An Interview with TSAI MING-LIANG
CHEN: THE RIVER is your third film. The way it
is constructed makes it look a lot like a sequel of REBELS OF THE NEON
TSAI: My films map the joumey through life of
one character, Xiao-kang. Personally, I would rather see it as a sequel
of Vive L 'amour. The River projects the growth and chronicles the experience
of this one character. In each of my three films, Xiao-kang confronts
new problems and experiences new mood shifts.
I consider all three Xiao-kang 's films.
CHEN: But you 've also resurrected two characters,
father and mother (played by Miao Tien and Lu Hsiao-ling, respectively),
from REBELS. Construction-wise, I think it precedes The River.
TSAI: This time I set out to play up the family
element. When I outlined a background study for VIVE characters, I meant
to give Xiao-kang a home, which could very well be the one illustrated
in REBELS, a home he hardly ever visits, a home he definitely detests.
In The River, family element resurfaces. He harbors no love for his
family. He has no intention to go home. He only does it because he is
terribly sick, and once he is there, he is trapped. You can say that
he is caught by a dilemma similar to his father's. The old man likes
to hang out in places like gay sauna. The leak is just one more incentive
that drives him away from home. Now, come think about it, Xiao-kang's
mother doesn 't seem to like her home very much, either.
The apartment that houses the family serves merely
as a symbol. The River focuses on the family and probes into its problems
to see what have happened. What drives Xiao-kang away from his home,
where he is forced to return and confronts many ghosts of his past and
CHEN: Looming big and imposing in The River,
as well as REBELS and VIVE, is a metropolis, Taipei in this case. I
remembered when you first told me the story, Tamsui River (a river bordering
northern part of Taipei) plays a key role. This element is all but disappears
by the time you finished the film. Tell me a little more about how you
developed the screenplay?
TSAI: Early on, I was going to tell the story,
in part, with a documentary style. It was meant to magnify the symbolic
meanings of the polluted river. Life is like a river. The further we
travel down the river of life, we face more and more dilemmas coming
from a more deteriorating environment. But, I don't want to make it
into a film about environment protection . .
The inspiration of The River came from All Corners
of the Sea, a TV drama I did years ago. There was this one scene, an
extra was shoved into a river by one child actor. He accidentally swallowed
some water, and got sick for a couple of days. A real-life story. I
left the scene on the editing floor. The extra, a school buddy of mine,
was really pissed. And since, strange as it is, I have had this compelling
urge to base a film on this simple story. All my films invariably focus
on social issues, scrutinizing many changes sprouted out at us because
of economical prosperity and environmental degradation. The River is
it, and so are REBELS and VIVE .
I have always wanted to probe deeper into the
roots of humanity. While shooting The River, I kept reminding myself
to probe into the deeper, the darker half of ourselves. We don't always
live happily ever after. Look around, our city is growing fast. Materialism
boosts human greed to an unglorious height. We have everything we ever
wanted, yet there is something lurking in the dark to keep us from being
There is one scene in this film that, no matter
how hard I have tried, I can't write it off or edit it out. A very early
shot of father whiling away in a dark sauna suite. It is an echo of
the river. If life is like a river, a part of it will always be darkly
swirling and unfantomly deep. There will always be some dark and damp
corners for the father to coop up. These are the images I want.
CHEN: Water in your films carries loads or message.
Is it a symbol or sensuality?
TSAI: Water doesn't necessarily stand for sensuality.
Different people interpret it differently. It could also mean disasters,
or life itself. Water in REBELS stands for multilevel of feeling. It
may flow freely.
It may be stagnant. You need it so badly, yet are sometimes in awe of
Water in The River stands for desires. It overflows,
causing troubles. The leak happens at the same time Xiao-kang taken
ill. It corners both father and son and forces them to confront and
solve their problems.The father and son, though acting like total strangers,
are chips from the same block. The young man played by Chen Chao-jung
was posted as an intruder. All three take to looking into mirror. The
mirror image brings out the similarity in these three characters .
The strange neck problem of Xiao-kang is not
triggered by his dip in the dirty river water. It is a projection of
his rebellion. Psychologically, Xiao-kang rejects the water. Next room,
his father doesn't reject the water. The old man merely sets up a barrier
to block off the water. Xiao-kang doesn't let his neck problem stop
his day-dream like drifting. He keeps moving around until he arrives
at the last scene and opens up the window. This character is created
to serves different purposes in each of my films. He kissed Chen Chao-jung
in VIVE, opens a window in The River. There are hopes behind a kiss,
an open window.
CHEN: This character Xiao-kang, is it a projection
TSAI: This film is very complicated. Every character
in this film is a projection of me. I wrote a little bit of me into
each of them. I like all of them. I let them cry a little, wander off
a little. In the final scene, Xiao-kang is made to walk away from the
camera and then come back. I want you to sense that there is still some
hope in this character. I like this character very much .
