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Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang Talks Creative Freedom, TikTok and Box Office Disasters: ‘In Future, None of My Films Will Have a Script’

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Taiwan-based auteur Tsai Ming-liang, who has two films in the Berlinale this year, is a contrarian who would be almost at home working with art-galleries and museums as cinemas and film festivals. Indeed, his new “Abiding Nowhere” is part financed by the Smithsonian Institute.

“Abiding Nowhere,” which premieres on Monday in the Encounters section and consists of lonely wanderings through Washington DC by a barefoot monk, is, by Tsai’s own admission, “not a normal film.”

“It does not have a story or a plot. There are no performance and no language.
It shares similarities with my other films, but pushed to extremes. Perhaps it is incomprehensible,” said Tsai, Friday, at a Berlin masterclass. “I’m not trying to tell you anything through script or performance. It could be perfect for a gallery or museum, but I still hope it plays in theaters.”

It is the second time that Tsai has screened a film from his “walker series” in Berlin. “To prepare for this one I went out and did sketching, like a painter. Can you get a sketch into the cinema? It is hard to overcome audience expectations of what a film should be. I’ll never win a Golden Bear or one of those awards, because I’ve chosen a different path. I’m trying to change the idea of cinema. It can be like a portrait, or poetry or a statue,” he said.

Tsai told self-deprecating anecdotes about how, on several occasions, commercial exhibitors have cancelled the screenings of his films after just a single day, and how some theatrical runs only succeeded when Tsai ventured on to the street to tout the tickets.

And while Tsai’s high art approach may be box office poison, there is clearly an audience. The masterclass in a building adjacent to Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau, was standing room only.

Deploying exceptionally long-takes and minimal story, Tsai finds the museum-installation analogy to be fitting. But with a caveat.

“Just imagine, though, in a gallery viewers would move on after 2-3 minutes of watching and never see the whole thing. But if they buy a ticket, they’d be more inclined to watch it all,” he said.

The theme of attention span came up again, when Tsai admitted to regularly watching short videos on TikTok.

“There is a flood of images today. But we can’t turn the clock back. I watch TikTok and find it terrifying. We are losing the concept of a big screen and our aesthetic values,” he said.

“We may have been misunderstanding film. Often we believed that art is a form of storytelling. A cinematographer I worked with told me afterwards that he learned about framing from filming my long shots. He told me that previously he’d been filming lies,” said Tsai. “What we take away are the images, not the story. I believe that long, slow takes allow us to get closer to reality.

A restored version of Tsai’s 2005 altogether different “The Wayward Cloud,” also plays in Berlin this week. It is a colourful allegory mixing up pornography, a drought and fresh fruit. Tsai encouraged festival-goers to watch both and witness his filmmaking progress.

“In future none of my films will have a script. I know how the industry limits directors’ creativity. But remember, a script is not the same thing as a film,” said Tsai.