Tsai Yueh Hsun, A Director’s Black and White

Despite its 2.12 average rating, Black & White‘s success can be seen on PSP, torrent, youtube/dailymotion, and various self-hosted video streaming sites and blogs — hardly a profit-friendly recognition, but I hope there’s enough revenue made to cover the costs. Director Tsai, the man who made the drama possible, who is going to make the sequel movie possible, is at core, the real star of the show.

Patty Hou’s interview with Tsai Yueh Hsun and his wife Yu Xiao Hui on Azio Entertainment reveals Director Tsai to be more than the fortitudinous director with vision and ambition; he is at once a man with depth, a considerate friend with keen observation and a loving husband determined to make his marriage last.

The interview is humorous at times and serious at others. Here, the slightly truncated interview:

Career

First off, the Most Discussed Topic — Finance.

Patty Hou: We know director Tsai often undertakes big projects. However, its artistic value doesn’t always measure up to its economic value. How do you, [Yu Xiao Hui] as the director’s wife and the drama’s producer, juggle with the disparity?

Yu Xiao Hui:
“I have very good managerial skills — my husband often says I’m a control freak. [laughs] He says that my controlling tendencies equip me for this job perfectly. Honestly, this is the first time I’ve lost control of the expenses. I was way off and unprofessional.

“Back when we were making The Hospital, everything was under my control. Although there is the general impression that director Tsai often exceeds his funding, in reality, how much he will exceed is in my calculation as well. But this time, he’s gone above and beyond. I think he’s secretly testing the endurance of our relationship. [laughs]

“In past projects, whenever he starts to spend too much, I will point it out to him. What’s inevitable is argumentation and heated discussion. So this project really did test our communication skills.”

The Director’s Choices for Filming Projects

Director Tsai:
“I’ve realized that I like challenges. If it’s an easy project, I’m not interested. If it’s something I’ve done before, I’m not interested. In the end, I think what I have is a persistence to pursuit one’s dream despite obstacles.

“We hope to explore more issues and ideas by tacking a variety of projects. Away from Taiwan and the mode of entertainment here, there is a larger selection of techniques, styles, and genres out there. We can’t pretend they don’t exist. Instead, we need to face them, draw from their experiences and improve. Otherwise, the distance between us and the rest of the world will only widen. That’s why I’m always challenging myself and taking on difficult projects.”

When asked the secret behind his success, the director gives a three word answer: vision, tenacity, and enjoyment.

Directing Quirks

When asked if his past experience of being an actor had any influence on his directing method, Tsai replies in the affirmative.

“Of course. When a director has a concept of acting, it makes the director-actor interaction easier. For me, I can put myself in the actors’ shoe and understand how they feel, what they need. With that knowledge, I can then create the most comfortable environment for all of us and extract the best elements from it.

“As a director, my job is to direct everybody I’m working with towards the ‘right’ moment. When you have the acting experience to buffer the director-actor gap, you know what you need to do to lead everyone to that moment.”

What do Actors Say about Director Tsai’s Directing?

(I apologize in advance that the videos here are slightly off sync.)

Mark Zhao says:
“He knows exactly what he wants, but he can’t always convey it to you. He’d always say, ‘You know, for this scene, you lack a certain … … feel. Just, try to open it up. When you do, it will be amazing. But it’s just…’

“He’d always bury his face in his hand and rub his hair repeatedly. Then he’d look up, his hand in hair, stare you in the eye and say nothing. Sometimes I have no idea what he’s trying to express.”

Jason Zou says:
“His posture is the most classic. He’d always go [imitates by covering ears with both hands in frustration], “Ugh, I tell you it’s this feeling. It’s, it’s, it’s… I don’t know how to explain it, yeah.'”

Janine Chang says:
“Sometimes the director would walk towards you as if he has something to say but when he’s in front of you, he’d stop and look like he’s thinking hard about something [puts hand behind head, rubs hair and “umm”s]. In the end, all he’ll say is, ‘let’s do another take.'” He’d walk away, leaving you to wonder if you’ve done something wrong.”

