This ‘slow cinema’ legend has now abandoned all dialogue. As the UK Taiwan film festival kicks off, he talks about his latest work – about a man with neck pain who owns a fish
‘In my childhood, cinema was like going into a temple. Now, it’s more like going into a shopping mall,” says Tsai Ming-liang. Over the course of his nearly 30-year career, the Taiwanese film-maker’s work has moved further and further towards the “temple” end of the spectrum. Often bracketed under the “slow cinema” movement, he is a master of the very long take. His last feature, 2013’s Stray Dogs, included a shot of two people staring at a mural in an abandoned building that lasted over 14 minutes. But despite his shaven head, Tsai is no monk. In the past, his films have featured choreographed musical sequences, surreal comedy, and plenty of sex – gay, straight, solo, even watermelon-incorporating, in the case of 2005’s The Wayward Cloud.
In person, he is unassuming and quick to laugh. “In the past I really cared if people understood my films, but when you grow older, you care less,” says Tsai, who turned 61 last year. “You want to do something to please yourself. I feel like the film industry has trapped film-makers. They tell you you need to have a narrative structure, you need to do things a certain way. They limit the imaginations of film-makers. I often think about, what is the meaning of film? What does film want to say? The simple thing is, film is about images.”
After Stray Dogs, which won a host of international awards, Tsai claimed he was giving up commercial cinema altogether, but few could have anticipated where he would go next: virtual reality. The Deserted is possibly Tsai’s most contemplative work yet. Free of dialogue and narrative, it is set in a derelict, overgrown apartment block in the Taiwanese countryside, occupied by a man with neck pains, and what could be the ghosts of his mother and wife, and a large, white pet fish. The viewer becomes an invisible spectator to this surreal domestic tableau. The action is unhurried but never dull to look at, and you can always swivel round on your chair to appreciate the stained concrete walls, the puddles on the floor and the lush greenery outside the pane-less windows.