The 80’s was a time when no one paid attention to China’s stars or movies.
A director/mentor with sharp eyes for new talents, Tsui spotted Li and imported him to Hong Kong in order to launch the “Once Upon a Time in China” series. So sure was Tsui of Li’s potential that Tsui casted Li as Huang Fei-hong and surrounded him with supporting characters portrayed by Hong Kong’s big stars such as singer Allan Tan and actress Rosamund Kwan.
The impact was immediate. “Once Upon a Time in China” was a blockbuster in 1991 and catapulted Jet Li to superstardom overnight. Li went on to make three more sequels for the “Once Upon a Time in China” series. After that, Li’s star was rising so high that Hollywood waved and invited him to start his Hollywood career.
That might have been the end of this series except that Tsui is so in love with his childhood hero that he decided to continue the “Once Upon a Time in China” series with the same cast but replacing Jet Li with another China’s new-comer Zhao Wen Zhuo. These later two sequels made Zhao a star too, although the success paled in comparison to the legendary Jet Li. Not the end yet. Tsui dabbled with TV for the first time by producing a successful “Once Upon a Time in China” TV series to completely materialize his childhood hero dream.
Tsui’s other passion and influence is kungfu master King Hu. An Asian American director known for his impeccable approach to filmmaking, Hu made several kungfu and ghost films in the 60’s and 70’s. Hu’s highlight is the 1969 three-hour kungfu epic “A Touch of Zen” about a swordswoman who combat a troupe of corrupted government assassins with the aid of a monk. This masterpiece went on to the international stage and ended up winning the Grand Technical Prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1975 – the first time a Chinese director ever win a prize at Cannes.
“Legend of the Swordsmen” part I was originally a production orchestrated by Tsui to invite his idol out of retirement to make another movie. Although poor in health, Hu gladly accepted the job and started shooting with Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui (“Song of Exile” with Maggie Cheung) helping as the second unit director. Unfortunately, Hu’s health worsened and had to back out of the production half way. Ann Hui and Tsui stood in to finish the shooting of this movie that becomes one of the kungfu new wave landmark.
Tsui paid tribute to Hu yet again in 1992 by remaking Hu’s 1966 classic “The Dragon Inn.” So respectful was Tsui of Hu and Tsui discussed the new version of the story scene by scene, the casting and even the shooting angles with Hu. This lengthy discussion is apparently not about seeking approval for remake but rather a growth of friendship and a wildly exciting exchange of ideas between two masterminds.
As the Tsui we know, we naturally expect “New Dragon Inn” to be a radical but faithful reinterpretation of Hu’s “Dragon Inn.” The audience luckily got what they expected in what has become a new kungfu classic.
The original “Dragon Inn” tells the story of a swordsman and swordswoman trapped inside a mysterious Inn to combat a troupe of corrupted imperial assassins in the midst of a desolate desert.
“I started thinking about this mysterious desert Inn that eats up its customers,” Tsui reminisces. “I thought, there should be a mastermind behind this corrupted Inn and with his entourage and machinations.”
The swordswoman Yau is played by Brigitte Lin, the most famous female star in the Chinese community. The swordsman Chow is played by Tony Leung Ka Fai of the French movie “Lovers” fame. The Inn’s mastermind turns out to be a “she,” not a “he.” And it comes in the sizzling form of last year’s Cannes best actress winner Maggie Cheung.
This new character Jade King played by Cheung creates a brand new chemistry and pushes the movie to a cinematic tour de force. By turns flirtatious, calculating and flamboyant, Jade doggedly pursues the handsome Chow and even arranges their wedding at the misery of Chow‘s true love Yau as barter agreement to allow these government victims to escape. This delicious love triangle unfolds while the battle between the swordsmen and the government assassins go on every night. The climax has the three different camps engaged in a final showdown that would determine who would get out alive. Cheung’s part as the supporter actress Jade was so dazzling that she was nominated as a best actress contender in that year’s Golden Horse.
“I would like to make yet another remake of ‘The Dragon Inn’ one day again,” says Tsui. “I don’t know when yet. But I love this story a lot and want to make another remake on it.”
