IFFR 2008: Interview with "Help Me, Eros" actor / writer / director LEE KANG-SHENG
Shortly after Peter van der Lugt (from GhibliWorld.com) and I saw Lee Kang-Sheng's new movie "Help me, Eros" we actually got an opportunity to speak with the man himself.
Which is a weird experience to be honest: first we see movie posters for "Help me, Eros" everywhere in Rotterdam (featuring a naked Lee Kang-Sheng with hemp leaves painted on him, having graphic sex with an angel), then we see him larger than life on the big screen in a very explicit role, next we're shaking hands with him.
And "Help me, Eros" isn't exactly the easiest of films to talk about. It's great for discussing with other movie fans, make no mistake, but to ask specifics from its creator is something else.
For example, it's easy to say "Dude, did you see that threesome?" to a friend.
It's a lot less easy to ask "So ehm... why did you put in a threesome?" to the person who acted, wrote and directed that scene.
Thankfully we didn't need to worry about questions becoming too embarrassing, as Mr. Lee was very candid and willing to fill in any blanks.
Read on after the break!
PL: Our first question is a bit of a standard one, but we'd like to know why you decided to make "Help Me, Eros"? It covers quite some intimate subjects...
AV: ...and I'd like to explain why we ask this, before it seems too 'generic' a question: you are the writer, director and actor of this film, so it's not like you had read a book, got inspired and wanted to make a movie out of it. You totally created this yourself, from scratch. Why was specifically this story so important to you?
Lee Kang-Sheng: I've been walking around with the idea for this movie for a long time, even from before I made my first movie "The Missing", but at that time I had not written a script yet. Directly after shooting "The Missing" I started writing the script for this movie, because it's partly based on my own experiences and observations on Taiwanese society, and the situations you can find there.
The biggest problem turned out to be funding, I spent three years trying to get the financing arranged. In the end I received a filmmaking-grant from the Taiwanese government, they have a couple of those and I got one.
AV: When you say it's partly based on your own experiences, ... well, how embarrassing can I make the next question? Ehm... (nervous laughter)
Lee Kang-Sheng: As for being based on my own experiences, it is as follows:
The situation in Taiwanese film business is currently quite bad, as an actor you hardly get any opportunity to be in a movie or act on stage. What I did was, because I had so much free time on my hands, no acting jobs, I started trading in the stock market. That was not really a good plan though because I lost a lot of money and it left me with some very bad memories. You can easily see that in the film.
At the time I was also suffering from a medical problem, some vertebrae in my neck got "twisted" and it took me a year to recover. I consulted over 30 doctors but no-one could find the exact problem, and one of Tsai Ming-Liang's films, "The River", is actually about that subject.
During that time I got more and more depressed, I saw no way out and even contemplated suicide. I called one of those "suicide helpline" phone-numbers, but it was always busy and I could never get through. So this got me thinking: if that helpline is always occupied it can only mean there are many, many people who, just like me, have a lot of problems. For me this was a reason to re-think about "life" and how there are different ways to look at it.
There's another thing, and this has to do with those stands on the side of the streets where betel nuts are being sold. These have a mild stimulating effect and are primarily sold to car drivers. In 2000, Tsai Ming-Liang and I made a long journey through Taiwan to advertise one of our other movies, and we traveled with a van from city to city, from one university to the next. Because we spent so much time on the road we kept running into those betel nut stands everywhere, and I noticed how that was a sort of sub-culture of its own. You have all those girls who look really beautiful, but that's of course all surface and I was wondering what... if anything could be found underneath that surface.
AV: Yes, because I noticed... well, I had read the description in the IFFR program and when it said "betel nut salesgirl" I was thinking about a shop assistant, but when we saw the movie it was like... WHOA...! I thought prostitution would probably be illegal in Taiwan, therefore this might have become a sort-of alternative way to buy and sell sex? I was very surprised!
Lee Kang-Sheng: Only a very small percentage of these girls are actually into prostitution. But it certainly is true that under the moniker of "special services rendered" you can often get special treatment, which will most of the time be limited to a touch, a fondle or a massage. But sometimes you can indeed enter the girl's stand and she will draw down the curtains, and other things will happen, but that is forbidden by law. You are not allowed to be a prostitute while posing as a betel nut salesgirl.
PL: Following up on that, you already mentioned having problems raising the funds to be able to shoot this movie. But it contains some very explicit scenes which would make it hard to reach a larger audience. Which target audience did you have in mind?
Lee Kang-Sheng: Actually, the grant I received from the Taiwanese government didn't have any demands attached to it, so I wasn't catering to a "target audience". I think that's excellent, because it means the government people are broad-minded, they just look at your artistic abilities. They really are only interested in artistic potential, so if they think you can deliver a good movie they'll give you the grant.
I'll add to this that "Help Me, Eros", in its project state, participated in the Rotterdam Festival Cinemart and in the Korean Pusan Festival, and both times we couldn't find any investors for it. Apparently it was considered too risky a project.
So in the end we only had the Taiwanese government money and our own production company funds. One of the reasons why I'm the actor, writer AND director on this was simply that we didn't have enough money to do it otherwise. And the art direction was done by Tsai Ming-Liang who was also the producer. A decision we made partly for the same reason, which is that we didn't have much money available.
AV: Returning to your earlier experiences, do you think you exorcised some inner demons by making this movie?
