The Unprofessional: An Interview with Lee Kang-sheng
The cigarette-smoking man. Courtesy of

The Unprofessional: An Interview with Lee Kang-sheng

Usually the silent accompaniment to the more gregarious and charismatic Tsai Ming-liang, art house cinema's most unlikely superstar Lee Kang-sheng was forced to speak for himself with the debut of his first feature, The Missing. APA sat with him briefly before the film's Los Angeles premiere at UCLA.

By APA Staff

According to legend, Lee Kang-sheng was discovered by then-TV director Tsai Ming-liang while playing in a Taipei arcade. 14 years later, Lee wrote and directed his first film, The Missing, which won major prizes at the Pusan and Rotterdam Film Festivals. Lee's journey from menial work to director's chair has turned heads as he, along with mentor Tsai Ming-liang, became a cult icon in the international film festival scene.

Lee and Tsai's first collaboration was on the television film All the Corners of the World (1989), which was followed by Boys (1991). In a recent interview, Tsai tells of his experience with the non-professional actor in those early films. When directed to move his body faster, Lee stubbornly refused and stuck to his snail's pace. After enough castigation, Lee finally told the director, “That's just how I am!” According to Tsai, Lee's retort forced him to rethink the role of the director in representing reality. His job must be to allow his actors to be, rather than force his actors into prefigured, scripted molds. This realization marked the most important shift in Tsai's art, and secured Lee as an integral force in its creation.

Thus, when Tsai moved into feature film production with his landmark debut Rebels of a Neon God (1992), Lee was cast next to teen idols Chen Chao-jung and Jen Chang-bin, as well as Lu Yi-ching and Miao Tien, who would continue to play Lee's parents in Tsai's subsequent films such as The River (1997) and What Time is it There? (2001). Between Vive l'amour (1994), Tsai's Venice-winning first masterpiece, and The River, Lee acted in the first two features by Lin Cheng-sheng, who would go on to become one of the most important young directors in Taiwan. Lee also joined the cast of Ann Hui's award-winning Ordinary Heroes (1998), perhaps returning a favor to Hui, who had a cameo in The River.

But it is as Tsai's muse that Lee Kang-sheng will forever be known. Like Mifune to Kurosawa, Ullman to Bergman, Karina to Godard, Léaud to Truffaut, Gong Li to Zhang Yimou, and Chow Yun-fat to John Woo, Lee is more than Tsai's preferred actor, but the face of his films and the cinematic embodiment of the director's worldview. Tsai's body of work is in fact Lee's body; one could interpret Tsai's cinema as an exploration of the yearnings, fragility, and power of Lee Kang-sheng's body. In Vive l'amour, Lee's attempts to slit his wrists and rubs a watermelon on his face; in The River, Lee's neck becomes stricken with a mysterious pain; in The Wayward Cloud (2005), he becomes a porno actor whose life energy comes from watermelon juice. In each film, Lee's bodily functions, be they ingesting water, urinating, ejaculating, or bathing, become important motifs, with Lee's exposed figure a key image throughout.

In 2001, Lee was the assistant director on Tsai's documentary short A Conversation with God (aka Fish, Underground), and in 2003, Lee's debut The Missing became enjoined with Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye Dragon Inn as dual reflections on disappearance and the yearnings for reappearance in contemporary Taipei. Together, the films are known in Chinese as Bujian busan, which describes the desire upon parting for inevitable reconnection, a desire that both films refuse to easily fulfill for its characters. Both films draw heavily from the themes, aesthetics, and characters from Tsai's previous films, but upon closer inspection, Lee's cinema appears to be more visually showy, as with his use of soft blues and greens, and the striking image of a circular fence that ends the film. The acclaimed ten-minute take of Lu Yi-ching frantically looking for her missing grandson in a public park is also completely unlike Tsai's aesthetic, which tends to create its energy by inviting the viewer into a subdued, trance-like state of static reflection.

