“There’s Really No Plan for This Film at All”: Tsai Ming-Liang on Days
Speaking to Tsai Ming-liang is itself like a Tsai scene. On the day of my interview with the Taiwanese director, the whole of Potsdamer Platz—the main hub for the Berlinale—feels emptied out of its inhabitants. His new film Days has premiered in the competition late into the festival, after the industry presence has largely packed up and flown out.
By this point, the grand space of the Berlinale Palast in midday is like a shopping mall in a zombie movie, abandoned to a splintered cadre of bodies shuffling under an eternity’s worth of exhaustion and weariness. The revolving lights in the main lobby casting their beams in rotating motions across the entire hall swivel for an audience of no one.
As I arrive sheepishly at a sitting area in a backroom of the Palast, I spot both Tsai and his regular lead Lee Kang-sheng stretched out on a pair of wide couches. They look as if they are relaxing at a massage retreat. Indeed, they look like the protagonists of Days, who exist—as with all Tsai characters—as if in a dream. They certainly do not look like they are promoting a competition film in the beating heart of one of the world’s most bustling film festivals.
As Tsai and I spoke, Lee sat nearby, sedately scrolling on his phone. As the interview went on, Lee got up and wandered over to the couch opposite. Pretty soon, I could hear the sound of his breathing as he drifted to sleep. It seemed entirely appropriate given the languor of the film itself, which is one of Tsai’s sleepiest and most tender movies.
In depicting the minor blossoming of a relationship between two men in Bangkok, Tsai once again strips cinema to its essence. His approach to one memorable love scene is indicative of the entire scope of the movie. That is, its serene beauty and gentleness of tone emerges naturally from the easy but protracted rhythms of the scene.
Filmmaker: Your images always have a strange depth to them. In the opening scene of Rizi, we see Lee Kang-sheng staring forward while relaxing in a chair. Above him is some kind of glass panel, which is reflecting the rainfall outside.
Tsai: When we shot the first scene, a tropical storm was hitting Taiwan. That’s when Lee was very ill. That was my living room. Through the glass, because it is reflective, I could see the weather outside even when looking into the room. We took a long time to get just this shot. Because I work with a photographer who lives nearby, sometimes I will call him and ask him to come film some footage.
Filmmaker: Is there always a clear impetus for that?
Tsai: In this case, there was—Lee Kang-sheng, because he is sick. I want to record this state of his sickness, I wasn’t sure exactly why. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with this footage, with these images I was collecting. All I knew was that I could use the materials maybe for a museum or a gallery, in an exhibition or installation, because that’s really what I was doing at the time. It’s not something you can stage—everything has to be natural, since after all you cannot stage this kind of weather.
Filmmaker: Can you pinpoint what it is about the world that draws you in—like the reflective glass in front of the typhoon—that compels you to build a scene from them?
Tsai: All the details of something like this attract me on a basic level just as a filmmaker. For me, all my frames should be like a painting, filled with these consonant details. For example, there could be a fish intruding in the frame, or a cat. Basically, it has to be a space alone that attracts me. Everything else can come in and everything can go out.
Filmmaker: These small details begin to lock together into a whole chain. Each one builds into the next, and that extrapolates to the level of scenes.
Tsai: No matter what, I want the frame to look good, to be beautiful. That’s first. If they’re not beautiful enough, I would not spend the time on them. It’s really that simple. If it does, then I can spend as much time as I need until it arrives at the point that we can shoot it. It’s all about the idea of waiting. Up until that point, I’m behind the camera and literally waiting for something to happen. When it comes to editing, I have all these materials that are long enough, making it easy for me to make choices. I can make choices between these frames alone, of course—choose this frame before this frame, perhaps because they echo each other. It depends on the light and sound. When it comes to sound, well—sound is really, really important for me. In my post-production, I want the sound to be there already. We can enhance it or whatever. But no matter what we bring out the original element of this soundtrack.
Filmmaker: So that means there’s no direct progression between scenes, and only afterwards it is synthesised.
Tsai: Yes, there’s really no plan for this film at all. At some point I have all the materials and then, in editing, I then think how to build a film from just these disparate elements. Of course, if it is a dramatic scene that has direct elements of narrative—for example the love scene in this film, when Non [Anong Houngheuangsy] meets Kang [Lee Kang-sheng]—I wanted the lovemaking to happen first and then the shower together. Because it has to happen in sequence so that they can be in the mindset as performers and so that I can guide it a little.
Filmmaker: That love scene has its own strange and beautiful internal energy. Is that preordained in some way or is that also spontaneous?