Tsui’s another landmark is “The Zu” series. Adapted from a 10-volume serialized kungfu novels by author Huen Ju Lo Ju from the turn of 20th century, the epic kungfu movie “Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain” appeared in 1983 in an era when Shaw Brothers’ kungfu flicks had become blasé and modern romantic comedy was in vogue. However, the flawless casting and production of “Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain” shattered the audience’ impression that kungfu flicks were composed of tacky costumes and cardboard backgrounds.
The movie stars Brigitte Lin as a goddess and Hong Kong star Adam Cheng Hsiao Chiu as the swordsman Ting who is trying to combat the menacing forces of the ‘Blood Evils.” A subplot has the two stars’ protégés falling in love and going to search for the sacred pair of swords that would save the world from Blood Evil’s domination.
“Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain,” however, is not Tsui’s first kungfu movie. His 1979 feature debut film “The Butterfly Murders” is a low-budget, moody film that manages to conjure up the atmosphere necessary for a kungfu movie. With a strings of successful under his belt, Tsui embarks on his first mainstream kungfu movie with major stars. Knowing that special effects are not the strength of Asian cinema, Tsui’s original plan was to stay earthy and simply do a kungfu movie with a good story. However, a friend plodded Tsui, “why not try to use some special effects?” The film was produced by the powerhouse Golden Harvest Company which cultivated Jackie Chan. Tsui decided to use the resources of Golden Harvest to fashion the first Chinese kungfu movie with good special effects.
Tsui spent nine months – a shockingly long time for a commerce-driven Hong Kong film industry that could crank out a movie in a month -- experimenting with special effects and shooting the film. The result is an astounding masterpiece that elevates the kungfu genre into “serious” filmmaking long before “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” did. The ad tag at the time boasted that the movie used “more than a thousand special effects” in an era when special effect was non-existent in Hong Kong. “Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain” was an instant hit and still stands today as a kungfu masterpiece that’s ahead of its time. It foretold the coming of the kungfu new wave in the 90’s with “Once Upon a Time in China” and “Legend of Swordsmen” and a deluge of other copycats.
Fear and anxiety were high when Hong Kong was about to be taken back by China in 1997. Hollywood waved and many of Hong Kong’s top movie talents head to Beverly Hill, including Tsui and his colleague John Woo.
As new-comers in Hollywood, both Tsui and Woo had to go through the trial of directing second-rate action flicks before moving up the ladder. After two B action movies, Woo’s style of contemporary gangster film with overflowing styles proves a perfect suit for Hollywood; he went on to direct major movies such as “Face Off” and “Mission Impossible II.”
Tsui, on the other hand, with his concerns and imagination deep-rooted in Chinese folk tales and kungfu tales, does not quite suit the Hollywood action film scene. Tsui’s two early acclaimed hits “Shanghai Blues” (1984) and “Peking Opera Blues” (1986) are both tales of intertwined love against the chaotic backdrop of early China republic. His 1993 hit “Green Snake” starring Joye Wong and Maggie Cheung is a modern reinterpretation of the ancient Chinese folk story “White Snake.”
Tsui directed two Jean-Claude Van Damme action flicks “Double Team” and “Knock Off.” Disillusioned, Tsui decided to go back to Hong Kong to do what he does the best – a kungfu movie rooted in Chinese culture.
Tsui dabbled with an acclaimed contemporary Hong Kong gangster drama “Time and Tide” and a comedy “Master Q” before going back to his kungfu root. Tsui released his highly anticipated “Legend of the Zu” (the sequel to his 1983 masterpiece “Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain”). Despite its state-of-the-art special effects and flawless filmmaking, the movie’s convoluted plotline made it a box office bomb. What was supposed to be his glorious return to kungfu became a disaster.
“The industry scene has changed yet again. And I have to learn to cope and handle that now that I am back in Hong Kong,” Tsui explains. “Legend of the Zu” has the same structure of “Zu: Warriors of Magic Mountain,” with four stars and two love affairs connecting the kungfu saga.
“In today’s Hong Kong industry, all the stars have to make 10 to 12 movies a year as demanded by their agents,” Tsui moans. “They only show up for shooting for my movie for a short period of time and they move on to other projects.”
This is apparently a new scenario different from when superstars such as Brigitte Lin and Jet Li could devote their time to allow Tsui to fashion his masterpieces. “What I ended up doing was to have the actors perform in front of the blue screen and create the background with computers to connect the scenes. Because of the shortened shooting time for the four stars, the two romances in the story become barely recognizable.”
