DAYS Director Tsai Ming-Liang in conversation with Professor Chris Berry of King’s College London
This is a transcription of the English language part of the Q&A carried out by Professor Chris Berry with Taiwanese film director Tsai Ming-Liang as part of the 5th East Asia Film Festival Ireland [EAFFI2021[ONLINE]]. The full video including English and Mandarin language parts is available at https://youtu.be/2poicWpgBp0
Interview recorded on 13th March 2021
Translator: Elizabeth Lin
Chris Berry (CB): Hello everybody. My name is Chris Berry and I teach film in King’s College London, and I am also an adviser for the East Asia Film Festival Ireland. Today, we are very happy to welcome Taiwan’s great auteur, Tsai Ming-Liang, for a conversation about his most recent film DAYS which is in this year’s festival. Beginning in the early 1990s, Tsai Ming-Liang emerged as a leading practitioner for what is sometimes known today as slow cinema, a school of filmmaking that, like the slow food movement, rejects action and speed for taking the time to be in the moment and explore, in his case, what his camera sees. He has won numerous awards including the Venice Golden Lion, the Berlin Silver Bear, and a number of Golden Horse awards.
So, Director Tsai, welcome to EAFFI. Thank you very much for giving us an opportunity to see your beautiful new film DAYS. The film has been traveling around the film festival network for a little while now and has been very warmly received. I wonder if you were expecting such a warm reception, and what your thoughts are about the way the film has been received.
Tsai Ming-Liang (TML): For me, I’ve always known that my films are polarising so you either love it or hate it. But I was happy with the reception overall. Particularly, I was happy with how the film DAYS struck a chord within the Western audience. I felt this, particularly in Berlin. They are also long-time followers of my films. After all, Lee Kang-Sheng and myself are no longer young, and our followers in the press are no longer young either. We have managed to attract a younger demographic now, but, at the end of the day, we’re not young anymore. So, it’s interesting to see how things have evolved.
CB: Thank you. There was a 7-year gap between your last feature film STRAY DOGS and DAYS. During that time, you were developing your already successful second career, I guess we could say, as an artist making moving image works for contemporary art galleries and museums. You have become very celebrated for that. So, I was wondering what made you decide to return to feature filmmaking.
TML: Well, first of all, it came naturally. The movie DAYS did come naturally. I never really intended to give up on filmmaking, but I had reached a point where I didn’t know the direction to take. You know, feature films you work off a script, you assemble a team. The process seemed very industrial to me, and I was a bit fed up. I was a bit sick of it, the stress of it, the stress of this whole process of it. Therefore, I left, and I moved into the gallery/art space, and I was surprised how it took off, my pivoting to art galleries and museums worked. I also worked on stage plays. And also, Lee Kang-Sheng at this time had his WALKER series. So that all worked out. However, Lee Kang-Sheng’s old ailment resurfaced, the issue with his neck, and it was similar to what he went through when he was younger. And with the resurface of his ailment it was painful to watch but I felt I wanted to record those images as well. So, in the end, I recorded his medical journey, also his life during this time and it took about 3-4 years of accumulated images. And at the same time, I befriended a migrant worker from Laos, and he was working in Thailand. So, I was very interested in his life, and I flew to Thailand to meet him and spend some time with him, and recorded his life there. And as time went by it dawned on me that what would happen if I merged Lee Kang-Sheng’s life and this migrant worker’s life together and that’s how DAYS came about.
CB: Thank you. Well, one of the very special features of the film is the absence of dialogue. And I think that absence of dialogue draws the audience closer in towards the characters and the settings, so we feel the atmosphere very strongly and the result is a very very intimate film in every sense. Of course, not using a lot of dialogue has always been one of the characteristics of your films, but this time, no dialogue at all. So, I am wondering when you decided to try and avoid dialogue completely, or almost completely. So why did you decide to do that?
TML: Actually, I was already starting the process of filming with no dialogue when I did I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE. But in this film, there was one particular scene that was saturated with dialogue and that was the scene where there was a Malay conman, and he was performing in the streets doing his con. However, this was all in Malay and of course, if you were just passing by you wouldn’t know what was happening. But I had the camera set on him for a long time and through that just moving around and him performing his con, the verbal language isn’t important. It’s insignificant what he says. It’s how he acts, how he behaves. And through that, the non-verbal part of communication, it transpires that he’s performing a con.
So, when I was watching this, I thought it would be great if I could do this scene with no dialogue. However, at the time the producers weren’t, they weren’t up for it, they were reluctant, so we kept the dialogue. But that planted the seed in me that I wanted to do movies with very little dialogue. My views on watching film, when we go to watch a film, I find it is often restricted by the fact that there’s dialogue happening. And to tolerate viewing, to tolerate the act of viewing a movie I find that dialogue actually limits the expression of how films can proceed. But it’s very hard to persuade the audience to do without dialogue. So now I am my own boss and I make my own films, I don’t feel the need to satisfy that need for dialogue. So, when I filmed DAYS I decided, ok we’re getting rid of it. However, I had the audience in mind. I did put up a disclaimer at the beginning of the film to say this is a movie with no subtitling so there’s a bit of preparation for them.
CB: Thank you. I’d like to ask a little bit now about working with the actors. On the one hand, you are working with Kang Sheng who you have worked with for almost 30 years now. And on the other hand, you are also working with Anong [Houngheuangsy] who I think you are working with for the first time in this film. And he’s not a trained actor. So, I wondered how did you go about directing them? Was it different for each person and especially how did you handle the scenes where they are together? How did you direct those scenes?
TML: I’ll start off by saying that Anong is very smart, so although not a trained actor he’s very smart. And of course, when we first met, I don’t think he knew who I was. He didn’t really understand what I was about or what I did. I don’t even think he knew I was a filmmaker. And for the first year, we communicated mainly through online chats. We had very limited language communication because both of us, the common language English, neither of us was fluent. But through time over the year of trying to communicate we developed a bond, a trust, a sense of trust. And I was interested in his life, in his physical environment because I saw through WeChat where he lived. And I saw him cooking and I was struck by what he was cooking with. It was actually charcoal; he was cooking over charcoal, and I found that fascinating. I said Oh I am going to film you doing that. So, I think in the beginning he thought I was filming some kind of cooking show but then, you know, not in a feature film.
But Anong is natural. His movements, his movement is beautiful and he’s a very natural mover and basically, in the film, he is being himself. The one doubt I had was that he was very aware of the camera in the beginning. So often he would look into the lens which I had to remind him not to do. Of course, through practice slowly and surely, he remembered not to do that. So, I really liked the way he moved and that’s how I filmed him. As for Lee Kang-Sheng, he’s really very familiar with the way I work and their scenes together. Well, one of the biggest obstacles so to speak was basically the intimate scene, the sex scene, between the two of them. So, I had at that point, I had to explain to Anong that this is a feature film. And where we shot, the hotel we shot in, we also lived there. The hotel wasn’t aware of what we were doing. We had a very skeletal team, only around five people. And we became very friendly. It was a very intimate group of people and of course filming this sex scene is always embarrassing. And one of the biggest things is to get over the embarrassment. I think it would have been harder for Anong if it weren't for him seeing Kang-Sheng doing it. So, he saw Kang-Sheng doing it and he thinks, well he thinks I can do it too. We are all men there. And it’s very usual, it’s very common for men to walk around at home in their shorts, in their boxer shorts so that didn’t really become an issue.
CB: Great. I’d like to ask one last question if you don’t mind. One of the reasons I like DAYS so much and find it so moving is its focus on what I call stranger intimacy. The way in which queer culture can lead to moments of closeness across class, across age, across culture, language, and so on. So, I’m wondering how you feel that the first big award this film got was the Teddy Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. And the Teddy is the most prestigious award in the queer film world.
TML: So far, I have received two awards that would be labeled as LGBTQ awards. One is the Chicago one and one is the Teddy one. I think perhaps the LGBTQ community can relate, can easily relate, to what you coin as stranger intimacy. And you know this complex really private longing of bonding with other people, creating a relationship and you know it’s common within that community, but I find it’s also common outside that community. I find that with just two people; people want to bond, people want to form relationships, people want intimacy.