The writer says:
“He’d often have a feeling about a scene and tell you he needs a cup to complete that feeling. But he can’t tell you anything about that cup, whether it’s the shape, color, or texture. We would end up producing 50 cups for him to choose from. It’s a daunting task for the writer because when you write an episode, it can take up to two to three months. But editing might take another two month. In short, working with him requires patience and creativity.”

After watching the actors’ responses to his rather hilarious trade mark hair rub and communication barrier, the director does a little explaining.

  • With regard to Janine’s complain. There is nothing wrong with Janine’s acting, but the director wants to experiment a little and see a different portrayal of the same scene — this is what he’s thinking about while approaching her. Once in front of her, he finds it hard to express his thoughts and resorts to the trademark hair rub.
  • As for the writer’s remark, director Tsai admits to being abstract. He adds that when it comes to plot, he usually gives the writer a basic framework. For example, he’ll tell the writer that he wants A to B meet; as for how they meet and where they meet, it’s up to the writer. But it can’t be contrived and it has to make sense too. The hard part is, the writer may have come up with a brilliant scene but the director might not use it. It might be that the idea itself is wonderful but it’s outside the capability of the team’s current technique. Or it might not look as good on screen. The writer is then faced with the challenge of coming up with another scenario.

Patty Hou: Another way to look at this, before I met director Tsai, I only have 5 renditions up my sleeves. But after working with him and letting him exploit my potential, I suddenly find myself capable of 45 different ones.

Although working with director Tsai requires a tremendous amount of effort, his production team does so willingly for two reasons: 1) it’s extremely rewarding and 2) the director’s understanding nature makes the working environment a pleasant one.

A Caring Director

Mark Zhao says:
“If the director sees me struggling, he would ask me, if I’m having trouble. Then he’d try it himself and tell me that [laughs], ‘You’re right, it is hard. Let’s try tacking it in a new direction.”

The writer says:
“I remember when I started working for him, there was a time he bought some delicious zongzi. He called and ask if I was home and drove all the way to my house to deliver the zongzi. I was both surprised and flattered. After all, a famed director home delivering zongzi isn’t something you encounter all the time.”

Zai Zai says, from an earlier interview on Azio Entertainment:
(A little background: the director would join Zai Zai at the set whenever Vic is waiting in a dark corner by himself.)
“He says he wants to understand what I’m thinking. He would come to me and ask me, ‘What are you thinking right now? Are you mentally entering into another zone or are you pondering something?’ Each time, I’d lie to him. If he were to ask me again, I will tell him the truth and say, ‘Director, have you considered the possibility that I’m sitting here zoning out because I’m simply waiting for my turn to act?”

After watching the video, director elaborates on the topic of Zai Zai’s waiting habit. He says that Zai Zai often sits on a flight of stairs looking down between breaks. If someone moves into his visual field, he would shift to the side until he’s facing no one again. The director notices that the habit is increasing in duration and (implicitly) fears the burden of the character might be oppressive to the actor. That concern motivates the director to pay more attention to his actor.

Use of Actors

Patty Hou: Director Tsai often discovers and brings new talent to the screen. From Meteor Garden’s F4 to today’s Mark Zhao. How do you deal with the risk of using inexperienced actors?

Director Tsai:
“I can’t tell you how, I can only tell you it’s a feeling. When I see a person, I have an innate sense of the less predominant personality an individual houses.

“When I first met Mark at CTV, I thought he’s different. After a formal casting session, I came to the conclusion that he has a lot of potential. So I told my production team that we should give him a try.”

His wife Yu Xiao Hui adds:
“We had no idea if Mark can live up to the potential that the director saw in him. It’s a major role in the drama, to us, casting Mark at the time is a terribly bold decision. If Mark fails, the whole drama fails.”

