We have had the privilege of speaking with Taiwan-based filmmaker/master of slow cinema Tsai Ming-liang three times over the last four years (see here, here, and here). This year, he returned to the Berlin International Film Festival with Days, his first narrative feature since the Venice Grand Jury Prize winner Stray Dogs in 2013.
Premiering in competition, the “intentionally un-subtitled” film tells of the lives of two solitary men who share an intimate moment together, then resume their lonely existence again. We sat down with Mr. Tsai in Berlin to talk about narrative filmmaking, not subtitling Days, and shooting Lee Kang-Sheng’s face.
Mr. Tsai, you returned to narrative filmmaking with Days after a series of (mixed-form) documentaries (Afternoon, Your Face) and a VR film (The Deserted). Is there any difference in the way you approached or prepared the project?
When I make films these days, I don’t think about preparations. I used to write scripts, come up with ideas, but that’s not how I approach filmmaking anymore. Instead, I focus on the collection of footage. I save and accumulate footage. This probably has to do with my background in museums. I often think about saving and potentially using film footage for exhibitions someday. For example, when Kang (longtime collaborator Lee Kang-Sheng) fell ill, I felt strongly about documenting the process on film. And I made sure to have a good cinematographer do it properly. That’s how Days came to be. After a few years of footage collection, I met Anong (Anong Houngheuangsy, co-lead of Days) whom I also filmed this way. One day, I simply wondered what it would be like to combine this footage.
It’s a way of working that I really enjoyed. There’s no pressure. Anong only knew I was a filmmaker but had no idea what I was filming him for. I myself couldn’t have told him why either. After I edited parts of both of their footage together and realized it’s something that could be further developed, I just went for it.
So I don’t think this film is that different from my previous work, perhaps it digs a little deeper emotionally but that’s about it.
When was the point you realized you could turn the footage into a narrative film?
Around May/June of last year. That’s also when I started to find real funding for the film, because to turn it into a feature film would require post-production. I went to the Public Television Service of Taiwan and showed them the available footage. They knew from previous collaborations with me that I would not be able to tell them much about what I was going to do, but they immediately agreed to support me anyway.
So you didn’t even show them a screenplay?
No. I only told them it’s a film about these two men who may or may not meet. But they really liked what they saw and said yes right away.
When did you start shooting and saving footage for this film?
I started filming in 2014. Of course, I only used some of the footage I shot for this film.
So there’s no traditional pre-production in this case?
None whatsoever. The cinematographer didn’t have to scout locations either. There was no art department or anything like that. This is a way of working that I’ve long aspired to. When I see lots of people on movie sets, it always strikes me as inauthentic. For so-called auteur films like this one, it’s entirely the creation of the director. But a director can’t afford to take care of everything and, out of necessity, has to delegate work. So on this film, I reduced the whole crew to one small team of people, led by myself.
There wasn’t even an art department?
No, I did it all myself, including picking out the costumes. We shot everything on location, including at the hotels where we were staying.
Is this going to be the way you work going forward?
I wouldn’t say that just yet. It also depends on the project. For this film I only needed a small amount of money to finish it. If I’m offered a bigger budget for a different type of film, that would be another story.
How has the experience of making Days differed from your last narrative feature Stray Dogs?
I have a poor memory, but I would say that, as exhausting as filmmaking is in general, this one was the easiest time I’ve had making a film. The main reason is I did it completely outside the production model of the industry with a tiny team.
In terms of narrative features, this is what I’ve been wanting to push forward: something that is not screenplay-based. As long as there’s a screenplay, however simple it might be, you would have a storyline and a film based on that storyline. I want to change the way people think about narrative films and replace screenplays with images. That can open up the movie-watching experience to include more possibilities.
After Stray Dogs, I felt and expressed my tiredness despite the fact that the film was well-received. This time I tried to keep the funding to a minimum and retain control over the whole creative process. And I’m glad to have made a film this way. I could be myself throughout the process.
So the shots were not storyboarded or planned ahead?
No, nothing like that. All the planning was just to make it feel unlike something based on a story or developed from a screenplay. It should feel real at all times, to the point of blurring the line between narrative and documentary filmmaking.
Are the long takes rehearsed?
There’s no rehearsing. My actors just do it.
Can you talk about not subtitling the film?
I don’t think this film needs subtitles. Some viewers hear Chinese spoken in the film and they immediately want to understand what’s being said. Not understanding it makes them anxious. But actually they do not need to understand what’s being said. Whether they understand the words or not does not affect the way they would comprehend the film. They become an even more objective observer of the images. It’s not my goal to have them commit to any particular character, but to the viewing itself. That’s the reason why we make it clear at the top of the film that it is intentionally un-subtitled, to assure viewers that they do not need to understand the spoken words to get the film.
Can you talk about the sound design of the film?
We spent quite some time on getting the sound right. The sound we hear is different from the recorded sound. The recorded sound is rougher and amplified, it absorbs everything we don’t naturally hear. Whether it’s good to include these sounds in films is a matter of taste. It took me a lot of time to process them, so that when the viewer hears them, it would still come across as natural. In general, all sounds are important and enrich the film.
Your narrative feature debut Rebels of the Neon God was shown at the Berlinale back in 1993. How is the experience different being in Berlin again?
The first time I was here it was naturally a very exciting experience. Now that I’m older, I feel more relaxed and don’t care so much about winning prizes anymore. What made me happy was that the critical reaction to this film has been very positive, even better than my previous films. I sense that critics, journalists or people who have been following my work have gradually warmed up to or started to enjoy my films. So it’s been a pleasant, relaxed experience this time.
Photos by Jen Koch.
You have been filming Lee Kang-Sheng’s face for nearly 30 years now. What makes you want to keep doing it?
I think it’s serendipity. The reason I can never tire of shooting his face is it gives me a better idea about why I want to make films. Many people make films as products. You can’t say they don’t love films, they are passionate about films, but where they’re coming from is they aim to make lots of films to talk about lots of things. But I think that, in life, there are not that many things to talk about. Shooting Kang is like a gift. He is a performer who performs with his life for me. He’s not relying on methods or techniques, but he bares every stage of his life to me, compelling me to document it–document him at every moment. Sometimes I would think there’s nothing left to shoot, which feels like a limitation and also a challenge. But I’m not worried about it. I’ve found a new actor Anong. Kang is getting older and has gathered new life experiences, and I’m getting older myself, which gives me new inspirations and ideas. So I’ll keep filming, and now I have one more face to film. Of course I don’t have that much time left anymore. In less than 10 years I’ll turn 70. Considering the time it took me to finish a narrative feature, maybe I’ll be 70 when I shoot a second film about Kang and Anong.
So there will be another film about these two characters?
I have some ideas.
The penultimate shot of Days is breathtaking. Can you talk about how it was conceived?
It’s just to communicate a mood. That moment after you wake up, still dazed, realizing you are back in your place alone after meeting someone and how you may never see that person again. That’s the feeling I was going for.
Days premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.