And I don’t really label my movies as queer movies as such. I find it’s just an exploration of, you know, human sexual desire. And the truth is Anong never hid the fact that he did work as a masseur. You know it’s very physical, it’s physical work, and you know, he’s not necessarily homosexual but the way he worked with the physical form informed the movie as well. So, what you see it’s really a natural evolution of where this movie would end up.
To be honest, DAYS is a really simple movie. Simple in its expression. It’s not complicated, it doesn’t have, you know like, climatic plots and nothing too sensational. But in telling this story I want people to think, to know that this is the way it can be done. These types of expressions of intimacy can be done in this kind of low-key fashion.
CB: Thank you very much Tsai Ming-Liang and thank you also Elizabeth [Lin] for that beautiful translation. Thank you both.
EAFFI would like to thank Tsai Ming-Liang for allowing us to screen his film DAYS and for participating in this Q&A. We would also like to thank Professor Chris Berry for hosting and Elizabeth Lin for her interpreting.
The Q&A was carried out as part of the 5th East Asia Film Festival Ireland (EAFFI2021Online) with the support of the Arts Council of Ireland, Screen Skills Ireland, and the Taipei Representative Office.
EAFFI is funded by the Arts Council.
Bio notes of participants
Born in Malaysia in 1957 and Taiwan-based, Tsai Ming-Liang is one of the most prominent filmmakers of the new cinema movement in Taiwan. He is known for his austere and sophisticated visual style and his themes and ideas on loneliness, isolation, alienation and the torments of human relationships with his characters wandering through post-industrial, dilapidated urban spaces. His debut feature Rebels of the Neon Gods (1992) brought him almost instantaneous international success. He is a many times winner at the Venice International Film Festival; Vive l’amour (1994) won the Golden Lion award; Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) won the FIPRESCI Prize; and Stray Dogs (2014) won the Grand Jury Prize. Other films include The River (1997) winner of the Jury Award at Berlinale; The Hole (1998) winner of FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival; I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) which was made in his native Malaysia. His films made in France include What Time Is It There? (2001), and Face (Visage) (2009) which was co-produced by the Louvre in Paris. He has also presented video installations at the Venice and Shanghai biennales and is a playwright and theatre director. His work has featured in art festivals in Brussels, Vienna and Taipei.
Days (2020) screened in the main competition section and won the jury Teddy Award at the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival; and it has premiered at the 2020 and 2021 following film festival: Taipei FF; IndieLisboa International FF; San Sebastián FF; BFI London FF; New York FF; Gent International FF; Chicago International FF; Queer Porto-Festival Internacional de Cinema Queer; Mostra - São Paulo International FF; Kyiv Critics Week, Ukraine; San Diego Asian FF; Busan International FF; Tokyo FILMeX; Seoul International Pride FF; Taipei Golden Horse FF; Thessaloniki International FF; Singapore Intern
Chris Berry is Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London. In the 1980s, he worked for China Film Import and Export Corporation in Beijing, and his academic research is grounded in work on Sinitic-language cinemas and other Sinitic-language screen-based media, as well as work from neighboring countries. Books written and edited include: Cinema and the National: China on Screen; Postsocialist Cinema in Post-Mao China: the Cultural Revolution after the Cultural Revolution; Chinese Film Festivals: Sites of Translation; Routledge Handbook of East Asian Popular Culture; Public Space, Media Space; The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record; Electronic Elsewheres: Media, Technology, and Social Space; Cultural Studies and Cultural Industries in Northeast Asia: What a Difference a Region Makes; TV China; Chinese Films in Focus II; and Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After. In 2017, together with colleagues, he launched the “Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema: Recovered and Restored” project about Taiwanese-language cinema, and in 2020 co-edited a special issue of Journal of Chinese Cinemas on the topic, vol.14, no.2.
With thanks to Dr. Elizabeth Lin for her expertise