In the mesmerizing opening shot of Days, a sad man sits in a chair, staring out a window at the falling rain. He is dressed simply in a white V-neck T-shirt. He is exceptionally still: His only movements are his gentle breathing and the blinking of his moist eyes. Just enough of the room is visible for one to discern that it is clean and spartan in the fashion of nice houses. A water glass sits on the corner of a nearby table. In the dim reflection on the window, one can just make out trees being lashed by the storm. Nothing else happens. The sad man sits and stares. The rain falls.
This shot lasts for approximately four-and-a-half minutes. The man in the chair is played by Lee Kang-sheng. These two facts alone might be enough for a canny cinephile to deduce that Days was written and directed by Tsai Ming-liang, acclaimed Taiwanese auteur and one of the living masters of slow cinema. In the rarefied world of international art films, Tsai (Rebels of the Neon God, What Time Is It There?, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone) is not the only purveyor of quiet, glacially paced features, but he is probably one of the most beloved. He’s certainly the only filmmaker whose slow-cinema output is so consistently and demonstrably focused on gay male characters. As such, the arrival of a new narrative feature from the director, after an eight-year gap – with his longtime collaborator and muse Lee once again in a leading role – is an occasion for celebration, at least among filmgoers who have developed a taste for Tsai’s brand of meditative non-action.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Days turns out to be one of the filmmaker’s most accessible features to date – “accessible” being a relative thing for a director whose work could be glibly but not inaccurately described as “nothing happens, and slowly.” It certainly feels as if Tsai has shaken off his more abstruse tendencies and re-embraced the doleful sentimentalism that suffused his 2003 masterwork, Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003). There are no cryptic dream sequences or inexplicable dual roles in Days, whose simple, heartbreaking story is remarkably easy to parse. To wit: Two men, each living alone, go about their daily lives. They meet and share a night of connection, and then go their separate ways. Occasionally, they think of one another. Roll credits.
Tsai takes 127 languorous minutes to tell this story, but as the saying goes, it’s not what a film is about, it’s how it’s about it. The bulk of Days’ running time consists of the film’s two characters puttering around, doing exceptionally banal things – or nothing at all. (Other people appear at the margins, but Days is, for all purposes, a two-hander.) Lee portrays a middle-age man named Kang, who lives in a nice home in the countryside. He watches the rain, soaks in his tub, and tends to the koi in his backyard pond. Kang is plagued by a painful and persistent neck ailment, for which he eventually visits an acupuncturist in the city. Meanwhile a younger man named Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) dwells in a run-down, one-room flat, following a routine that is a bit busier than Kang’s. He rises, eats, showers, visits a shrine, and goes to an outdoor market where he seems to have a part-time gig selling women’s clothing. One remarkable, extended sequence follows Non as he prepares a meal for himself, his movements around his makeshift kitchen deliberate yet efficient. (There's an echo of Jeanne Dielman there.)
To the Tsai novice, lengthy sequences in which people sit or stand around doing nothing of consequence might sound like the definition of cinematic tedium. However, the director’s features can be just as stimulating as any spectacle-fueled blockbuster. They simply require some acclimation on the part of the viewer, in the same way that one’s eyes must adjust to discern details in a dark room. There is almost no dialogue in Days, and what little Mandarin nudges its way into the story has not been subtitled. The viewer is thereby invited to truly sit with the film’s images and sounds, to attune themselves to the subtle textures of drifting incense smoke, or the revealing twitches around a character’s mouth, or the assiduous poetry of a man rinsing cabbage in a plastic wash bin. As he often does in his filmography, Tsai relies primarily on long, fixed shots, drawing out their duration to truly heroic lengths in some cases. (The rare exceptions, like a handheld closeup sequence on a bustling city street, tend to be jarring in their stylistic incongruity.) The director has an uncommon talent for bestowing even virtually static images — such as a sleeping figure or a building façade — with a kind of pent-up energy. When a cut finally occurs, courtesy of editor and cinematographer Jhong Yuan Chang, it often arrives like a visual thunderclap.
After 65 minutes of only the mildest incident, the film’s dual protagonists finally cross paths. Kang orders a full-body massage during his stay in the city, and the masseuse who appears at his hotel door happens to be Non. Tsai portrays the entirety of their 20-minute encounter – and the sexual release that caps it – with just two shots, which are not so much explicit as they are tangibly erotic and unnervingly intimate. The director makes superb use of lighting and sound design to convey the visceral physicality of this scene, as Kang’s corporeal and spiritual agony dissipates (if only briefly) under Non’s warm, vigorous, and attentive touch. The specifics of what follows this literal climax are best left for the viewer to experience firsthand. Suffice to say that the remainder of Days consists of a long, slow return to solitude and monotony, as the memory of Kang and Non’s single night together recedes and resonates – albeit in slightly different ways for each of them.
Lee has appeared in every one of Tsai’s features, and although it’s easy to see what makes the actor a great leading man – the youthful looks, the chiseled lips, the subtle expressiveness – the emotionality he brings to his role in Days has a definite metatextual tinge. The chronic, debilitating neck pain that afflicts his character is reportedly a very real condition for the actor, and Tsai previously incorporated the ailment into his 1997 Lee-starring feature The River. Is this the same character, some two decades later? Still lean and smooth-skinned at 52 years old, Lee nonetheless conveys the overwhelming exhaustion of a man who has been suffering for as long as he can remember, and not just in the physical sense. The viewer learns almost nothing of Kang’s background, but the aching loneliness that afflicts him is evident simply from the way that he sits, stands, and smokes.
This is the essence of a Tsai Ming-liang film: To observe characters with an exceptional degree of raptness and to intuit something of their inner lives from the fine details of glances, gestures, and silences. Not that Days is even remotely difficult to grasp: It might be the most emotionally forthright film that Tsai has ever made, boasting a sorrowful humanism that cuts right to the quick. Neither Kang nor Non declares his feelings in Days, but there is nothing ambiguous about the tears that Kang sheds in the wake of his orgasm. (It is not incidental that this is the only full-on weeping in a very dewy film.) Weeks after their encounter, Kang is still thinking forlornly about Non, but this is not expressed through dialogue. Rather, Tsai conveys it through a five-minute shot of Kang slowly waking from sleep and staring miserably into the camera, which somehow feels more emphatic and devastating than any line that Lee could utter.
The director does not give Houngheuangsy these kinds of extravagant close-ups, but Non is also a less reflective character, a man still vibrating with the jittery momentum of youth. He is always acting, always moving, always waiting for something. Yet the film hints at the romanticism that Non nurtures, as seen in his sweetly childlike fascination with a trivial gift that Kang gives him. To the extent that Days emerges as something more than a gloomy portrait of modern isolation and disaffection, it does so by quietly asserting that a connection is no less beautiful or momentous simply because it is impermanent. Indeed, the lingering intensity of a relationship is often inversely proportional to its duration, a truism that Tsai’s film expresses beautifully while also keeping its feet firmly planted on the ground.
Days will screen nightly on Sept. 17-19 at the Webster University Film Series.