Mr Long: An interview with director Sabu
Mr Long features a multitude of aesthetically pleasing shots of two things that cinema audiences often like to see, namely violence and food. Japanese director Sabu’s film could easily be a tonal nightmare as it gyrates from one mood to another, but the whole thing works admirably well. It has a manic energy that is uncommon in a movie that also has an emotional heart. The film details the exploits of Mr Long himself, a Taiwanese hitman who finds himself somewhat baffled by the fact that he wound up running a noodle stand in Japan. We spoke with Sabu at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.
Some of the characters in the film are distrustful of Mr Long, seemingly only because he’s from Taiwan. Was there meant to be any political undertones from these scenes?
Concerning the relationship between the two countries in the past, I had no intention with any kind of political approach, because I think this would narrow the audience. The focus wasn’t political, and I mean for example, here at the Berlin Film Festival, there is all this communication between people of different cultures, and this is something I wanted to explore in my film.
Mr Long is such a minimalist character, and when he gets to Japan he can’t even communicate with the majority of people he meets. How did you go about creating a character who needs to drive the narrative and yet cannot speak all that much?
In my previous movies I have been working on this kind of character, one who is minimalist in their way of expressing their feelings, so this is not the first time, and also the story is about someone being supported due to the fact that they didn’t speak the language of the country in which they find themselves. And it was also my aim to have this change in the character, changing into being a human, and this led to humour. So that was the approach I was going for.
You’ve directed some 15 films throughout your career. Has your approach changed during this time?
The thing is that I have always based my work on what is in the screenplay, so it happens that my scripts work with various themes, and this approach has not changed. In Mr Long, the focus on the screenplay didn’t really change. OK, so maybe there’s a rhythm that little by little changes. So maybe I am more director-like these days?. I don’t know. Perhaps earlier I took more of a DIY approach with my movies, and so maybe this has changed. The style of realising my movies, well this approach hasn’t really changed. You start with the screenplay and the storyboard and you go from there. I would say that I’m having more fun lately.
You contrast Long’s use of the knife to kill, with him using it to create that wonderful looking food. Was this balance deliberate?
Of course, Mr Long is a killer and he does most of that killing with a knife. So what I wanted to show with this tool was the change of the tool, and how to change the use of this tool can turn a negative into a positive. It can be used for killing people, but can also be used as a tool to make food, which is about life. And Mr Long’s cooking is also a way of communicating. He doesn’t speak the language in Japan, so the food helps him to communicate in a way. There’s a cultural dimension to food, and when you bring food from one culture into another, there is often success in communicating… somehow.
Were you always planning to have such drastic tonal shifts in the film?
The shooting, and the whole look of the piece is based upon the screenplay. The changes in the tone were based upon Mr Long’s feelings, so the change of tone is quite natural. I wanted to show that his evolution is not just about fear or anger, and everyone has different aspects to their personalities, and I wanted to show that Long was not just a killer. He can be kind, he can be empathetic, and I wanted to let these come out organically.
Photo: Gerhard Kassner / Berlinale
Read our review for Mr Long here.
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Watch the trailer for Mr Long here: