Not a huge amount takes place at the beginning of Days. The opening exchanges are elemental: wind blows; rain patters; grass shivers; a boy in pink shorts plays with fire. But then not a huge amount happens after. The movie is the latest from director Tsai Ming-liang, a Malaysia-born filmmaker and master of slow burns; and a key figure in the second wave of Taiwanese New Cinema. What Tsai does do–and better than most–is long takes; beautiful compositions; urban bustle; gorgeous color; neon light–as well as capture touch, sexuality and the human body.
All of which can be found in Days, his first strictly narrative work since Journey to The West in 2014. West was released as a sort of feature-length installment of Tsai’s Walker series–video art pieces that followed a Buddhist monk (played by his ever-present muse Lee Kang-sheng) as he slowly made his way about. Narratively speaking, Days has a bit more to it; like an extremely left-field, intensely minimal Tsai riff on Lost in Translation (the opening credits offer a warning that the film is “intentionally un-subtitled”). Nestled in those early opening shots are the film’s two disparate key characters–one played by Lee (going by Kang) and the other by Anong Houngheuangsy (Non), a younger Laotian man.
The idea behind Days seems vaguely bizarre. Lee had been suffering from a physical condition so Tsai went along to film the elaborate treatments he’d been getting; around the same time the director met Anong, who was working in a noodle shop at the time, and eventually asked if he could film him at home preparing a meal. Tsai then stitched the footage of those two meetings to form the majority of the film’s first act and only then began to reveal a through-line. It’s a relentless slow burn, even by the great director’s standards; one that sees Tsai take almost an hour before allowing the two their one crossed path–as Kang, on a trip to Laos, hires Non to give him a massage. Afterwards they go for food, then part ways and return to their separate lives.
Having worked with digital imagery for the last few years–experimenting with both documentary (Your Face, Afternoon) and VR (The Deserted)–Days sees Tsai make a welcome return to celluloid. With around 50 shots in total in the film’s 127 minutes, there is no shortage of time to appreciate Chang Jhong-Yuan’s enchanting cinematography: an ever so grainy wash of colored basins; opaque spatulas; vendors; streetlights and so on. One particular moment late on–in which Anong sits in front of an empty advertisement board–would not look out of place in Tsai’s peerless debut Rebels of the Neon Gods.
Like much of the director’s work, Days shifts between loneliness and tenderness; the spiritual and the physical. His decision to forego the subtitles heightens that disparity; it also feels in keeping with the film’s Babelian allusions–something the director accentuates further with a cacophonous sound design (both in rural and urban settings). Tsai’s characters are essentially alone at all times except those moments spent together–and even then there is little verbal communication. Instead it is the intimacy and communication of touch: an oily massage; a licked nipple; an orgasm; a held hand.
This cathartic moment of connection comes right in the middle of Days but could just as easily have served as its denouement. It will sound like sacrilege, but Days could be the rare case of a Tsai Ming-liang film that doesn’t ever quite connect up and one that might even benefit from some cutting back. Based on such scant foundations, the film feels stretched beyond the limits of its narrative–which is a shame given the strength of some scenes. Just sit for a moment with Kang and Non on the edge of the bed as the younger man listens to the music box he’s just been given. The tune is from Charlie Chaplin, another filmmaker with big ideas about image and music–and little interest in subtitles.
Days premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.