Lee Kang-Sheng: Yes, I think so. I think what you see in the movie are people looking for an exit of sorts, an escape, and I think I found mine through creating this film.
AV: "Help Me, Moviemaking"
Lee Kang-Sheng: Hm, yes.
AV: I noticed that the Tsai Ming-Liang movie "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" (starring Lee Kang-Sheng, AV) also showed people who are in a position with no way out, and their mutual intimacy was the only escape they had.
In "Help Me, Eros" however you show that intimacy, or rather sex, is no solution for the main character even though it is the most fantastic sex imaginable. Was this done deliberately, to show a difference between your work and that earlier movie?
Lee Kang-Sheng: Of course I depicted sex in this way on purpose.
If you look at young people today, they can't handle stress. They live at an incredibly high pace, and it's sort of... it's like fast food. But not just food, they want to earn as much money as possible quickly, love and everything must be quick, and when they have gotten hold of something, then they want to have it in large amounts.
And also, when they finally HAVE something they don't know how to cherish it. They cannot keep hold of it. All the time they're looking at new ways to stun themselves, whether it is sex, or hash, or other drugs, or designer labels... These are all things which you use to stun yourself, and that is what I wanted to show.
PL: Can that part also be seen as autobiographical? Because there are other scenes as well like in the beginning with the fish, or the sex threesome with everyone covered in Gucci and Louis Vuitton logos, and it made me wonder if those were also... hmm... difficult to explain, if there was also an autobiographical element in those scenes.
Lee Kang-Sheng: (chuckling) Well... part of it is. Like what I just said about young people: I see myself as young enough to be counted as one, so part of me reacts in the same way. For instance I'm ten years younger than Tsai Ming-Liang so there surely is a notable difference there. It's just my impression of what society is like.
AV: I hate to constantly keep returning to the subject of erotic content, but there is a lot of it and I just wondered... a short time ago Ang Lee's "Lust Caution" was released on DVD all over Asia, and even the Taiwanese version allegedly is the censored version. (not true, by the way, it just lacks English subs. AV) Are you afraid the Taiwanese DVD-release for "Help Me, Eros" will be cut as well, even though the Taiwanese government gave you that grant?
Lee Kang-Sheng: The Taiwanese "Lust, Caution" DVD was censored?
AV: That's just what I heard, I can't say for sure if that's true or not. (It isn't. AV)
Lee Kang-Sheng: I don't expect anyone to change anything to "Help Me, Eros". The DVD should have the same version as the one shown here.
AV and PL: That's good to hear!
AV: How did Tsai Ming-Liang react to the explicit nature of "Help Me, Eros", though? He himself always seems to be very careful, like walking on eggshells, in what he chooses to depict. Like in, say, "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone", and STILL that movie was caught up in controversy, censorship and boycotts...
This movie is far more explicit, so what did he think of that?
Lee Kang-Sheng: (laughing) Tsai Ming-Liang had no problems with it whatsoever, but he did say my way of depicting sex was rather direct, much more direct than he would have done it himself. And that's also something a lot of critics and movie experts have said about me: my way of showing sex is more direct, open, and they associate that with the way the younger generation deals with sex, which is more free and direct. They consider me to be young and jumpy.
I do see a difference with directors before me, like Tsai Ming-Liang. The younger directors, like for instance Ang Lee, deal with sex in movies in a completely different way.
AV: One thing I did notice was that all sex scenes contained a fantastical element. Of course the first scene did because it is a drug-induced dream, but also the later scenes always featured something, like the projecting of those logos...
Lee Kang-Sheng: That's what makes them a metaphor. It's a way to give the audience a hint of what you're trying to say.
PL: You just said you've lost some inner demons now, does that mean we can expect a different, more positive sort of movie from you in the future?
AV: A romantic comedy perhaps?
Lee Kang-Sheng: (laughing loud) It would be fun to try and make a comedy, but it would also be very tough. It would be hard work for me to "enlarge" the kind of humor I have at the moment, it wouldn't be easy.
Of course I'm also not a very optimistic kind of person. It is financially so very difficult to get a film made, and the market is shrinking, so I need to make sure a movie doesn't cost me more money than it makes back. Otherwise it's just not possible to make a new film, it's... impossible.
AV: You visited Rotterdam before with your movie "The Missing" and you left with a Tiger award.
Even so, you couldn't get any funding raised in Rotterdam for "Help Me, Eros" but right now it's being shown here. What are your feelings concerning the International Film Festival Rotterdam?
Lee Kang-Sheng: After we showed "Help Me, Eros" in Venice it was already sold for the Dutch market, or at least negotiated so far that it will be bought. If you look at Europe, France is the only country which hasn't bought it yet.
AV: France? Surprisingly.
Lee Kang-Sheng: Yes. I think this is a movie which will play well to European audiences. It could get a foothold. Now we'll just have to wait and see whether or not it will be a success, and then we can decide what, or rather if, we're going to make a new movie in the future. But I'm fairly positive about Europe.
AV: Say you've found a budget, what would you like your next movie to be about?
Lee Kang-Sheng: I'm not planning one at the moment. My next project will be that I'm acting again in a film directed by Tsai Ming-Liang.
And that concluded the interview as our time was up. We thanked Mr. Lee for his time and his movie.
And he was also kind enough to sign my DVD of "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" (reviewed here).
We both like to add a special thanks to interpreter Anne Sytske Keijser, because without her we'd have been totally "Lost in Translation".