Not merely a multi-talented director/screenwriter/painter, Tsui also channels his overflowing imagination by serving as producer to other directors. Both “Legend of Swordsmen I” and “New Dragon Inn” were his attempt to entice his idol Hu out to make more movies. Unfortunately, both efforts ended back in Tsui’s own hands because of Hu’s poor health.
Tsui produced the “A Better Tomorrow” series starring Chow Yen Fat with the then-unknown director John Woo. The series’ success catapulted Woo to the top of Hong Kong’s film industry and then lead to a Hollywood career. Tsui also produced the acclaimed “A Chinese Ghost Story” trilogy with action director Ching Siu-Tung as director and with Joye Wong and Leslie Cheung in this highly successful reinterpretation of the ancient Chinese ghost tale. With the third episode of both of these trilogy, Tsui took over as the director as the Woo and Ching were busy with other projects. However, this is no mistaking that these two acclaimed trilogy produced and sometimes written by Tsui all bear the Tsui trademark --- highly stylized esthetic, innovative storytelling and immaculate filmmaking.
“What it ultimately comes down to is: when we are watching a movie, we are always searching for ourselves on the screen,” Tsui says. “The audience looks for himself on the screen; he looks for his interaction with other people on the screen. Ultimately, we are all looking for those human feelings.”
With these words, we eagerly await for Tsui’s “Seven Swords” to come out in July. After a few years’ soul searching and foray into comedy and contemporary drama, we await for Tsu the original kungfu master to come back to us again and serve us the what we have been waiting for -- a new kungfu epic with brand now innovation and styles.
Sense and Sensuality
---Art-House Master Tsai Ming-liang discusses his new movie “The Wayward Cloud” and his philosophies in a moody, existential interview ---
By Andrew Huang
(This article originally appeared in Taiwan News on Friday, February 18, 2005)
For all the film buffs out there, Taiwan’s film world enfant terrible Tsai Ming-liang is back again with his new movie “The Wayward Cloud,” his bravest and most controversial work so far.
Tsai’s latest movie “Wayward Cloud” is a daring, envelope-pushing movie about the lives of pornography performers. Tsai’s long-term actors Lee Kang-sheng portrays a porn actor while Chen Shiang-chyi portrays a librarian girl who starts a relationship with Lee and ends up discovering that he is a porn actor. The movie contains colorful musical scenes and sexually explicit scenes. The movie is selected for the official competition section in the 2005 Berlin Film Festival, which will wrap up its week-long event and announce the winners on February 20.
An award magnet, Tsai has won awards with every single one of his movies. His debut movie “Rebel of the Neon God” won the Bronze Award at Tokyo Film Festival in 1993. His highly acclaimed second movie “Vive L’Amour” won the highly coveted Gold Lion Award and Fipresci Prize at Venice Film Festival in 1994. His third movie “The River” won the Silver Bear Award at Berlin Film Festival in 1997. His next movie “The Hole” won the Fipresci Prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1998. The 2001 movie “What Time Is It Over There” won the Grand Technical Prize at Cannes. The 2003 movie “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” won the Fipresci Prize at Cannes.
For this new movie which made its world premier in Berlin this past week, Tsai’s long-term collaborators also show up for this cutting-edge movie. Actress Lu Yi-ching portrays an older has-been porn actress who sings her swan song against the backdrop of an errie room filled with smoke and fire. Last year’s Golden Horse best actress winner Yang Kuei-mei portrays another porno actress who sings a song in another scene. A real Japanese porn actress also portrays a minor character.
As with all the Tsai movies, the revolutionary “The Wayward Cloud” contains minimal dialogues, almost invisible plot, continuous long shot and long scenes, lingering shots of human body parts that border on fetishism, dark-toned cinematography and, last, but not least, infinite possibilities for symbolic and metaphysical meanings.
Born in Malaysia in 1957, Tsai grew up in an idyllic small town named Kuching. The pace of life is leisurely and almost aimless in the small town. Tsai’s favorite pastime during his youth was to go to the various movie theaters to watch Hollywood movies. He wasn’t particularly interested in academic study.
At the urge of his father, Tsai moved to Taiwan when he was 20 years old to pursue college education. Tsai chose to major in theater study because movie study was not available at that time. He graduated from Taiwan Culture University with a degree in theater in 1981. During his college years, He started writing theater plays and also directed three short films. His short “Instant Minced Meat Noodle” in 1981, “A Door That’s Unopenable in the Dark” in 1982 and “The Closet in the Room” in 1983 all explore the themes of self-defense mechanism of modern urban denizens. This is also the recurrent theme in all of his later feature films.