Tsai: Somehow yes, it was spontaneous. I mean, we have the positions of the camera and I make sure that the light and frame is right. Of course, also the atmosphere for the actors had to be somehow correct. But it’s not like the usual love scene in a film, where you have a lot of editing. I want this to happen in real time. There were two versions of the love scene. The first we only took two takes to finish that. Something wasn’t right. I asked if they could do it again and, yes, the second take was perfect. Then we move onto the second version, which we shot around four or five times. And of course, there was something not right with the first few takes. It lacked the intensity I needed. So, we spent the whole day and that’s how, through all this effort, we got those two versions.
Filmmaker: And the speed on-set is, I guess, just as slow as the film?
Tsai: More or less. [laughs] Why is it slow? Because there is no rush, no pressure. We don’t have a team, we don’t have a large crew. Usually when you have a team you have all these other considerations. What time is the end of this working day, when should we have lunch and dinner? How long do we have this location? When will we have to leave? We have the luxury of not having to think about that. We can just take our time. When we were shooting Anong in his dormitory we had to choose the timeslots when the other roommates would not be there. So, we had to make sure of those things but even still, we had a lot of time. Freedom. We can really take our time and be precise. We have one cinematographer, another person in charge of the lights. So, it’s a very small team. We’re then able to get these results that satisfy me.
Filmmaker; I assume this helps with love scenes. Maybe it’s an ease of working that is conducive to this material—
Tsai: You’re right, but even on a bigger film it’s not so different. A lot of people will be asked to leave the room anyway, right? [laughs] The necessary people stick around of course. In our case, it’s always just the necessary people. What matters most in this case is that the performers were relaxed—especially Anong, who barely knew me before. I don’t know why but he trusted me. With that trust we can move forward and make something satisfactory. When I’m behind a camera, I do not give directions to my actors. I will use hand gestures. I’m waiting for things to happen. Maybe to tell the cameraman to move the focus to somewhere important, move a little bit here or there. What’s interesting is that it’s a small team—we’re all very relaxed. Why? Because if you’re in a team, you have to work with other people. You have to pull your weight. You have to hurry. In our case, we don’t have to do that. We simply have to rely on ourselves. We have to deal with every little thing. If there’s something wrong with, say, the lighting then also the cameraman has to deal with that. There is no assistant. No hair and make-up—if there’s something off about an actor’s hair, we have to work on it. So slowly, we have to work on the details. Then there is no pressure. In that hotel scene, for example, we didn’t have to tell the hotel that we are shooting a film. We just closed the door [laughs]. It’s something that really pleases me. We’re not working on a product, there’s no commerciality here. It’s closer to painting.
Filmmaker: The irony is that your working method is about waiting. Yet also each scene more or less builds to a point—like a joke. As when the door closes in the hotel and we wait for something to happen, only for the light to turn off automatically. It’s far closer to Jerry Lewis than to other so-called “slow cinema.”
Tsai: Well, at the end of the day I’m a very classical person. I studied theater. I really care about these details—they’re interesting or fun elements of the game. I need these elements to attract the audience to make some discoveries, to find new things inside the scene. I’m always waiting behind the camera for them to appear. For example, with fish in a fish tank I hope and pray that they will swim this way or that. Of course, they will not follow my directions—yet if I wait long enough, they usually do it the way I want them to do it. It’s waiting, all waiting. I pay attention to these details. When the light went off, as you mentioned, it’s actually the most fun element. It reminds you that you are actually watching this encounter in the room. It reminds you of the traces of time.
Filmmaker: I’m curious about bringing Anong into the process, who was a stranger you met in a food court.
Tsai: I’m not sure why these things—like meeting Anong—why they happen. I’m not sure. Maybe after with Lee Kang-sheng for three decades as a collaborator I needed something new to happen. Maybe I yearn for something new. Well, of course I cannot just ditch Lee Kang-sheng. My camera will always be on him. But I would say that Anong is some sort of a new stimulation.
Filmmaker: And how did Lee’s illness change your perception of him as a performer and as the “subject” of the film?
Tsai: Actually, it was something magical that happened. Maybe it’s God’s will, or God’s arrangement. Many things happened twice. Lee got sick twice—the first time was with Miao Ten in The River (1996), and maybe I was the father in this case because I had to ask Miao Ten to take Lee to the doctor to be treated. And then it happened again—but now, Miao Ten is gone. And Lee is still sick. So maybe I need a new surrogate—Anong—to come into the picture. Lee Kang-sheng is ill again but this time he is the father figure, here for Anong. This is God’s arrangement. Because of this my films look like reality. It’s a repetition, again and again. It’s a reminder that tells you that this is not fresh, it’s just something that happens again and again. Just like, well, life itself.