In the 70th Berlin International Film Festival which was one of the last international events that took place right before the pandemic, we had the opportunity to meet in person the director Ming-Liang Tsai and the leading actor Kang-Sheng Lee from the film Days (Rizi). After we took their word for an interview, the world entered a phase the like of which has never been experienced before, thus the interview took some time to be fulfilled. On behalf of Dial M for Movie, we are very proud to be sharing this interview with you. We owe our thanks to Joyce Tang for her help in making this interview possible. Also, we thank Merve Bülbül for translating the interview from traditional Chinese to Turkish, and our writer Eda Bebek for translating it from Turkish to English.
The fact that the film has no dialogue from the beginning to the end made us curious about the form of the screenplay. Although the film meets the audience without dialogues, what did the screenplay you used in the set look like? In that respect, could you tell us about your adapting process to the story?
To tell you the truth, the film Days didn’t have a script at the beginning. The director didn’t write the script during the shootings either. The subject of the film is based on an illness I had as a child. When I was little, I experienced a neck problem which caused my body to lean towards left, which continued for two and a half years. In the meantime, our director shot scenes for my biography. However, back then I wasn’t much eager for it because of my health problem. I didn’t want people to see my shameful condition. Our director knew Anong from Thailand. Thus, the shooting for Days started gradually. In the beginning, our director organized the story and imagined it simultaneously. As a result, it took about three or four years for the film to come together.
Days (Rizi) consists of long sequences, and some sequences were shot with a fixed- camera technique. Thus, we wondered how many takes became necessary to shoot one scene in the film. We would like to hear your thoughts on this matter, especially in those scenes with long sequences and steady camera, what was the process of shooting like?
I went over director Tsai’s earlier works and I know he likes to use the long lens. In addition to that, we have been working with Mr. Tsai for almost 30 years. Because of that I’m also used to taking part in scenes shot with the long lens. We understand each other very well and I know what kind of performance he expects from me. Usually, scenes that involve one character eating, sleeping or meditating takes longer to shoot and require more takes. However, if you have a partner in the scene this means the scene involves performing. Generally, these scenes are done in three takes.
How did you prepare for your character? Kang is depicted like a very lonely person; so much that he is not even one of those who feel lonely regardless of a crowd. It must be even more difficult to give life to such a character in a film without any dialogue. What were your inspirations while working on this character?
The characters in Tsai’s films are very lonely, especially performances in which the character doesn’t speak, or no story is told, are always harder. Because I have known Tsai for a long time, I can understand the hidden messages he wants to convey. He is fed up with films that include stories and plotlines. Thus, I can say it is not important for me whether there is a script or not. I didn’t even read the script of the film Face because there were only main points written in the script.
What was your first impression of the story when you first received the story or screenplay?
Days was managed by the director Tsai and the producer Wang and I didn’t know anything. The two first went to Thailand to shoot a part with Anong. A while after the shooting ended, they organized the scenes that were shot during my illness; about six months later they invited me to Thailand for the scenes with Anong, and then they returned to Taiwan to complete the shootings. Throughout this process, I never touched the script and I didn’t know what they shot with Anong in Thailand. As a result, it took three or four years to complete the shootings.
You have worked with Ming-Liang Tsai in critically acclaimed earlier films like The Hole (1998) What Time Is It There? (2001) and The Wayward Cloud (2005). How does it feel to work with him in many films for so many years? Especially because you worked with Ming-Liang Tsai in this last film Days, we are assuming that your cinematic relationship with him should be very strong. Could you tell us a little about this relationship?
Director Tsai and I founded a production company after the film What Time Is It There, which was in Central Film Company in Taiwan. Director Tsai helped me greatly, like a teacher, father, and relative and he helped me shoot the two films I directed, named The Missing and Help Me Eros. He also slowly accomplishes the films he dreamt of, without caring too much about his investor bosses.
In most of the films that you worked with Ming-Liang Tsai, the last one being Days, the names of the characters you play are very similar to your real name. The character Hsiao-Kang in the film What Time Is It There? (2001) is an example of this. What do you think about the characters’ names having similarities to actors’ real-life names? Do you see this as an advantage?
I acted as a character with my real name Kang for his first film Rebels of the Neon God, later Tsai made films that told the stories of Kang and Kang’s family. I think this approach is nice, everyone can watch these films separately or watch them in order of the date / time they took place in. This approach makes his films more consistent. Every part, every scene of the film represents director Tsai’s experience.
After we watched Days in the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, one of the most important scenes that stuck in our head was the massage scene. In this scene, the story you tell with your eyes and your facial expressions is so emotionally intense that these feelings almost overshadow the sexual foundation of the scene. How did you prepare for this scene?
Most of my performances are gradual, in this scene I am essentially passive, therefore I can convey the message only with my eyes. In this inherently sexual scene with Anong I had to be able to control my emotions and demonstrate that the character Kang needed to be loved and made comfortable to reach his emotional peak and calm down.
Where would you place Days among all the films you acted in throughout your life? We are curious about your thoughts on this because Days has a significantly different form when compared to other films in terms of its style and narrative.
I think the film Days is an innovative work that Tsai Ming-Liang directed, it consists of half nonfiction and half fiction. I don’t think that Ming-Liang wants to make films with plots that took place in the past. I’m really glad that the audience liked the film in Berlinale and that the film successfully attended the festival.
What would be your remarks on the film’s name?
I think the name “Days” fits the film beautifully because this film represents the essence of Tsai’s life. The film features my illness experience and his life experiences. I find the scenes and performances in the film similar to real life.
We haven’t seen any announcements on the internet yet, however, are you planning on coming together with Ming-Liang Tsai in future film projects? Thank you very much.
Our next project will be photographing the works in the series called the Walking Walk, which takes place in Paris in September.
Questions: Burcu Meltem Tohum
Translation from Turkish into English: Eda Bebek