Days of isolation and fun in the last of Tsai Ming-liang
Malaysian-born Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang is a poet of loneliness and alienation, and a favorite among fans of “slow cinema”. Days, his first feature in seven years, finds him working on long static takes with almost no dialogue and, as one pre-credits caption warns, no recourse to subtitles. It is an aesthetic ploy appropriate for the story of two men whose mundane lives converge for a moment of fleeting pleasure.
One of the two is played by Lee Kang-Sheng, the director’s favorite actor and lifelong friend. (Tsai hasn’t made a movie without him since The rebels of the neon god in 1992.) First seen staring plaintively out of a living room window as a thunderstorm gathers, he seems worried about something. Soon after, we learn that he has a problem with his neck and is looking for therapies to relieve it.
The second man, a few years younger, lives alone in a low-end apartment where he painstakingly prepares vegetable and fish dishes. The ritual of washing, chopping, boiling and seasoning is conveyed with the greatest interest by the director, who once again demonstrates what Chantal Akerman has proven with Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080– a smart camera can invest even the most mundane stocks with fascination.
In addition to an excruciating awareness of the passing of time, Tsai adds a sharp body awareness, starting with the reveal of what appears to be Lee’s superfluous nipple. We are witnessing a strange acupuncture treatment, a scene of such probability that it merges with the documentary. The film culminates with a 20-minute massage sequence in a dimly lit hotel room which, while discreetly lensed, remains intensely carnal.
For many viewers, such a simple narrative may be akin to watching lotion dry up, but it provides a unique opportunity to get lost in the expertly composed footage. The attentive eye and ear are free to roam wherever they see fit, whether stopping to notice the leafy spider web hanging from the ceiling of the young man’s quarters, or soaking up the tinkle of rain on the roof. A key prop involving a music box that plays the Chaplin theme Spotlight becomes a symbol of human connection, barely heard amid the din of city traffic. If the characters are too underdeveloped and distant to elicit much emotional attachment, it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker take full advantage of the resources of cinema.
Days premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2020, where it won a jury prize. It is poignant to look back and realize that at that point a new coronavirus was making its way through the population undetected, soon to hamper normal human interactions and, for some time at least. , make happiness seem out of reach.