Tsai Ming-liang: Then and now

Once upon a time: 'Past Present', the documentary on filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, retraces the places in Kuching, Sarawak, where Tsai spent his formative years, to find out what makes him the filmmaker he is today.

Once upon a time: 'Past Present', the documentary on filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, retraces the places in Kuching, Sarawak, where Tsai spent his formative years, to find out what makes him the filmmaker he is today.

The first Malaysian-made feature documentary on Tsai Ming-liang is here.

This is a true story, yet it could have come right out of a Tsai Ming-liang film.

University lecturer and filmmaker Saw Tiong Guan made his first film, a short titled G16 G17, back in 2007. Dripping with nostalgia for the old cinemas of yore, the film fittingly featured some of the best known faces in the Malaysian film scene. Directors Yasmin Ahmad and Ho Yuhang, and film historian Hassan Muthalib were among those who appeared in G16 G17 sitting in an old cinema hall, their faces lit by the flickering light of the movie being played before them.

Saw was not only paying tribute to his parents, but here was the idea that the present is watching the past, and the past still echoes in the present.

Just a few years before that, in 2003, Tsai, the most internationally celebrated Malaysian filmmaker, made Goodbye Dragon Inn, an equally nostalgic, and haunting, meditation on the death of cinema. Tsai had happened upon an old cinema in the Yonghe district in Taipei that was about to be torn down, and took the opportunity to shoot the film there.

Coincidentally, Saw also shot his film in an abandoned cinema back in his hometown of Raub, Pahang, before it was demolished. It was the cinema he had frequented as a boy.

Saw Tiong Guan (left), director of the documentary Past Present, and the subject of his film, Tsai Ming-liang, at the abandoned Cathay cinema in Kuching, Sarawak, where Tsai grew up.
Saw Tiong Guan (left), director of Past Present, and the subject of his film, Tsai Ming-liang, at the abandoned Cathay cinema in Kuching where Tsai grew up.

This real-life rhyming effect culminated in the meeting of the two filmmakers. In 2010, Saw decided to make a documentary about Tsai, and three years later, the film, Past Present, premiered at the Busan International Film Festival.

“I met him in 2005 at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival and I interviewed him in 2009 for my doctoral thesis on film censorship,” said Saw.

“We kept in touch and after I had decided to make the documentary, I phoned him and told him that I would like to film his memories of his childhood. I explained to him what I wanted to do and I remember telling him that I am not going to make a documentary about his films.”

There was one problem – Tsai doesn’t like to be filmed. He had been the subject of several documentaries already, yet that has never made it easier for him to be in front of the camera. But Saw persisted, calling him frequently to explain his ideas.

“As time passed, he managed to persuade me to agree as I feel that he is my friend and we are both Malaysian,” Tsai wrote in Chinese, in an e-mail interview from Taiwan where he is still based today.

Past Present is the first Malaysian-made feature-length documentary on Tsai. Rather than a straightforward biography of the director, the documentary explores what makes Tsai the kind of filmmaker that he is today. It retraces the places of his childhood in Kuching, Sarawak, most importantly the cinemas he used to haunt where he grew up on a steady diet of Shaw Bros martial arts movies and other classics.

During our 2003 interview, Tsai described his growing-up years as “like a purely cinematic time.”

“I grew up in a family that really loved to watch films,” he had said.

Past Present, directed by Saw Tiong Guan, is the first Malaysian-made feature documentary on renowned filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang.

The elders of his family were noodle-sellers, and he spent most of his time with his grandparents who would take him to the cinemas regularly. He never imagined that one day he would become a world-renowned filmmaker.

Tsai is one of the featured directors in the book, Speaking In Images, by Michael Berry that compiles a series of interviews with contemporary Chinese filmmakers. It was this book that inspired Saw to make Past Present. He was in Melbourne, Australia in 2010 when he came across the book in a library.

“I went to a nearby park and started reading the interview that Berry did with Tsai,” said Saw, “and I fell in love with the part where he talked about his childhood experience of going to cinemas twice every evening with his maternal grandparents.

“He was also elaborating on the 1960s, about the old stand-alone cinemas, the names of those cinemas and the films he watched back then. Reading this particular part of the interview made me think of the stories that my mother told me about those old cinemas in my hometown with names like Odeon, Cathay and Jubilee.”

Saw then became curious about why Tsai made the films he made, “to explore the link between his past and the films he makes in the present.”

“I often contemplate about how people turned out to be who they are, how the past affects someone, including the environment one grew up in, the people, culture and society one was surrounded by,” Saw explained.

He then pooled together funds from local and foreign investors, and spent the next three years shooting and putting the film together, seeking out interviews with other famous directors such as Ang Lee and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

The film premiered at the Busan International Film Festival last year to good response. It was also screened at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival. There are still other international festival engagements coming up. It also screened at the recent Tropfest Southeast Asia in Penang.

Tsai recalled the making of the documentary, of retracing his past and meeting old friends and neighbours.

“The experience was like going into a tunnel back to my past,” he wrote in his e-mail. “What I saw was cruel. The ‘scene’ and those familiar buildings were now old and dilapidated and some had even disappeared.

“The people that I know are old now, some have already passed away. At one point, I turned to Tiong Guan and asked him, ‘Why bring me back here to destroy my memories?’”

Said Saw: “I think (Tsai) is a private person but as the filming progressed, he gradually opened up and became more comfortable with us.”

Tsai is clearly a creature of nostalgia, and he recalled a time when there were no computers, TVs, video games, refrigerators or even electric fans, and children, including him, used to play in a field near his house.

“At night, I would go to the cinema to watch films,” he wrote. “My homework was done by my grandparents. Will there ever be better times than those?”

Unfortunately, Tsai has announced his retirement from filmmaking. His last film, Stray Dogs, won the Grand Jury Prize in Venice and he picked up the Best Director award at the recent Golden Horse ceremony. In Venice, he was reported as saying, “I hope (Stray Dogs) will be my last film.”

Said Apichatpong during his recent visit to KL: “(Tsai) was a big influence on me and made me continue making films. So it’s such a shock, and sad for me, when he said he would stop making films. Tsai makes you feel there is something larger outside of the frames of his films. This documentary is very important.”

Said Saw: “As someone who loves cinema, I feel sad. I share Apichatpong’s sentiment that it will be a big loss if he stops making films. But as Tsai’s friend, I think it is not a bad thing if he retires, so that he can rest more, which is better for his health. I know how hard he works and making films is difficult.”

Tsai says in the documentary that he originally planned to make only 10 films in his entire career, and he has already done so.

“At my age, there is nothing that is particularly important,’ wrote Tsai in his e-mail.

“There is nothing that I must do. I would love to experience a life where there is nothing to do, not creating anything. I am envious of the trees in the jungle, they just stand there alive. I am also envious of wild birds, innocently flying in the air.

“Actually, I don’t want to do anything. Life is short. I don’t want to spend it doing things and working.”