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Interview with Lei Yuan Bin, director of WHITE DAYS

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Simplicity is beauty. A highlight in the 22nd Singapore International Film Festival, WHITE DAYS captured the attention of many with its simple cinematography and spontaneous relationship between the characters. Singaporean director Lei Yuan Bin shares with us the inspirations that went behind his film.

Tiffany Ng (TJ): Let’s start by finding out a little bit more about you. Share with us how you became a film maker. Have you always wanted to be a director/cinematographer? What or who inspired you to take this path?

Lei Yuan Bin (YB): When I discovered Cinema in my university days, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky inspired me to make films. I was also interested in photography and so I went to film school to study cinematography.

(TJ)White Days was written by both Chris and yourself. What was the inspiration behind the initial concept of the film?

(YB): I wanted to make a film for and about my friends. WHITE DAYS is a slice of the lives of three young Singaporeans. The story and its characters are inspired by the dreams, hopes and fears of the actors themselves.

I hope the film has captured a slice of time in their lives. Through making this film, I’ve discovered that they were all searching for something missing in their lives. Either by going for a religious pilgrimage, watching and making films, or yearning to live somewhere faraway from home.

Each of their personal stories seems different on the surface, but deep down they are the same. This film is a celebration of their continuous search for the meaning and purpose in life.

(TJ): Was it always meant to be mostly in black & white?

(YB): I shot the film as a colour film, but during editing, I discovered that black and white gave the film a different atmosphere and mood, so I decided to end in black and white. Black and white gave me freedom and focus, as compared to color, which can be too distracting at times. The lack of color also allows us to see the everyday life of Singapore in a different way. It draws attention to the clean lines, volumes and shapes of the everyday HDB landscape.

Black and white also highlights shadows and light. Drawing inspiration from Tanizaki Junichiro’s famous essay, In Praise of Shadows, I wanted to locate a vanishing point that differs from the common Western Albertian perspective – a new contrast between extreme brightness contrasted against dark shadow.

White can be attained by adding all the colors of the spectrum together, or by the subtraction of all color pigments. It is ‘all colors’ and ‘no color’ at the same time. The latent possibilities inherent in white attracts me

(TJ): Tsai Ming Liang obviously has great significance in the film. How has his films made an impact on your life?

(YB): I admire Tsai Ming Liang’s focus and dedication to his own themes and cinematic vision. I would say my films are influenced by him but is not exactly the same.

(TJ): I felt that the actors’ performance were very natural, like a reflection of everyday life. How did you manage to generate a dialogue like that and what directions did you provide your actors?

(YB): The three actors I chose were close friends of mine, so we were very comfortable with each other during filming. It was interesting, however, because I had to distance myself from them and see them, instead, as characters in the film. Throughout this process, I am consciously aware that it is impossible to know their true thoughts and feelings, or that of anyone else in real life.

Because the film was made on an extremely low budget, I had a lot of freedom to film in a discreet and unobtrusive manner. It was almost like shooting a documentary. Instead of setting up scenes, I spent more effort creating a comfortable atmosphere for the actors to perform.

The narrative structure was thus developed in an organic fashion. I did not give the actors a script; I simply gave them skeletal guidelines before every scene, and allowed them to improvise their dialogue around these points.

In addition, my takes are often so long that the actors forget the camera and the fact that we are shooting a film. Through this, I wanted to capture the nuances of these characters – the pregnant pauses, uncomfortable silences and uncertainties that come through their dialogue and body language.

It was incredibly important that they react instead of act. This gives them the freedom to be themselves but, at the same time, within a certain framework laid down by me. This experience of being alive – of existing in a time and space – cannot be performed, only lived.

(TJ): How long, from pre- to post- production, did you take to complete this film? What was the toughest challenge in making this film?

(YB): I shot the film mainly in the actor’s own house and around his house, so pre-production was relatively simple. The shooting days total up to about three days. I edited the film in two days.

The toughest challenge was perhaps editing the film. It was like directing the film for the second time. As the film started without a fixed script, I had to assemble the scenes in a certain order to tell a story. In a way, I had to ‘sculpt’ the characters from the raw material of the actors.

Like the filming process, the editing process was also a journey of search and discovery. Out of the six hours of footage that we shot, only about 90 minutes were used. I designed the rhythm and pacing of the film such that they would be close to real time – as the characters were experiencing it – so that there would be a sense of the ‘now.’

(TJ): Many interpretations can arise out of White Days, but what does this film mean to you?

(YB): The title, White Days, is an homage to the Andrei Tarkovsky film, Mirror, which was originally entitled  ‘A White, White Day’. I also found it interesting that the Chinese character for ‘white’ came from the shape of the human skull. Bleached bones connect us to Death, while the white of milk and eggs speaks to us of life. As such, the dichotomy between life and death is itself inherent in the Chinese character for ‘white’.

White also denotes emptiness which, contrary to nothingness, suggests a transitional state filled with limitless possibilities. Similarly, the film is about a period of time – a slice in the lives of three characters – and I felt it was important to draw attention to the notion of time in the film.

These ‘days’ do not just describe those of the three characters, however. They describe a period that we all have to go through in life, a period in which we are all struggling to make life decisions. I wanted to situate the three characters within a certain ‘now-ness.’ Thus, the film provides no resolution because I was more interested in the process of making these everyday decisions.

(TJ): What was one lesson you took away when making this film?

(YB): I learnt that if we look closely beyond our personal stories on the surface, we are actually very similar.

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