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VR at Venice: Tsai Ming-liang Tests Story and Technology in ‘The Deserted’

Tsai Ming-liang, iconoclastic art house darling and purveyor of tough-love cinema, admits to being baffled why so many parties approached him to make a virtual reality movie. After all, his brand is about painstaking slow shots and minimal action, not flashy cinematography or hyper-kinetic editing.

Those who prodded him into action include former Venice festival boss Marco Mueller and HTC, the tech giant based, like Tsai, in Taiwan.

Tsai said that his initial contacts with the new medium were head spinning. But not in a good way. The image quality was “unbearably digital and unrealistic (and) the headset was heavy and clumsy to use,” Tsai told Variety. But after another industry contact presented Tsai with a gloriously detailed, static image, Tsai was prepared to reconsider. The result, “The Deserted,” renews the Venice connection and plays this week through the festival.

Made on a budget of $1.6 million, it was produced by Tsai’s own company, and HTC Virtual Reality Content Center, and co-produced with Jaunt China, an offshoot of U.S. VR pioneer Jaunt. Jaunt China provided the cameras and the stitching and rendering services. The whole thing is best viewed with the Vive VR headset developed by HTC and Valve Corp. The headset uses room-scale tracking technology that the company says “allows the user to move in 3D space and use motion-tracked handheld controllers to interact with the environment.”

In such an environment, story is a fluid concept and Tsai’s description is appropriately elliptical. It involves a man recovering from an illness, who is unable to communicate properly with either his mother or the female ghost who lives next door. Instead he communes with a fish.

“Tsai believes that every movie should have its own independent narrative characteristics and the audience does not need to get involved in the story,” says Liu Szu-Ming, VP of HTC VR and the film’s executive producer. The film’s title in its original Chinese means “The Home at Lan Re Temple” and is a short ghost story stripped from a longer novel. Tsai says that the setting matches his own decampment to the countryside where he now lives next to an abandoned temple.

HTC intends the movie to live on after the festival. “In addition to delivering the movie, we’ve built the movie set in a 3D virtual environment. Audience may move within the environment and interact with the object within. Our idea is to integrate the story with the virtual character, to produce an immersive interactive movie through the head mounted display,” Liu told Variety.

Tsai says that he was energized by making the film and that he enjoyed the ability to experiment and push boundaries. One of these is the length of the picture, which comes in at 55 minutes. Although the post production process was laborious and unfamiliar, and there was significant quality loss along the way, Tsai says he remains essentially optimistic. “I hope that in three years time, there’ll be a more ideal way of presenting my work, ‘The Deserted’.” And, under the right circumstances, he would do another.

For full length interviews with Tsai and Liu, please visit variety.com.

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