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“It’s Very Important, When You’re Choosing Actors, To Make Sure They Possess Something That Remains Almost Unknown”: Director Constance Tsang on Her Cannes-Premiering Blue Sun Palace

Blue Sun Palace

Blue Sun Palace, Constance Tsang’s first feature, is a migrant story that’s vividly attuned to the temporal and emotional dislocation of those stranded far away from home. Set in Flushing, Queens—where the director grew up—the film follows three transplants as they forge new ties in the borough’s Chinese community, which Tsang depicts as a bubble suspended in time and space. Save for the occasional, blink-it-and-you-miss-it glimpses of road signs and billboards, there’d be no way of identifying this as a corner of New York City; Blue Sun Palace unfurls for the most part inside crammed apartments and massage parlors, where coworkers and friends Didi (Haipeng Xu) and Amy (Ke-Xi Wu) seem to spend most of their time. But a tragic accident brings Amy closer to Didi’s partner, Cheung (played by Tsai Ming-liang’s longtime collaborator and muse, Lee Kang Sheng). Past this juncture, the film becomes a portrait of two castaways seeking solace in each other, all while trying to navigate an existence stranded in a kind of limbo.

Yet Blue Sun Palace doesn’t work through big, declaratory moments. Tsang skillfully circumvents bathos, a choice that’s reflected in her script as much as in Norm Li’s unobtrusive camerawork; the most scorching exchanges are always shot from a certain distance, as if the film respected its characters’ sorrows too much to manipulate them. Instead, Tsang homes in on smaller actions and everyday rituals—a shared meal, a karaoke night—never telegraphing this or that feeling but relying on long, uninterrupted takes to allow her drifters room to grieve and heal. For all the loneliness it so often radiates, Tsang’s film never wallows in despair. As time dilates, histories collide and distances evaporate; the last face we see in Blue Sun Palace is shrouded in darkness, but the film itself is never less than luminous.

A few days before Tsang hopped on a plane to Cannes, where her debut premiered in the Critics Week, we spoke about crafting a story in her childhood neighborhood, working with Lee Kang Sheng, and the differences between linear and emotional time.

Filmmaker: When and how did the idea of shooting a film about your home turf come about?

Tsang: I would say it’s always been with me but began to take a firmer shape when I was in film school, in my graduate program. For the longest time, I’d really wanted to tell a story about Flushing, my hometown. And the project gave me a chance to understand my own relationship with my parents, and how I connected to their specific experience. Slowly, it became a story about my own way of dealing with grief and processing the death of my father—a big amalgamation of ideas, things, and memories. I don’t really know how to describe it other than a mixture.

Filmmaker: How did the writing unfold then? You used the word mixture; how much did the script change through the years?

Tsang: I say mixture because in the beginning I wrote the script without that structure in mind. It started with a very simple, three-act plot. I’d decided I would follow one protagonist, but then the structure slowly evolved to encompass two specific points of view that orbited around an absence. And I think this shift from a more traditional, westernized approach to filmmaking to what I eventually landed on was a process of discovery, and one of letting go of some ideas on what a film needed to be and could be.

Filmmaker: Could you speak about your cast and your collaboration with Lee Kang Sheng, specifically? How and where did you two meet?

Tsang: I love Kang Sheng and his work. I’d been watching his films since I was very young. And in all honesty… I just kind of slid into his DMs! Well, I had an actress friend who’d worked with him on this movie called Absence (2023). And she told him I’d reach out on Instagram. Initially it was just a back and forth, until he read the script, and then it got serious.

Filmmaker: What about Haipeng Xu and Ke-Xi Wu? How did you cross paths with them? And what qualities did the three radiate that made you think they’d be a perfect fit for the characters you were crafting?

Tsang: I’d seen Ke-Xi in Midi Z’s Nina Wu and loved her performance in that film: there was such a rawness and fierceness and intelligence to it. As for Haipeng, she’d been recommended by a friend on whose film she’d worked with. And the character she plays here, Didi, was always someone I knew from the get-go, so to speak. I knew she was someone very exuberant, someone who would be able to carry the first part of the film and create an impression on both the audience and the two other characters. And when I think about the three—Haipeng, Kang Sheng, and Ke-Xi… I think in a way they are like extensions of not just the characters, but also myself. The way they understood emotions, and the way they revealed them—it was something I felt very connected to. But there’s also a mystery about them. And I think it’s very important, when you’re choosing actors, to make sure they possess something that remains almost unknown—something you can’t quite decipher, but you can feel and see when they’re in a frame.