Patty Hou: Rather than say the director has a keen eye for talent, he possesses the ability to bring out the talent in people.

Maturation

Director Tsai:
“The changes you see between this and my last project has to do with me becoming a mature adult. Before I turned 40, I often feel like there is a part of me that’s still a boy. I would be mad at myself for not reaching a quota or accomplishing a goal. What ended up happening is the constantly feeling of dissatisfaction and dread. After I turned 40 and opened my own business, I learned that work should be joyous.

“When you arrive on site, you should say hi to everybody and start on a positive beat. When you encounter problems, you should lead the others towards a positive director and encourage them that the problem will come to pass.

“In the course of shooting Black & White, many people came to me and asked what if we didn’t finish. I told them we will because as difficult as it is, we’re 2/3 done. The rest of the 1/3 can’t and won’t fail.

“With past projects, the time the drama completed its shooting to its broadcasting date is the most exhausting for me. It felt like a drag. But this time, I truly felt that I’ve put on a backpack and a pair of running shoes and went to the place I’ve always wanted to go. It felt great. I think what’s important is adjust your perspective. Don’t focus on the bad, look to the good and embrace it.”

Yu Xiao Hui:
“Before this, whenever there’s news about us, it’s always about how we cried and how we were so overworked. I asked myself, ‘If we aren’t happy, how do we make our audiences happy?’ So I said, ‘We need to change. Let’s be a pair of happy director and producer. No matter how painful reality might turn out, we need to believe what we are doing is what we love.’ After fleshing it out, I realized I didn’t have to worry so much. I can support him without feeling frustrated all the time.

“That’s why towards the end, I can come to the set looking dolled up and relaxed. That’s why I can tell the cast to take it easy and not be too hard on themselves. Before we made the adjustment, I was constantly nagging: ‘What time is it? Why are you not done yet?’ As a result, he found me irritating and I, couldn’t understand why he felt that way when I’m helping him.

“Now, I’m learning to love myself and I’m trying to influence those around me to love themselves.”

Marriage life

Some highlights of what the actors complain of the couple:

  • The director always praises his wife as a tender and able woman.
  • Sometimes when the director’s watching behind the monitor, his wife’s with him, holding onto his arm and leaning on his shoulder.
  • She spoon feeds him, helps him to drinks, and they give each other hugs in public.
  • To his wife, he would ask, “Baby, need anything? Need some tea? Want me to bring you a pen?”

Couple Quirks

Director Tsai:
“When I was younger, I wasn’t what you see now (referring to PDA). I was reformed. It’s not that I’m not romantic, I just wasn’t that way. But as time went by, I’ve noticed that she likes the hugs and kisses. So I tried to adjust myself to accommodate her needs. In other people’s eyes it might look oddly out of place but I’m just trying to release that inner child in me.”

Yu Xiao Hui:
“I don’t like seriousness. But Yueh Hsun is a very serious man. In a way, I’m mischievous. I like to give him a peck whenever there’s a lot of people around. I know he’s embarrassed by the expression of intimacy but I really enjoy embarrassing him.” 😀

When asked if the couple have any trust issue, the director lets out a hint of jealousy.

“She’s open about her admiration for actors. From time to time you’d hear her say, ‘I really like so-and-so’. The next thing you know, she’s frequently at the set, laughing and talking to that so-and-so.

[Patty jokingly warns Xiao Hui to be careful, the director’s watching her every move.]

“But I know this is her girlish side so I’ve grown accustomed to it. On the contrary, I would never say something like, ‘Actress x is soooo pretty!’ So she never feels insecure.”

So how did the love birds meet?

Love Story, the abridged version

When Xiao Hui was only 20, she took on the role of a female protagonist, starring opposite of Tsai Yueh Hsun. The producer at the time was a very protective man. He warned Xiao Hui to stay away from Tsai, who was, a playboy at the time. The warning not only didn’t prevent Xiao Hui from getting to know Tsai, it perked up her interest. She started paying close attention to Tsai Yueh Hsun, wondering what allowed him to be so successful with women. Unfortunately, director Tsai only considered Xiao Hui a little girl.

