Patrick Preziosi on Tsai Ming-liang’s ‘Days’ (2020)
As an artist who has let his most recognisable calling cards bend with the ebb and flow of time, Tsai Ming-liang’s gradual drift from narrative filmmaking into unabashed experimentation and commissioned installation work has yielded logical appendages to a formidable body of work, even if they play with a twinge of bittersweetness.
The filmmaker’s last effort that could be considered “conventional”—the monumental Stray Dogs / Jiao you (2013)—hinted at a desired liberation from the parameters not just of filmmaking, but producing, promoting, screenwriting and the like, languishing in an aura of weariness that could extend to both Tsai and his constant muse, actor Lee Kang-sheng. Lee has anchored all of Tsai’s features, a familiar face in a filmography prone to intoxicating intervals of disorientation, whether it be delirious karaoke-musicals, discomfiting intimacy, or baldfaced humour. Given the pair’s work together in the second half of the 2010s, and now with Days, it seems they aren’t so much starting over, but lovingly investigating all the adjacent tangents established by their past films together.
Like many of its predecessors, Days teases the possibilities of being a quasi-sequel—or, at least companion—to Tsai and Lee’s other collaborations. Over the years, both men’s respective autobiographies have swirled together with elements of pure fiction into a composite character, being one Hsiao-kang, first embodied by the then-babyfaced actor in 1992’s Rebels of the Neon God / Qing shao nian nuo zha. Lee’s been given other, nondescript credits (“The Man Upstairs”, “The Father”), but there almost always exists the subtle suggestion that these roles are all the same man, whether tipped off by a reference to the family that surrounds Hsiao-kang in films prior, or more general predilections that may have been foregrounded previously. In Days, Lee plays Kang, who is afflicted with the true-to-life, debilitating neck pain the actor himself not only suffers, but of what also was the crux of that early masterwork, The River / He liu (1997).
Lee occupies half of the film, with Tsai cleaving the runtime to dedicate just as much attention to Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), whom the director met three years ago in Bangkok. Anong works illegally in the city after emigrating from Laos, and this personal fact feels enfolded into the film itself. As Days takes patient stock of both men’s lives, building towards a shared climax, it’s implied that Non is something of an itinerant, living in a bare apartment, featuring little more than some cooking equipment, a twin-sized mattress on the floor, and two pin-ups of naked women from a 2015 Isuzu diary. This journalistic quality is particularly reinforced in a melancholic excerpt from the film’s press release: “Even after several years, the urban city still feels foreign, cold, and lonely to [Non].” Tsai deftly balances the inherent alienation of an unfamiliar cityscape while retaining an otherwise meditative tone by way of Non and his cooking—which requires various preparatory steps—imparting a sense of stable routine perhaps not present in the immigrant’s life outside of his apartment.
Lee is given less of a sense of daily life; in the first of many gorgeous frames, Days opens with the actor seated gazing past the camera, the reflection of his viewing subject captured spectrally in the rain-speckled windowpane. Given the film’s improvised shooting schedule, Tsai’s compositional meticulousness is now airier, stripping back the extraneous and the laborious to get to the heart of each scene with only the most necessary of visual and aural devices.
When Kang presumes the return of his ailment, he’s glimpsed through a thicket of gently swaying tree branches with his hand pressed to his neck, his eyes screwed shut with pain. And later, after receiving a moxibustion treatment (a complicated-looking procedure which involves affixing acupuncture needles with flammable material so they simultaneously act as a heat source; Kang’s twitches imply the crumbling residue burns him), Tsai cuts to a close-up of Lee’s face, imprinted with the creases of the massage-chair he was just in for however long. Lee’s eyes verge on the hangdog, but the most decipherable sensation is one of resignation, all conveyed just with a fleeting close-up that registers a catalogue of emotion despite the simplicity of its setup.
In keeping with the unrehearsed design of the film, Tsai momentarily interrupts the graceful stasis that’s hitherto been Days’ working method with a rare handheld sequence, tracking a neck-braced Lee through a crowded downtown sector, intertwining the unforgiving tempo of the city with his actor’s own physical condition. A gently pulsing catharsis materialises, however, within the film’s centrepiece, a predetermined meeting between Kang and Non in a mid-tier luxury hotel room that leaves the implicit circumstances of the coupling unspoken (being: the former is a sexwork client of the latter at this very time). There’s a heartstopping moment of realisation when Non first edges his way into the bleary, shallow focus, as we’re only subject to the nude Kang initially, laying stomach down on the bed. Non intensely massages every part of Kang’s body, from his buttocks to his neck, to his nipples, an act of sheer eroticism that expectedly glides into tender and deserved sexual release, with the faces of both men illuminating a modest ecstasy, and Kang himself emitting guttural mewls of satisfaction. Tsai’s broken the façade of rigour that’s been externally prescribed to his films before—such as the jarring, near-violent conclusion of The Wayward Cloud / Tian bian yi duo yun (2006), or the delicate way in which Hsiao-kang’s father (Tien Miao) steadies his son’s neck so he can properly drive his motorcycle in The River—but never in a manner quite like this, robust in its acting and composition while retaining a quiet elegance that culminates as naturally as it does inevitably dissipate.
To infer that the two men have forged a forever-changing, Brief Encounter-esque romance would do a disservice to Tsai’s restraint. Still somewhat basking in the afterglow of the massage, Kang produces a small music box (which plays the theme from Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, of all things) from an envelope and gives it to Non. After they listen to the song through, Non leaves and Kang hesitates before chasing him, and Tsai cuts to the two walking down the street together, then dining together, captured so perfectly, it being the chosen poster image reads as all the more natural. Tsai returns to the rhythm that the film’s first half perfected, alternating between Non (who cooks more), Kang (who takes a picture of his new fish on a smartphone, sleeps, and walks down a darkened roadway), and the odd landscape. The equilibrium of “normalcy” for the two men carries on, but for a brief few minutes, Non sits at a bus stop and takes out the music box, listening to its tinny twinkle again, in a denouement, that like the rest of Days, feels as if it can welcomely stretch on into infinity.
‘Days’ is playing as part of the 58th New York Film Festival.
Director Tsai Ming-liang 蔡明亮
Writer Tsai Ming-liang 蔡明亮
Cinematographer Jhong Yuan Chang 張鍾元
Editor Jhong Yuan Chang 張鍾元
Cast Kang-sheng Lee 李康生, Anong Houngheuangsy
Duration 127 minutes