Filmmaker: I think some actors have a way of shaping a film’s rhythm through the aura they bring into it, and Lee Kang Sheng is a wondrous example of that. How did you harness his energy and pace here?

Tsang: That’s a great question. I think Kang Sheng is someone who has his own rhythm. He just has a very specific timing that is internal to him. Other actors can be chameleons and shapeshift until they adjust to your own pace. But with Kang Sheng, you learn to almost work with him, too. I’m not saying that he can’t transform or can’t be a malleable actor, because in his own way he’s incredibly collaborative. It’s just that his presence and his timing are very specific to him. We are working with the way that he walks, the way that he massages himself and with the way he understands when and how to reveal an emotion—or not to reveal it.

Filmmaker: One of the film’s most striking aspects was the chemistry between characters; there were moments when it felt as though they’d known each other forever. How did you establish and nurture this complicity? Did you rehearse a lot together?

Tsang: I think they built that relationship in real time. Rehearsals helped, absolutely. But I also created some outings for them. They would go on dates together, go out and explore New York. I wanted them to be friends and to be able to have a relationship on their own, without me being a part of it. But the warmth you see and feel on the screen, it doesn’t just radiate from the cast; I think it starts from the world that we as filmmakers and crew can create. There was a lot of warmth on set, and a lot of love and care for each other.

Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?

Tsang: Very fast. I would say 18 days or so.

Filmmaker: You mentioned dates around the city: though Blue Sun Palace is, technically, set in New York, the city is almost never seen; were it not for the occasional road sign you’d have no way of knowing this was Queens. What motivated that elision?

Tsang: I think the choice helps heighten a kind of claustrophobia, and it works on two levels. First, this is how I understood my parents’ life and the New York Chinese community around them: they have their own bubble, a world that doesn’t necessarily match the New York we may be familiar with. That’s something I really wanted to show: that all Chinatowns are similar in that way. I think the people that come and build these homes do so in a way that makes them look like pieces of their homeland, which to me is a very insular choice. On a more thematic level, there’s also a conversation we can have about boundaries and thresholds and whether a character can ever cross them. Freedom, too, was something I thought about, and how that might be intertwined in the very texture of the film. I’m not sure if this is clear, but I felt as though there was an invisible boundary between these people and the outside world.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting to see how these boundaries you talk about are reflected in the camerawork. There were times in the film where you seemed to keep a certain distance from your characters, placing the camera a few tables or beds away from them, and those moments often coincided with some of their most heartbreaking and private exchanges. It made me feel like I was less an intruder than a privileged observer.

Tsang: I have to thank Ingmar Bergman for that! [laughs] Cutting closer or creating patterns that wind up manipulating emotions as opposed to just showing them, that just doesn’t interest me. I’d much rather let the frame just breathe. Because you just don’t know what the actors will do. To grant them space to make their own decisions, that’s a directorial choice. And I think this is also how I personally see life: I always want to give people enough space.

Filmmaker: Is this why you favored long, uninterrupted shots? The first scene is a four-and-a-half minute oner, but it’s not the only sequence to play with time that way.

Tsang: I think this ability to create and work with time is something that’s really beautiful about cinema; it’s one aspect of the medium that really excites and interests me. And this conscious decision works on a couple of levels: it helps you create a relationship between your actors and also one between the film and your audience. As for the pacing, that’s something that I’ve come to understand is internal to myself. I don’t quite know how else to say it, but I think that’s the thing when you’re working with this specific medium: you learn to discover your own time.

Filmmaker: Which is very fascinating to hear because Blue Sun Palace is, at its core, a migration story, and I think that time can sometimes feel out of joint for those who are stranded far away from home—the immigrant often lives in a sort of emotional and temporal suspension. I was wondering about the way you played with time here. The film spans a year, but there are no temporal markers to guide us through the characters’ journeys.

Tsang: True, but I think that feeling doesn’t just pertain to the migrant condition, but to the core of this particular story, where grief is so integral to the characters’ experiences. I lost my father when I was 16. I am 33 now; it’s been a long time. But I never think about the way I processed grief in terms of temporal markers. It’s more a matter of experiences showing you just how much things have changed. If you were to put those markers on the film, what moves this story is a series of revelations that characters have about themselves and about each other. I guess that’s the way you can kind of mess up time a bit, as you were saying, because you realize that there’s an emotional time at play as well. On the other hand, modern technology means things and people seem closer than ever—long distance video calls are the only way for these characters to connect with their families back home—but what they so deeply want, this sense of permanence, does not. And this dichotomy creates an interesting tension.

Filmmaker: This is not the first time you’ve shot on film; your last short, Beau (2021), was also shot on 35mm by Norm Li. I was curious as to your interest in celluloid; we were talking about limitations and obstacles, I’m sure the choice also carries plenty of those, not least how much you can shoot. Did you storyboard?

Tsang: I didn’t storyboard at all, and absolutely love the process of shooting on film. I love the quality of it. I love that it’s so tactile, and that I can only do a certain amount of takes. As for my process, so much about the way I like to shoot and block is decided before the camera rolls. I love being able to work with my actors, refine with them exactly what are we shooting, and then go into a take. And I feel as though when people on your set, especially your crew, know there can only be so many of those, there’s a sort of energy that goes into making sure that we are all focused and know what we’re doing.

Filmmaker: Does that mean that you come to the set with a predetermined idea of how each scene will play out?

Tsang: Well, the most important parts of the script—the emotional beats—those were all written. As for the specific lines and exchanges outside of those emotional points, that was something I worked on with the actors. Whenever we get to a scene, before we even talk about blocking, I sit down with them and break it all down. What does the scene mean for the story? What are we trying to accomplish here? What does it mean for the characters? Only after those essentials are clear do we begin to improv blocking, where the camera should be set up, and the like. Those things can be very malleable, but the fundamental emotional points, they’re always set in stone for me.

Filmmaker: And how important a role did the locations play? Did you find these flats and workplaces before you started writing?

Tsang: Luckily, because I grew up in Flushing, the location scouting was relatively easy. The construction supply store, for instance, belongs to a family friend of ours. So in some cases I started working on the script already knowing the specific locations I’d be using. But with the massage parlors and some of the restaurants, that was different, and somewhat trickier—especially with the massage parlors, because they’re so small. I knew I needed angles, doorways, hallways; I needed dimension and depth, and that’s what I looked for when I began scouting.

Filmmaker: I was thinking back to your camerawork, and how unobtrusive it felt; you could say the same about the score. You use a couple of piano and strings compositions, but very sporadically; I never felt as though the music was in any way telegraphing what I should be feeling. How did your collaboration with composer Sami Jano unfold, and how involved you were in the score?

Tsang: I was very involved. And I doubt this is something that Sami would normally do, but for this specific project he allowed me to sit in as he was making music. I don’t want to say that I am a controlling person, but with the score, I really wanted to make sure that it felt right and that it didn’t come across as obtrusive or telegraphing. At first I didn’t even know if I really wanted to use music. I thought that maybe this film could just live diegetically with all the sounds of the city. But there was something about preserving Didi’s presence that felt interesting and made me reconsidered. In the end, the music almost serves as a sort of reminder; when you do hear it it’s always during very internal passages, moments of connection, actually. That’s how I worked with Sami: we wanted something that would carry the film and give a different dimension and texture that would be attached to a specific presence.

Filmmaker: I came across an interview from a few years back where you described a feature film you were writing at the time, a psychological thriller set in China that would feature a paleontologist and a young woman. Is that still happening?

Tsang: I did write that! And I still love that story. I don’t know how feasible it is to make it, or if I am in the right state of mind to be working on it. But the next story that I write—like all the ones before it, I guess they always have a theme that I’m drawn to. And the next project that I am currently thinking about has to do with my experiences with my mother, and the way that we come to understand our parents: this role of acceptance and responsibility.

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