Five years later, when Tsai was at the bottom of his career, they met again. This time, Tsai is single. They started seeing each other. Then, when director Tsai made it clear that he’s serious about the relationship, Xiao Hui said, “Let’s get married.”

[While Yu Xiao Hui is recounting the process in which they fell in love, director Tsai is rubbing his hair in embarrassment on the side. :)]

Director Tsai:
“One day we were talking about how love has a time stamp. Because you can be with someone everyday, you tend to take them for granted. Suppose we set a limit to the days we can be together, say 30 days. If after 30 days, we part ways, then you’ll find that the 30 days were spent to its fullest.

“At the time, I was in debt and life was looking its worst. I didn’t have much expectation for anything. All I know is I have to treat everyday seriously. We decided that we’ll spend 30 days together and treasure these 30 days, treasure each other.”

[teary eyed now] Yu Xiao Hui continues:
“I said then, let’s change the 30 days to 60 years. If we have 60 years, do we really want to waste two days bickering? Do we want to waste another two days carry out affairs? Do we want to waste the 60 years on senseless things until it’s too late? Let’s take the 60 years and treat it as if we only have 30 days.”

Director Tsai:
“Marriage is something that needs to be managed. When two people decide to spend their lives together, there’s a lot both have to learn, to adjust.

“It’s not an easy process. We still argue. When we do, it gets ugly. We’ve been through a couple major crisis but we always survive. When friends ask me how we pull it together, I tell them there are a lot of factors but it all comes down to one: when we set a goal for our marriage, I’ve decided that as long as my wife is the last person I see before I go to sleep each night, that’s enough for me. Therefore, no matter how big the argument, I will keep this marriage alive. I will be there until the very end.

[Yu Xiao Hui is wiping tears at this point. Director Tsai hands her a piece of napkin. aww]

When Patty asked why Xiao Hui cried at the very end of the interview, Xiao Hui reveals:

“Many times after a big fight, he would ask me, ‘Did you really consider leaving me?’ I would ask him back, ‘Do you think I will leave you?’ He’d say, ‘You’ll be there before I die.’ (It sounds corny in English but it’s touching in Chinese.) It hits the mark every time. In retrospect, I feel ashamed for thinking about backing out on our marriage. Because he’s always so sure we’re going to last.”

[By now, even Patty’s teary eyed.]

Future Prospects

Another Baby!

The couple wants to add a third child to their family sometime soon.

Yu Xiao Hui:
“I always think three is the perfect number. Think about if, if two kids are arguing, they’ll need a third to give them an opinion. I don’t know if my logic is unusual [laughs] (yes honey it is quite unusual) but I think five for a family is a nice number. It seems so wholesome, like a hand and its five fingers.

“Ideally we want another child but I don’t know if it’s a crazy idea. We are too busy.”

The Second Most Discussed Topic: When will the Black & White movie start filming?

Director Tsai:
“Every time I say October, someone would give me a ‘Are You Crazy’ look. So I’d say by the end of the year. Hopefully.”

Let’s just hope they’ll have enough time to make the movie.

Future Projects:

Director Tsai has three projects lined up. The first one is set in ancient China and it deals with Chinese art. It’s about the clash between traditionalism and modernism. The second is more nonsensical, more fun. It’s related to super powers!

The last and biggest project, director Tsai kept a secret. But he claims it to be his most ambitious plan yet. If succeed, it will be ground shaking.

5 thoughts on “Tsai Yueh Hsun, A Director’s Black and White”

  1. I love your movies(dramas) esspecialy Black and White. I am from Poland so I have a small sources of your movies but I try cope with that. I would like to ask when will be the second part of Black and White (Black and White2). I looking forward to your answer.
    Your faithfully
    Joanna
    zuzia622@poczta.onet.pl

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