A Programmer's Chronicles, February 2007
Tsai Ming-liang and his crew selling tickets for 'I Don't Want To Sleep Alone' in the streets of Taipei
by Gertjan Zuilhof
Tsai Ming-liang was in Rotterdam. The day before he was in the streets of Taipei selling tickets for his latest film I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone. Dressed in a sarong, because the film had after all been shot in Malaysia, he had personally addressed his possible audience with the actors and actresses to persuade them to spend some of their Chinese New Year’s money on his film. I thought it was a striking and appealing gesture in a time of online selling, but Tsai said it wasn’t only a stunt. That he had spent years convincing cinemas this way that they should screen his films. By selling his tickets in advance in the street, he can guarantee the owners good box-office receipts. The international fame of Tsai does not automatically mean that a lot of people go to see his films in his home country. Being eye to eye with the celebrated filmmaker and the appeal of an autographed postcard apparently helps people to make up their minds. In this way, the master sells almost a ticket a minute (100 tickets within two hours, according to a local newspaper) and that doesn’t sound too bad when you’re trading sombre cinematographic art.
Tsai started hawking in the streets in 2001. It was the year of What Time Is It There? A disastrous year for Taiwanese film. The market share of Hollywood films had reached the incredible percentage of 99% according to the Government Information Office, quoted by the Taipei Times on 15 March 2002. Against my habit, I provide the source because it looks just too exaggerated to be true. Tsai was unable to find a cinema to screen What Time Is It There? and decided as a gesture of despair to buy out the cinema and sell the tickets himself in the street. And not only in the street. For a month he visited all kinds of cultural events and university buildings on the island to find an audience for his film. He says he gave 70 lectures about his work in that period. At least two lectures a day. One ticket per minute. An innumerable number of autographs. Who says that art-film makers aren’t interested in their audience?
By the way, Tsai does more than make films and then sell tickets. He comes from the theatre and keeps returning to it. I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone was the film for which he returned to his birthplace of Malaysia, but earlier he returned for theatre productions to Sarawak – Malaysian Borneo – that is his real birthplace. And Tsai has discovered the world of visual art or this world has discovered him. I am myself involved in an exhibition in the National Palace Museum in Taipei for which he is making a special installation.
The short film that he made for the Rotterdam farewell of Simon Field in 2004 will have a striking recirculation on this occasion. The Louvre in Paris gave him a commission and it looks as if he will be attending the next Biennial in Venice. The Taiwanese artist/curator Hongjohn Lin has asked him to make an installation for the Taiwanese pavilion. Even though Taiwan does not have a pavilion in the Giardini, the park with national pavilions, but it does have a Venetian mansion outside the site that is equally beautiful. In Rotterdam, Tsai announced that he had taken over the worn seats of an old cinema and was going to have them shipped to Venice. So art does not only come to the film maker, the film maker takes the cinema to art.
In Rotterdam, I showed Tsai the Exposing Cinema exhibitions in Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Witte de With and TENT. He was clearly enthusiastic about the spaces and that struck me as being a good moment to ask him to think about a non-filmic contribution to the next Rotterdam Festival. He was willing. He wants to make a theatre show in the whitewashed spaces on Witte de Withstraat. I’ll keep you informed.
Let’s briefly get back to Malaysia, the fatherland of Tsai Ming-liang. In Rotterdam he told the audience for his second screening that he’d just heard his film had been banned in Malaysia. Afterwards, someone wanted to know what he thought of that ban. He said he couldn’t possibly be surprised, because all nine films he’s made have been banned in his home country. So you don’t need to ask why he once decided to stay in Taipei after completing his studies. The issue was not considered newsworthy by the Malaysian newspapers so I only know the reason, or rather reasons, for the ban from Tsai himself. One of them in particular remains fresh in my mind. His film apparently presents too many poor people. Yes, and the inter-racial affection of a believer for an unbeliever of the same sex motivated censorship, but love for a poor man was even worse. The things that can insult a home country!