After graduation, Tsai spent a decade working in television as a screenwriter. He started writing and directing his own single-episode TV drama since 1989. It’s during the shooting of a TV drama entitled “Child” (1991) when he accidentally discovered a youth named Lee Kang-sheng in a video game bazaar.
Lee later became the muse and Tsai’s alter-ego in all of his future movies. Tsai wrote and directed his debut feature film “Rebel of the Neon God” based on the non-professional actor Lee, who even used his real name as the character’s name in this movie.
I arrived at Tsai’s film company Home Green in Yongho area in Taipei County around 4: 30 p.m. on Sunday, February 6 for the planned one-hour exclusive interview. The company building is an old-fashion, almost derelict three-story old-structure housed inside a brick-and-cement square wall with a court yard in the center where a giant tree looms at the front of the building.
Tsai was in the kitchen cooking something when I entered. He told me to go up to the second floor. After I ascended the stairs, actor Lee Kang-sheng – who was surf the internet with her face lit by the glow of computer monitor in the first room – told me to go straight to the last room at the end of the corridor.
I went inside the room and sat down to pull out my cassette recorder and notes, waiting for Tsai. The room is a Japanese-style room with straw mats covering the ground and a long rectangular wood table in the center. Surrounding the room are massive amount of Tsai’s works including theater prints, video cassettes, promotional materials, reference books, scripts and books that pile up against the wall to the ceiling except the windows.
Ten minutes later, Tsai came into the room and sat across the table from me, pouring tea from a kettle and offer me my cups. Tsai looks exactly like the photos in the newspapers. He sports a very short hair that’s only an inch more than a shaved head. His facial structure is a curvy long shape with meaty cheeks and pouty lips. His eyes are so huge that they almost seem like they are bulging. His mouth is the shape of a two rivers twisted upwards at both ends so that he looks like he is smiling constantly even when he is not.
“The idea for ‘The Wayward Cloud’ started in 1999 when I went back to Malaysia for a trip. At that time, I wanted to write and director a movie about the south Asia foreign laborers who are often exploited and abused in Taiwan,” says Tsai. “However, that plan never panned out. Another four years passed. I thought, if I don’t do it, I will never get to make this movie. So I plunged in and made this movie ‘The Wayward Cloud’.”
Asked how the concept of a movie about exploited foreign laborers makes the astonishing leap to a movie about porn actors, Tsai explains, “It’s still the same idea but with different occupation. What I am interested in is in exploring the identity issue of these individuals who are caught and get stuck between two worlds. There are many foreign laborers who lost their work rights in Taiwan and they can’t go back to their own home countries. They are stuck in between two worlds. The same idea goes for porn actors. They live double lives as porn actors and normal people but end up stuck in between two worlds.”
“Originally, I wanted the Hong Kong actress Hsiao Fong Fong to portray an aunt who comes to Taipei to visit Lee and suddenly discovers that he is a porn actor,” Tsai says. “Hsiao is not available. Then I asked Hong Kong director Ann Hui to portray this part. She is very interested and willing to do it. Unfortunately, by the time when we started shooting this movie, Hui was busy with other projects. So I ended up having Li Shang-ling to play a librarian girl who dates this guy and suddenly discovers that he is a porn actor.”
Because of the subject matter of porn actors and Tsai’s unwavering faith in presenting the absolute truth as he knows on the screen, it’s reputed that the nudity and sensual quotient of “The Wayward Cloud” might even upstage Japanese master Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of Senses” about a sexually sadomasochistic relationship which rocked the film world when it appeared in 1976.
“I really prefer not to talk about how much nudity there is in this movie because that is totally not the point. As with all my previous movies, ‘The Wayward Cloud’ is about the emotional life of these characters. Talking about the amount of nudity involved will simply mislead the audience,” Tsai asserts. “As a director, I also need to protect my actors. They give me their trust and strip naked to perform these characters for the sake of art. They deserve our utmost respect. This is not a porn movie. This is a movie about human emotions.”
I asked Tsai about the several important recurrent themes in movies: alienation in urban life, frustrated desires, unfulfilled love, deviant sexual behaviors and a deeply-rooted sympathy for people who live in the margin of the society.
