Tsai Ming-liang turns to art films

Boxoffice elusive for 1994 Golden Lion winner

HONG KONG — Tsai Ming-liang's patient, unvarnished meditations on the human condition don't make for exciting commercial cinema. The Malaysian-born, Taiwan-based director often strips his characters of dialogue and captures them at their most banal and desperate — bowling with a water melon, sobbing uncontrollably on a park bench or finding gratification in an unknowingly incestuous encounter.

While lavished with attention at Berlin, Cannes and Venice, Tsai has never struck a chord with average Chinese-speaking viewers looking for escapism in cheesy romantic plots and gravity-defying kung fu sequences. Often shunned by theatre owners who view him as an industry outcast, he hawks tickets to his own movies on the street to extend their runs.

Frustrated at the boxoffice, the 53-year-old filmmaker, who won the Venice Film Festival's top Golden Lion prize in 1994 for "Vive L'Amour," has now branched out into modern art with installation pieces and is finding a growing audience.

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum has acquired a Tsai piece that includes a group of seats dismantled from an old movie theatre for its permanent collection. The installation, which explores childhood memories of the movies, will also be displayed at the Shanghai Art Museum in October. Another work featuring 49 chairs was unveiled in Taiwan on Tuesday.

Another theatre-chair-themed piece and an installation that examines space — which features a video that simply focuses on a bed — is part of Japan's Aichi Triennale this year, which runs from Aug. 21 to Oct. 31.

"I am even bolder in the video than I am in my movies. I think about the tolerance level of the audience even less. I shoot a bed for 40 minutes. It doesn't matter whether you look at it or not. But if you do, you will find out what I am trying to express," Tsai told The Associated Press on Wednesday while visiting Hong Kong.

He said he expects to spend more time on fine art in the coming years.

"It's easier for art installations to make it into museums and art museums. The path is more difficult for movies. I'm always trying to look for more freedom in the creative process. I find I enjoy more freedom once I enter the arena of museums," Tsai said.

It's not a big leap for a director known for his highly experimental style. The sheer stillness and minimalism in Tsai's lengthy shots of characters grappling with loneliness often resembles avant-garde performance art.

"For me, art installations are no different from film. They are both pure creativity," Tsai said.

Tsai said he is even planning on marketing his latest movie, "Visage," as a collector's item.

Instead of his usual Taiwan DVD run of 2,000 copies, this time he is only issuing 10 copies in the island — each priced at a whopping 1 million New Taiwan Dollars ($31,500). Tsai said he has already received three orders. "Visage," the story of a Taiwan director who shoots a movie in Paris against the backdrop of the Louvre, competed at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Despite his turn toward installation art, the native of the Malaysian city of Kuching is still keeping a hand in movies. Tsai plans to start shooting a family drama early next year. He plans to raise funds for the new project, "The Diary of a Young Boy," at the Pusan International Film Festival next month, where organizers will honour him as Asian Filmmaker of the Year.

"I haven't given up (on movies) — but I don't have high expectations either," Tsai said.

Tsai praised the South Korean event as a rare festival that still tries to fend off commercial influences.

"The organizers of the Pusan festival really love movies and want to do something for movies in modern times," he said.
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