Berlinale 2020 review: Days (Tsai Ming-Liang)

Loneliness is a terrible thing. In the hands of a filmmaker as sensual and sensitive as Tsai Ming-Liang though, it becomes a poem. In his first feature since 2013’s Stray Dogs, Tsai and his longtime collaborator Lee Kang-Sheng are joined by newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy to tell a sad tale without a plot. Eschewing developing scripts since Stray Dogs, his new film Days fell in his lap by sheer coincidence. Lee is a longtime sufferer of a physical ailment in real life, and his search for a treatment became part of Tsai’s 1996 film The River. Though he didn’t know how to use the footage, over the years Tsai has kept filming his friend’s quest for relief from the pain. Meanwhile, Tsai met Laotian-born Houngheuangsy at a Bangkok food court where the latter was working. They kept in touch through social media, and while on video chat Tsai saw his friend cooking his hometown dishes. He felt the urge to fly to Bangkok and film Houngheuangsy cooking. And thus the making of Days began…

Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) drifts through life in search of relief for his pain. His pain is physical, his hurt is personal, his loneliness is palpable. In Bangkok he meets Non (Anong Houngheuangsy). Their encounter gives him comfort and consolation. He tries to hold on to their connection, but inevitably they must part and carry on with their days.

A synopsis for a Tsai Ming-Liang film always turns into a haiku of sorts. His films are slow-moving poems that aim to lay bare life as it is, as well as man’s helpless place within it. He also pushes this idea onto the viewer as he draws them into long and often static takes, heightening the senses and forcing the viewer to perceive the depth beneath the frame. Days opens with a minutes-long shot of Lee as he watches a thunderstorm through his apartment window. Lee, motionless, stares ahead, the wall behind him a virginal white. The sound of rain and thunder drowns out all else. The mind starts to wander, the eyes try to find a pathway into the soul of this man through his sad gaze.

Over the course of about a dozen shots we slowly learn more about him, and also about the young man we follow performing menial tasks like cooking. The rhythm of the day dictates the rhythm of the shots as we move from the static low shots of the morning through the frantic midday bustle into the high-perched stillness of night. This rhythm repeats into the next day as we reach both the natural and temporal midpoint of the film: the meeting of the two protagonists in Kang’s hotel room. Non is there to give Kang a massage, but for Kang this is so much more: human contact, a temporary reprieve from his life in painful solitude. The scene, which takes almost half an hour, is deeply sensual despite being an almost rigid shot of one man massaging another. Jokes about massages and happy endings aside, Kang’s release is as much emotional as it is physical.

After the act Kang gives Non a music box. As they sit on the edge of the bed, Kang watching Non operate the little toy with heartpiercing tenderness, a laden sadness falls over the scene. Kang’s inability to let go of Non hangs thick in the air. It is destiny though, and life returns to what it was before for Kang, a lone wandering soul in pain. He has touched Non’s heart though, just as he has the viewer’s.

Perhaps the most prominent ‘slow cinema’ filmmaker, Tsai’s films take time to reveal their emotions and underpinning structure. What initially feels like a random collection of long takes will over time coalesce into a fleeting narrative. Days‘ structure is that of a collision of two people, like two atoms attracting each other and then bouncing off. There are days before them and days after them, but for that one moment in time they melted together.

Photo copyright: Homegreen Films