“I moved to Taipei when I was 20 years old. That was a time when Taipei was still relatively innocent and simple. We used to have three TV channels only in that era. During that era of the rigid political climate, they even play patriotic songs on TV everyday,” says Tsai. “Then we went through the most drastic change that could happen to a city. Taipei has changed so much and becomes so complicated during the past two decades. Because I grew up in a very simple small village during my childhood, the change of Taipei leaves a huge impact on my mind and psyche. In my 20’s, there was a period of time when I could not spend time with anyone for more than 24 hours without freaking out.”
“The other thing is of course that -- I am a Chinese who is born and raised in Malaysia for the first 20 years of my life,” Tsai professes. “Even today, I feel I belong neither to Taiwan nor to Malaysia. In a sense, I can go anywhere I want and fit in, but I never feel that sense of belongings.”
“It’s also part of my natural personality trait too,” Tsai adds. “I am suspicious of the notion of a country, family or home.”
“The main point of my cinema is to pursue the truth, and there is nothing more truthful than when a person is being alone. When a person is alone, he doesn’t need to perform for anyone anymore. He simply does what he wants and be his real self,” Tsai explains. “I, for example, enjoy myself the best when I am peeing. That’s the moment when I am totally alone and do not need to pretend anything for anyone.”
“I also want to expel the notion is ‘solitude’ has to be a very depressing state. It’s a concept concocted by this society,” Tsai elaborates further. “’being alone’ does not necessarily means ‘being lonely;’ solitude can be a very happy state too.”
I nodded and applauded Tsai’s opinion on this. Then, a question suddenly pops up in my mind. “Tsai, I totally agree with you that solitude does not necessarily mean loneliness. It could be very liberating and comfortable, such as when I am reading and listening to music before going to sleep,” I said. “But according to this theory, half of the characters in your movies should enjoy their solitude too. How come all of your characters suffer and drown in loneliness?”
Tsai paused and thought about this for a while. He then agreed, “that’s a good question.”
For anyone who have sampled Tsai’s movies which are replete depression, suicide attempt, alienation, estrangement, fear and death, it’s naturally to be curious if Tsai Ming-liang the person spends his life in depression and is suicidal all the time too.
I asked Tsai if the alienation and depression in his movies mirrored his life. Tsai paused for a few minutes before answering, “I would say that my real personal life is a lot better than my movies. I have pretty good and steady friendship with my actors and crew, with other culturati and my own family --- but based on a finely-defined distance. I am still trying to find that fine point where I can have good relationship with people without colliding.”
Closely related to the theme of alienation is the sexual deviation in Tsai’s movies. In all of his works, there is a chain reaction of frustrated desires, unfulfilled love, and then sexual fantasies that lead to all antics such as masturbation, voyeurism, and casual, meaningless sex etc.
Tsai responded first by telling me a riotous joke about a presidential screening of his masterpiece “Vive L’Amour” in 1994. After the movie won the Venice Gold Lion Award, the then President Lee Teng-hui invited Tsai and his actors to go to the Presidential Building for a private screening. Tsai hesitated but accepted the invitation anyway. Tsai, his actors, President Lee and his staff awkwardly sat through this movie about a complicated triangle that involves masturbation, nudity and voyeurism. After the light came up, the audiences were speechless and trapped in a cloud of embarrassment. Ever a tactful politician, President Lee stood up to declare, “Well, masturbation! Everyone has done it. No big deal!”
After this laugh-out-loud tidbit, Tsai went on to explain his filmmaking philosophy. “I always feature characters who are sadly without love and lonely because that’s human beings at their most real,” Tsai says. “People have asked me why all the sex scenes in my movies are so sad and awkward. I tell them that because these two people are having sex without love. They don’t even know or care about each other enough, and of course their sex is awkward.”
“For me, solitude and sex are the moments when people are being their real self; there is nothing more real than solitude and sex as far as cinematic devices,” says Tsai. “My ultimate goal is to pursue the truth of human relation. Sometimes, even my actors ask me ‘director Tsai, do we really have to go to this extreme in our movie?’ My answer is yes. That’s my method of pursuing the truth.”
Asked about his sympathy for the socially marginalized people such as homosexual, porn actor, prostitute, handicapped and elderly etc., Tsai frankly responded, “I do not pretend that I have such a big heart and I want to push for social reform; my movies are about the lives of these characters rather than social reform.”
