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Celebrated Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang discovers painting

Auteur of loneliness reckons with the isolation of COVID-19

To cope with mood swings and anxiety exacerbated by COVID, Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang has turned to his self-taught hobby of painting: 'I don't think of loneliness as something negative.' (Photo courtesy of Tsai Ming-liang)

TAIPEI -- Tsai Ming-lian, one of Taiwan's most celebrated film directors, lives in "renovated ruins" in the hills of Taipei surrounded by abandoned houses.

The outskirts of the capital city are full of these kinds of buildings, where hikers can still find old furniture, light fixtures, and even wall hangings left behind by past inhabitants. They can be difficult to date, such is the speed of decay in the island's subtropical climate.

It's an apt home for Malaysian-born Tsai, 63, who has built a career spanning four decades in his adopted home of Taiwan, creating slow dreamlike films that are more visual art than commercial cinema, with long takes and increasingly spare dialogue.

Since winning the 1994 Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion for his breakout work "Vive L'Amour" about three people unwittingly sharing an empty apartment in Taipei, Tsai has been a frequent fixture on the arthouse film circuit. His latest film, "Days," which follows two men going about their daily lives in Bangkok, was screened at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival where it won the jury Teddy Award for LGBT-themed films.

The commercial release of "Days," however, and Tsai's other projects, have come to a halt thanks to COVID. The pandemic has triggered an onset of mood swings for Tsai, which has made him uncertain about how and when to start his next venture.

"I spend a great deal of time waiting," Tsai told Nikkei Asia in an interview. "I will finish my projects. I am not canceling, but postponing them. It's like I'm waiting-waiting for the pandemic to pass. But you know it won't pass quickly. Everybody is cognizant of that. It's uncertain how fast or slow we'll get through this. Hence, I feel stuck."

Top: Malaysian-born Tsai, 63, has built a four-decade career in his adopted home of Taiwan, creating slow dreamlike films that are more visual art than commercial cinema. Bottom: Tsai's portrait of his principal actor and muse, Lee Kang-sheng, from a scene in 'Days'. (Photos courtesy of Tsai Ming-liang)

Like many of Tsai's films, "Days" is full of extended takes of its actors doing things alone: walking, lying down, eating. It is a signature style that can be found in many of his other pictures, including a series of experimental movies such as 2014's "Journey to the West", which follows an anonymous Buddhist monk as he slowly walks through various urban environments.

The solitude and loneliness of Tsai's characters is an echo of his personal life, as he has enjoyed spending time alone since he was a child in Malaysia.

"I like solitude. In my upbringing, sometimes I had many opportunities to form close relationships with others. But other times, I had the opportunity to be in solitude. I especially liked those times of being alone. You could reminisce, imagine, do what you like, show up as what you truly are," said Tsai. "I don't think of loneliness as something negative. More likely, it has many positive meanings. For example, you may have more imagination because of loneliness. You may miss someone you like more because of loneliness."

The isolation imposed by COVID, though, is something new for Tsai -- a "forced" solitude full of restrictions, fear and uncertainty.

"It's a slightly different feeling. You become worried upon seeing people. Do you know what I mean? Under COVID, when you go to the market to pick up something, you will intentionally avoid the crowd. Or when you notice someone approaching you, you dodge away a little," Tsai said. "You're afraid that people will come in contact with you, and vice versa. This is another type of alienation, with a tinge of fear."

To cope with his mood swings and anxiety, Tsai has turned to his self-taught hobby of painting. In addition to re-creating scenes from "Days," Tsai's other projects include a series of paintings inspired by his collection of vintage chairs and sofas, as well as painting on cabinets.

Top: The pandemic has triggered an onset of mood swings for Tsai, making him uncertain about when to start his next venture: 'Hence, I feel stuck.' Bottom: Anong Houngheuangsy, who plays Non, a Laotian immigrant to Thailand in 'Days', and Tsai Ming-liang. (Photos courtesy of Tsai Ming-liang)

Even with Taiwan under a "soft lockdown" since May -- after nearly a year and a half successfully containing the disease -- the pandemic is not Tsai's first experience of turmoil on the island. First arriving there in 1977, two years after the death of authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan was still a very conservative society under martial rule.

Tsai recalls how, despite the fashion of the 1970s, young men could find themselves asked to cut their hair by a police officer if it was deemed too long. Even as a student in the film and drama department of the Chinese Culture University, Tsai was required to take a class in "military basics 101."

His status as a foreigner -- even an ethnic Chinese one -- gave him a greater sense of freedom and rebelliousness compared to many of his fellow students. Drawing on this experience produced Tsai's first sparks of creativity, compelling him to express the feelings of restriction and confinement aroused by Taiwan's repressive society.

Gradually over the course of the next decade, Taiwanese society began to thaw until martial law was finally repealed after 38 years in 1987. One-party rule didn't end until the first democratic elections were held in 1996. This period coincided with the rise of neorealist filmmaking known as "New Taiwanese Cinema" as the island's more commercial film industry lost ground to Hong Kong.

During that time, Tsai recalls how many Taiwanese were "still learning how to utilize their newly earned rights and freedoms" and they went about building what is arguably Asia's most open society today. Much of that came from the high rate of information and culture that was pouring in from abroad, he said.

Never afraid to branch out, Tsai's work transitioned from the more story-focused style of his earlier films to his current "personal style" of filmmaking that features a "slower pace and a heavier accentuation of image and aesthetics," he said. "Gradually, I came to think less about the story, and more about aesthetics and image. Because of this shift of style, from story-focused to image and aesthetics-focused, art museums discovered my films. They thought my work was perfect."

Top: Unfinished portrait of Anong Houngheuangsy in a scene from 'Days'. Bottom: Tsai's other projects during COVID lockdowns include a series of paintings inspired by his collection of vintage chairs. (Photos courtesy of Tsai Ming-liang)

While the most recognition Tsai has received for his work has been in Europe, he has a devoted following at home, where his films are considered an essential part of Taiwan's more light-hearted "Second New Wave" of filmmaking, alongside the early films of Ang Lee. But where Lee has crossed over into Hollywood filmmaking, Tsai has been unafraid to extract elements like dialogue and a character-driven narrative as he has matured as a director.

Even if he lacks inspiration in the present, Tsai's tendency to use his own life or even the painful experiences or those of people close to him means that it's possible COVID could turn up in one of his next films.

The plot of 1997's "The River" drew directly from the life of Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai's principal actor and muse, who had struggled with months of neck pain while filming "Vive L'Amour." Tsai's 2001 work "What Time Is It There?" was inspired by his and Lee's experiences with grief.

"When (Lee's) father passed away, I saw the sadness that lingered on his face," said Tsai. "One day on an airplane, I stared at his melancholy, unhappy sleeping face. I woke him up and told him that I decided to shoot a movie about a father's passing away. My father passed away, too! But I had forgotten it. Then Lee's gloomy face reminded me of how I'd felt when my father passed away. So I shot a movie called 'What Time Is It There?'."

Conveniently, Lee lives in the same building as Tsai -- as has been their longstanding practice -- so he has not lost connection to his creative partner even if filmmaking itself has come to a standstill. For now, Tsai is looking forward to eventually reconnecting with the world and "becoming liberated and free." What that world will look like post-pandemic remains to be seen.

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