CHEN: Talking about cruelty. In the end or the
film, the sauna scene, the rather and sou are involved in a very erotically
incestuous scene. Visually and psychologically, it is a very core-shaking
powerful, yet very cruel, scene. Why?
TSAI: I believe that only by pushing it to the
limit (the pains, the cruelty) that I can shatter pretentiousness and
insensitivity of this society. People read about major crimes daily.
It 's in the 24-hour news, newspapers and weeklies. They have taken
these cruel crimes for granted. They woll 't feel it unless you punch
them hard .
In this film, it seems very important for the
father and son to uncover something about one another. So, they find
out something about each other, but then what? I wanted to stretch it
a little bit farther and set them up in a really awkward situation.
The funny thing was even after I have pushed them into a tight corner.
W hat happened then didn't seem so bad. They embraced as if they have
found redemption in each others arms. This could be their onIy
chance to embrace or caress each other, or hold each other's hand.Then
and there, they dd it, exuberating warmth and serenity.
CHEN: You seem to be very pessimistic about family
TSAI: From the family angle, my three films seem
to be tied in to one another. The River screened by itself might be
confusing. Relations between RIVER's characters is not weIl declared
at the beginning of the film. Had the father not declared his relationship
with Xiao-kang over a phone conversation with a miracle worker at the
end of the film, theirs could be anything, for example, grandfather
The three living in that tiny apartment could be roommates, taking temporary
boarding in a house with worsening leak and entertaining no co-relationship
at all. They are the microcosm of a dysfunctional family, a dysfunctional
society where gap between its members are getting wider.
In this film, I also attempt to patch up the
dysfunctional relationship seen in my previous films. I considered this
possibility when I first set out to shoot this film. My previous two
concentrated on breaking up bondage between people. Should I try some
patching up with this film, I asked myself? What could be the thing
that will help them make contact? I may look into it with my next project
Why is there a hole between two rooms ? Something meaningful might this
After all that have happened to our society,
isn't it about time for us to sit down and go retrospective, especially
when nothing works to correct the wrongs (not with religions, political
or financial power)?
Shouldn 't we start over by building something new and beautiful out
of the ashes of old and decaying. In THE RIVER, the father takes his
son to doctors, making contacts with people. By touching and feeling
Xiao-kang, people are giving Xiao-kang a hand to stand up on his own.
CHEN: It seems to me that characters in The River
are not very actively interacting with outside world.
TSAI: I did it on purpose. I meant to empty the
stage for the main characters. The world is a stage for them. It all
happened in Taipei. By blocking off the busy crowd of Taipei, I created
an illusionary world. My characters seemed to be day-dreaming in this
illusionary world, a cutoff space that created total isolation and enclosure.
CHEN: If realism is your priority, why not taking
up non-professionally trained actors like your fellow directors, such
as Hou Hsiao-hsien?
TSAI: I would rather catch unaware passersby
cruising down the street then hiring non-professional doing takes. To
me, that would be faking it. What is film, I've pondered hard and often
on this. It may look real, but it 's not. You can do your best to make
it look real. Very often, I have to work very hard to bring out something
I especially want to emphasize. In The River, it is the surrealistic
vacant streets and overpasses. I design camera movement to better suit
my actors. When I want my audience to concentrate on a crying Yang Kwei-mei
or a puffing Lee Kang-sheng, I ask for a close-up shot. When I assign
director Ann Hui the part of a commercial film director, she does it
like she is really directing a film. I like it that way.
CHEN: But most or the time, you are doing it
from an objective point of view.
TSAI: Yes. I meant to initiate audience step
by step to the subjective inner world of my characters. I am the guide.
CHEN: Does the father role post a great handicap
to Mr. Miao Tien?
TSAI: Prior to taking up my offer, he pondered
for a long time. There were different opinions from his family and friends,
and there are the consideration of his previous image as macho man in
many kung fu and swordplay romances; this proved to be an especially
great hurdle to overcome. The nude scene was especially tough on him.
While preparing for the take, our focus was on whether he should do
a frontal nude or the alternative. But once the camera started to roll,
the mood shifted, he started to take off his cloth. On the love scene
between gay lovers, at first he asked me a lot of questions, such as
would I use close-up shots, which I myself didn't have the answer. A
lot of things and decisions are undecided until you reach the location
I experience great inner struggles all the time: What if the audience
couldn't get through the acting and locate the things hidden under it?
What if these inner struggles pose as too big an obstacle for my actors
to overcome? I learn that sometimes it is good to let their feelings
flow and not to fight against these feelings. Thus, together, we generate
something great together .
(by Rachel Chen,translated by Jean Yeh)