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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.2 (2000) 579-588

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Interview with Tsai Ming-liang

Shelly Kraicer

The cinema of Taiwan continued to be one of the most creative and vital on the cinematic map at the end of the 1990s. First brought to world attention in the early 1980s by the new Taiwan cinema movement led by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, its creative vanguard has passed to a new generation of filmmakers. Foremost among them is Tsai Ming-liang. Tsai was born into an ethnic Chinese family in Malaysia in 1958 and moved to Taiwan to attend university. After working in Taiwanese theater and television and writing a number of screenplays in the Hong Kong film industry, Tsai started to write and direct his own films. He has made four feature films to date. His first, Rebels of the Neon God [Qing shaonnian na zha] (1993), won best director and actor prizes at the Nantes Festival des Trois Continents in 1994 and introduced actor Lee Kang-sheng, his constant collaborator and now a Taiwanese “second wave” icon. Tsai's second film, Vive l'Amour [Aiqing wansui] (1994), won the Golden Lion award for best film at the Venice Film [End Page 579] Festival. The River [He liu] (1997) won second prize at the Berlin, Singapore, and Chicago film festivals. In 1998 the Chicago Film Festival jury presented a Golden Hugo award to The Hole [Dong] for best feature film.

Because Haut et Court and La Sept-Arte commissioned The Hole as part of their end-of-the-millennium series 2000 Vu Par. . ., the film observes the series' formal stipulation that the story begin on 31 December 1999. Tsai sets his film in a quasi-science-fictional Taipei, besieged by a mysterious millennial virus. Action is virtually restricted to a single apartment building and specifically to the hole that a plumber opens between the apartment of “the man upstairs” (Lee Kang-sheng) and that of “the woman downstairs” (Yang Kuei-mei). Several glossy musical numbers punctuate the action, complete with backup dancers and lip-synching to the film songs of 1950s/1960s Hong Kong movie star and pop queen Grace Chang (Ge Lan).

I spoke with Tsai Ming-liang and his producer and translator Peggy Chiao in September 1998 when they brought The Hole to the Toronto International Film Festival.

Shelly Kraicer: Perhaps the most striking formal feature of The Hole is its use of interpolated musical set pieces, lip-synched by your star Yang Kuei-mei to the songs of Grace Chang. How did you conceive of the musical numbers? Were they part of your original conception of the film, and did you encounter any special problems in filming them?

Tsai Ming-liang: While writing the screenplay, I had already conceived of the idea of including musical scenes. I wanted this film to address the issue of the year 2000, but this was already so close to the present era. So with the fantasy of the musical sections, I am able to give a really imaginary science fiction–like feel to the future. To show future, I created the fantasy of a musical dream sequence. The difficult part for me, because I love Grace Chang so much, was that there were so many songs I wanted to put in the film but couldn't. While we were shooting, I hadn't decided which songs I should use, but after we finished all the scenes of realistic situations, we started to conceive of what we can do with the musicals. Originally they were designed in a kind of authentic Hollywood studio film style, with all sorts of abstract props. But we didn't for two reasons: first, we ran out of money to do it in the studio, and, second, shooting on location inspired me to shoot the [End Page 580] musical scenes there instead of in studio, with its completely escapist style of backdrops.

I used songs because I myself like musicals from Hong Kong and Hollywood very much. I based all of these scenes...