For the past few years, Lee has joined Tsai in public talks about their works. Through this process, they have become cultural ambassadors internationally and artistic activists in Taiwan. Usually the silent accompaniment to the more gregarious and charismatic Tsai, Lee Kang-sheng was forced to speak for himself with the debut of his first feature. APA sat with him briefly before the film's Los Angeles premiere at UCLA.   -- Brian Hu

Play RealVideo Interview with Lee Kang-Sheng

Interview with Lee Kang-sheng

Interviewed by Brian Hu and Dong Huang-Cherney

Translated and transcribed by Chi Tung and Brian Hu

Video edit by Charlotte Wu


APA: What were your experiences with the movies growing up?

Lee Kang Sheng: Growing up, I often went to the movies with family. We had a temple group which would screen many films; all of us children would go see films. Back then, there wasn't much in the way of entertainment -- only festivals. Sometimes we would go see three films a day.

APA: Later then?

LKS: At the time, I didn't know I would pursue ... one time while working at an arcade outside of the movie theater, Tsai Ming-liang saw me and asked if I wanted to star in his TV-film. We've now worked together for 12 years.

APA: When did you want to direct yourself?

LKS: I didn't really; it was more of a change of scenery. Following Vive l'amour, I wanted to write some screenplays. Together with Tsai, I became an assistant director on one of his documentaries, so I gradually went in that direction. I've been an actor for 10+ years, but Taiwanese films aren't all that successful, so there aren't that many opportunities for an actor. You get to a certain point and you can't break through any further, so I wanted to try something else. During the last two years, we worked on Goodbye, Dragon Inn; then I wrote a screenplay for The Missing. I wanted to submit it for a short film government fund -- they read the screenplay and liked it. Tsai was asked if he wanted to film it with Goodbye, Dragon Inn and turn it into a double feature. We thought we could each direct a part, so then I ended up directing The Missing.

APA: With all your experiences in acting and directing -- and this question is kind of abstract -- what do you think movies are?

LKS: Movies are an impression; they're different from TV in that they're meant to be shared with others.

APA: The reason I ask this is because your movies and the movies you watched growing up were different; so-called art films versus popular films. But I guess your films capture what you're trying to say...

LKS: Actually, in directing films, it's to impart what I'm thinking in my heart. It's not necessarily for the public, but a kind of personal creation.

APA: I bought Goodbye, Dragon Inn and The Missing in Taiwan and noticed on the DVD's that you and Tsai went back to various universities to promote the films. Why are you trying to target the college-age demographic?

LKS: In the ten years that Tsai and I have collaborated together, we've relied on the CMPC [Central Motion Picture Corporation] for funding. Even though we felt their methods were archaic, we've always let them do things their way. However, our box office sales were never ideal; our films would be screened in the morning, but by nightfall, they would be pulled out of circulation. Many think Hollywood is too dominant a presence, that Taiwan doesn't protect their own enough. Therefore, the influx of foreign films goes unrestricted and there's nowhere to play our films.

With What Time is it There? I told Tsai we had to recapture our audience again. Even though the Golden Horse awards and the Taipei International film festival routinely accept a lot of foreign films, they've also nourished our core audience. But this audience is small in number and besides them, who else is there? Which is why we went to colleges to publicize the films. Because I think our films are more suitable for college kids -- of course, we could just go to supermarkets ... but with related majors such as broadcasting journalism, television and film, literature, and architecture, it just seemed like a natural fit.

The first time we went to 50 or so schools; with Goodbye, Dragon Inn and The Missing, we began to reach a bigger audience. With Wayward Cloud, it was like this too, but more relaxing, not as exhaustive. So our efforts have been paying off; they've come to fruition.

APA: Tsai's films are critically acclaimed in the West. What are your thoughts on that?

LKS: I think his films value artistry, which is why we have success with colleges; a lot of professors analyze and rewatch his films, whereas with a lot of other filmmakers, there aren't the same kinds of opportunities. I think many teachers and students love his films for that reason.


Goodbye, Dragon Inn tops APA's best of 2004 films

APA's Tsai Ming-liang interview

Tsai Ming-liang vs. Kim Ki-duk

Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud