Trapped Bodies: Tsai Ming-Liang Discusses "Days"

Tsai Ming-liang and his two stars, Lee Kang-sheng and Anong Houngheuangsy, talk sickness, recovery, moviemaking, and their new film, "Days."
Daniel Kasman

Above: Tsai Ming-liang. Photo by Chang Jhong-Yuan.

One of the strongest qualities of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival is just how many small scale movies have been granted a much-deserved premiere on the biggest of screens and reddest of carpets here, in the main competition. The most personal of all these, as well as the most touching, is Days, the new film by the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang. Stripped down even further than 2015’s stoic Stray Dogs, it iterates on both Afternoon (2015), a documentary made of a conversation between a loquacious Tsai and the taciturn star of his movies, Lee Kang-sheng, and Your Face (2018), a feature-length gallery work made up only of intensely observed close-ups, many of elderly Taiwanese. Days takes the lessons of documentary impulse, evocative spareness, extreme patience, and extended duration from those films, as well as their focus on the aging, to create a new picture of wide expanse in terms of geography and compassion, but whose story is intensely intimate, discrete, and personal.

Lee returns, of course: an ageless beauty now at 50. But even if the actor is as handsome as ever, his body and movements tell another tale. Lee contracted some extreme illness over the last several years, and Days was born out of the idea of filming his living and recuperation. In it, we see the existence of two men, both unnamed: that of Lee, who descends from a mountaintop refuge (in reality, his and Tsai’s home) to find muscular therapy in various cities (Taipei, Hong Kong, and Bangkok); and that of a young man half Lee’s age (Anong Houngheuangsy), living in Bangkok. Both men live alone, the one self-isolated, attending to his recovery, and the other, suffering the big city solitude of a transplant and outsider, Anong being a Laotian working in Thailand.

Opening with a entrancing long shot of Lee seated in his white-walled retreat in the clouds and amongst the trees, gazing outside at a world we only see in the reflection of the window, the majority of Days is made of quiet master shots observing these men’s routines: Lee bathing, stretching, visiting a doctor; Anong praying and preparing and cooking a beautiful fish and vegetable soup; both walking around their cities, alone, and Anong possibly cruising, or at least mournfully looking for any kind of companion. The connection, call it metaphysical, between the two strands the film pleats together could by myriad: Different versions of the same person split across time or countries, lovers bound to meet, or, most intriguing, a poetic suggestion of a father and son—or one that could have been. 

Tsai’s camera highlights not just the texture and space of each man’s introspective isolation, but their beautiful human bodies too, bodies in space, sensual bodies covered and revealed. In a deeply affective sequence, we watch Lee receive what looks like a precarious and painful muscular therapy involving electronic stimulation and burning embers. Here Tsai deviates from his one-scene, one-shot approach with multiple cuts and angle changes, underscoring the documentary aspect that blends the life of his actor with the composition of the film. After Lee leaves the doctor’s, the film again surprisingly shifts style, opting for aggressive handheld closeups of Lee, his neck held in a brace and that brace held tentative by his hands, as he navigates the crowded sidewalk. The scene combines the stylistic departures of two of Tsai’s most radically different films, Your Face and the handheld short Madame Bovary (2009), and this disjuncture makes Lee’s real discomfort even more palpable: the outside world is just distracting noise against the intense focus his pain consumes.

It would be a spoiler, but a necessary one, to say that eventually these two men, older and younger, ill and healthy, Taiwanese and Laotian, meet. They meet at the point of an economic transaction, and thus one between two classes, as well as one that is recuperative: a massage for Lee by Anong in a hotel room. In two very extended long shots, we watch nearly the whole massage, an immersion of time and sensuality of extraordinary intimacy due not just to the profound emphasis on Lee’s oiled and rubbed torso and the prolonged touching of another, but in the effect the therapy has on Lee, whose body grunts and groans under the pressure, the pain, and the pleasure. A transaction turns into therapy, into eroticism, and perhaps more: we sense (and indeed long for) a greater connection, a human one, one of souls, that meet in this communion of flesh. At its end, the two linger together and Lee gifts the young man a music box that plays Chaplin’s theme for Limelight: a romantic gesture, but also one suggesting Chaplin’s status at that film’s time of an old man well-past his prime, of a political troublemaker, and of an exile. Lee hands it to Anong, soul to soul, generation to generation: it has the feeling at once of a memento, a curse, and a blessing.

At the world premiere of their new film, director Tsai Ming-liang and his stars Lee Kang-sheng and Anong Houngheuangsy discusses the origins of the film, its documentary elements, Lee's recent illness, and cinema's love of faces and bodies.

NOTEBOOK: If I could start with Mr. Tsai, you’ve said somewhat recently that you wanted to first move away from films with scripts, and then move away from films with concepts. I’m wondering what is this film without a concept?

TSAI MING-LIANG: That’s the film you saw! [laughs] A script is a tool. Actually, I already had a script when I was shooting the film and sometimes, if we have a script it was actually for the team, because they need to know what was going on. But for this film, Days, I didn’t need a script at all because we don’t really have a so-called “team” for shooting the film: I just had a cinematographer with me,  and I don’t need a script for the outline and the plot, and so I didn’t need to explain to him what the film was about.

NOTEBOOK: This film seems built from routine, how people spend their days, how people spend their life. How do you start making a film like this? 

TSAI: We should divide the shooting of this film into two parts. We should go back to the year 2014, because we came to Europe, we had a theatre performance, and I always had a cinematographer with us, who always recorded our daily routines during our trip. And Kang-sheng actually fell sick. He started to get sick and every day I would have to take him to see a doctor. Or, after treatment, we would have to take a walk in the park. And then, after the whole tour, I saw these images after a while and I realized that I really loved those images. Because Kang-sheng was sick and when he was ill, it was not a performance, it was actually very realistic—and these images really touched me. So, I told myself that I should film this. That’s why I talked to the photographer and that’s why we started shooting, when he was sick.  

So—this is still the first part—Lee Kang-sheng actually wanted to see a doctor in Hong Kong. We went there as a team: just the cinematographer, me, Lee Kang-sheng and of course my producer, Claude Wang. We had no idea we were shooting something, we had no idea what the treatment was about—and that’s the thing you saw—but we just had a vague image. We decided to film Lee Kang-sheng walking from the hotel to the clinic where the doctor is. We weren’t really sure why we were shooting those images…

The second part of the shooting was that I met Anong, the actor, in Thailand. We were actually video-chatting friends. I met him, I got his telephone number, and we started chatting online, through videos. He’s a foreign worker from Laos, working in Thailand. And this kind of identity—he’s actually a foreign worker—this kind of identity is something that really interested me. We started doing a lot of video-chatting and I realized that he was really good at cooking. And when he was cooking and his daily routine… something was there, and that would touch me. This second part, at the beginning, had nothing to do with the first part.  

One day, three years later, I started talking to my cinematographer about all the images that we grabbed. I just started to be very interested. We started to talk about having a connection between these two parts—and made a film. The editing process was really long, we had a lot of footage. For example, those images we grabbed when we were doing our theatre tour in Europe in 2014, a lot of them were actually in the film but in the long process of editing, they were eventually gone. This is the final result; the final cut of the film that you saw was actually the result of the long process of the work and labor. 

NOTEBOOK: Mr. Lee, I wonder if because this film is dealing so much with your recovery and your recuperation, if you see it crossing the line into almost a documentary about you, less than a fiction film? 

LEE KANG-SHENG: Those images that you saw, when I was sick: actually I was really sick. For me, that was actually documentary. At the beginning I was not willing to be an object of filming because at first, I was really sick, and I wouldn’t look good when I was sick. And of course, I’m a star and you don’t want to look bad on film when you’re a star. Because when you are sick you look sick, and that is very awkward. At the beginning of the film I was actually resisting this, but the director sort of helped... or coerced [laughs]... or started pushing me into this, and sometimes I was acting to try and look less sick for the camera.

NOTEBOOK: Anong, Kang-sheng has worked with Tsai Ming-liang for many years now, and knows his kind of films and kind of filmmaking. I’m curious to know from you, as someone new to making this kind of cinema and working with Mr. Tsai, what your experience was like?

ANONG HOUNGHEUANGSY: We met in Thailand when I was working making noodles and we exchanged contacts and we had been talking for two years. We would video and Skype and things. We developed this friendship-relationship kind of thing, so in the beginning it was almost like working with friends. I realized that it was a part of the movie when he asked me to make a cooking video, and, I thought, oh my gosh there’s a video camera coming, and I realized that this is some sort of movie production. It was very friendship-style. It took me a while to get into [the massage scene], because we also barely knew each other before. Kang-sheng was helping a lot to facilitate what it feels like to act, and although we could barely speak perfect English, somehow we could communicate with each other. It turned out to be very effortless. 

NOTEBOOK: Mr. Tsai, for the whole film you keep these two men apart, but the film climaxes, so to speak, with them sharing a moment of intense connection. How do you create an intimacy for the two actors who are not together for an entire movie and are only together for one moment? 

TSAI: First of all, Lee Kang-sheng is actually my actor: he’s been working with me, we have a really close relationship, and he will actually do anything that I ask him to do [laughs]. And when it comes to Anong, he actually had no idea what I was doing. He had no idea that Lee Kang-sheng was an actor, he had no idea that Tsai Ming-liang was a director. When we were shooting those images, those videos of him cooking, he realized that maybe we were shooting something. Maybe for TV, maybe for films. But he just knew that he had to be natural, because I wanted him to do a naturalistic performance. Or not a performance at all: just be natural. We didn’t really have a lot of communication. But somehow in the process we established some sort of trust, because I was always thinking, it was always cooking in my head, should these two people meet? Maybe they should meet, maybe they shouldn’t meet. I was thinking about this back and forth. Because we had to make this documentary, those documentary images connect somehow into a feature film, or some sort of a drama. But I didn’t want it to be a real drama, I wanted it to be something very close to reality. When we were shooting those intimate moments in the room, there were not so many people. We had a cinematographer and a person who was in charge of lighting, and then the two actors. And we just did everything in a very slow way. We slowly adjusted the light and atmosphere and everything. And somehow it just worked.

There’s a certain prop I want to talk about from the film: the music box. Because actually the music box was a gift from my producer, Claude Wang. He visited the Eye Filmmuseum in the Netherlands, and he knew that I really liked Charlie Chaplin. It’s the music from Limelight by Chaplin. Eventually, I actually gave this music box to Anong as a gift. And so when we were shooting in this room, suddenly it hit me: woah, okay, actually Anong has that music box. I asked him to bring the box with him, so actually it was a spontaneous idea. For me, this is something very close to reality.

NOTEBOOK: Your previous film, Your Face, concentrated so much on just faces that when this film started and we saw Lee Kang-sheng gazing out of a window, I thought Days was going to be this shot for two hours—and I was happy! [laughter] Did your intense study of faces change the way you wanted to make this film? 

TSAI: Actually, this is my feedback to films! Why are films so fascinating? For me, it’s because of faces. Film is a medium, but faces actually are the topics and themes of films. These faces in the films were the chosen ones. It’s not just random faces:  they were the chosen ones.

But it’s not just faces that I focus on, it’s the bodies and the figures of the actors. Days is actually about the two bodies of the two actors. Because Lee Kang-sheng is 50 years old and Anong is 20 years old—actually, you can see that Days could be something that continues what we didn’t finish in The River, in 1997, which was in Berlinale as well. Because back then, Lee Kang-sheng was only 20 years old. So now, with his sick body, his aged body, he had to meet this other body who is 20 years old, but is yet another trapped body as well. So for me this film is actually about the two figures and two bodies of these actors.

NOTEBOOK: So much of this film is about recovery—recovering the body, recovering the soul, getting healthier—in different ways: doctors, massage, a human connection. For you, is making a movie also an act of recovery, of therapy? Does making movies make you feel better? 

TSAI: What I cannot really deal with is not soul—because soul is something I can deal with—but the body, which is actually something I cannot deal with. We cannot avoid getting sick and getting old and feeling pain. We used to possess beauty, now we cannot avoid decay. We cannot control our body, and we all need to be calmed. A lot of times we need another body to calm our bodies down. Of course, you see the whole film is the therapeutic process for Lee Kang-sheng, the [climatic] massage was not just the massage for his body, it was also the massage for his soul. And when Lee Kang-sheng got sick, it was actually a lot worse than what you saw in the film’s images. He was so sick that he couldn’t have acted, as an actor, his sickness. When he was so sick, my soul was suffering as well. We were both working for the film, so through the film, indeed, this could be a therapeutic process. 

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