“It’s about my upbringing. I come from a small village where most people are working-class. My grandfather is a farmer. My father sells bowls of noodles on the street. I grew up helping to sell the noodles and washing the bowls,” Tsai reminisces. “After my grandfather passed away, my grandmother opened a Ma Jung casino in order to make a living. People from all walks of life came to the casino to play. I saw so many eccentric characters that might be considered ‘at the bottom of the social hierarchy.’ But I feel close to these people because I grew up with them. In my movies, I make no judgment about these characters. Whether they are gay or porno actor, they have the same feelings as other people do too. They are all human beings.”
Near the end of our interview, I took 20 minutes to confirm about certain information I read from a book entitled “Tsai Ming-liang” originally published in France in 2001. The book’s contributors include writers from Cahier du Cinema, the powerhouse magazine that launched the influential French New Wave movement. This book is apparently published with the collaboration and approval of Tsai and is undisputedly the most authoritative book about Tsai in both Asia and the western world so far. Tsai’s mood, however, shifted from his jovial chatter earlier to an impatient stance.
I ended my interview by asking an essential and entertaining question, “Have you ever considered making the movie that every Chinese director in the world wants to do now --- a kungfu movie?”
Suddenly, Tsai exploded into a tempest of tantrums, screaming at while jumping up and down on the straw mats. Tsai accused me for asking “stupid questions.” He told me, “I overestimated you! I thought you are from the English press and your questions will be more intelligent! But you are like some of those Chinese press! All they care about is nudity, dirt and scandal!”
Although a darling of prestigious international film festivals, Tsai has frequently come under fire with the Chinese press. He was harshly criticized for the depiction of father-son homosexual bathhouse incest scene for the movie “The River” by gay rights organizations and advocates. He is also attacked by feminism groups for his more focused careful attention on the male characters in contrast to the often trivial, abused female characters.
“Why does everyone think it’s the most important thing to make a kungfu movie or go to Hollywood?!” Tsai scolded. “Is that all there is about in this world? Kungfu movies and Hollywood?!”
I denied the charge that I ever asked Tsai if he wanted to go to Hollywood. Then I spent the next 50 minutes explaining the logic behind my every question while Tsai raved about the Chinese media which have unfairly criticized and labeled him.
Tsai calmed down after 50 minutes. Then I spent another 10 minutes to explain the logic and the importance of the “kungfu movie question. Three internationally acclaimed Chinese directors – Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, and Chen Kaige – have made foray into the kungfu movie genre. Two others, namely Wong Kar Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien, have announced their plans to make a kungfu movie. As Ang Lee puts it, “every Chinese director wants to direct a kungfu movie.” Does Tsai -- who has paid tribute to kungfu master King Hu’s classic “Dragon Inn” with his “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” – has the desire to attempt a kungfu movie too? Finally, Tsai gave me his answer: “of course.”
Tsai escorted me and the photographer who accompanied me on this assignment downstairs and to the door. Tsai invited me to go to the screening of “The Wayward Cloud” when it opens commercially this June and invited me for another interview with him.
I left Tsai’s company in a state of shock and went home to rest. Rick Yi, the photographer, got into a car accident that night after leaving Tsai’s company. Yi was hospitalized and released the next afternoon. When he turned up his camera the next day, Yi was shocked to find the images of Tsai inside. It took a few days for the memories of this Tsai interview to come back to Yi. However, Yi still does not remember how he got into the car accident that night.
The experience of this Tsai interview could be best described as “life imitating art.” I, Tsai and Yi sat in that conference room that was spacious at first and then grew claustrophobic with fear, anxiety, isolation, anger permeating the whole space. This interview and its subsequent consequences is a real life version of a Tsai Ming-liang movie with a 2-hour continuous long take interview, fear and alienation, a car crash and loss of memories.
This writer wants to ask the same question Tsai’s actors have posed, “do we really need to go to the most extreme?” Does the truth of human experience only exists in the most extreme, dangerous and dark corners? Is there more to the human experience other than loneliness, fear, alienation and incest? Aren’t the happier sides of solitude and sex as truthful to the human experience as the dark sides? As talented a filmmaker as he is, Tsai apparently still has a lot of thinking to do in his cinematic journey of pursuing the human truth.