Review: Tsai Ming-liang’s ‘Days’ is a quietly aching stunner from one of our great filmmakers
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The story told in Tsai Ming-liang’s “Days” couldn’t be simpler or more affecting. We are following two men who haven’t yet met each other but are plainly destined to do so: Even when they’re not occupying the same frame, they move through their private worlds in what feels like a shared silence and — contradictory as the phrase may sound — a shared solitude. One day they finally meet, forging a bond that sends shockwaves of emotional and erotic release through this beautifully becalmed movie. And then they say goodbye, returning to lives of loneliness captured here with a spellbinding intimacy, something Tsai offers us as if it were the most casual of gifts.
A different kind of gift changes hands near the end of “Days”: a tiny music box that plays a tinkling version of the theme from “Limelight,” Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film about a very different fateful encounter. The reference is hardly coincidental. Tsai, a major figure in contemporary Taiwanese cinema, has long nurtured an affinity for Chaplin, Buster Keaton and other great silent comedians: Some of the films he made in the late ’90s and early 2000s — “The Hole” and “What Time Is It There?” among them — could be described as silent comedies of a type, their meticulously composed funny-sad frames teeming with deadpan sight gags and sometimes delirious bursts of slapstick.
In the years since those festival and art-house triumphs, Tsai’s work has become sparer and more somber, and also more daring in its play with time and duration; he’s spent much of his time lately directing short and midlength works, both fiction and nonfiction. With “Days,” his first new feature since the hauntingly bleak “Stray Dogs” (2013), he has made something exquisite and rare: an elegiac, autumnal work that also feels like an artistic breakthrough. It’s a tale of profound isolation and thrilling connection, alert and alive and gorgeously sensual even as every moment carries a bittersweet reminder of time’s inexorable passage.
Just as Chaplin’s weary presence in “Limelight” was made all the more poignant by his fans’ decades-long devotion, so Tsai’s admirers will be deeply moved by the sight of the great Taiwanese actor Lee Kang-sheng — a melancholy fixture of the director’s movies since his youthful 1991 debut feature, “Rebels of the Neon God” — here surrendering his slower, wearier 52-year-old body to the gaze of the camera. (The director of photography is Chang Jhong-yuan, who also shot three of Tsai’s recent shorts.) Not that you need to have met any of Lee’s other characters in Tsai’s movies — all of them named Hsiao-kang, or just Kang — to be captivated by this one, whom we first meet staring out his window.
The pane of glass before him reflects back at us his house’s immediate surroundings: a large tree, an overcast sky, a falling rain whose gentle pitter-patter fills in the silence. We see what Kang sees — or do we? His unwavering expression, at once sad and inscrutable, suggests maybe not. No explanations are forthcoming, but gradually a story coalesces in eloquent, wordless images of Kang soaking in a pool and performing outdoor stretches. Eventually he travels to a clinic in Hong Kong where he seeks to reduce his chronic pain through a moxibustion, a traditional Chinese procedure in which burning herbal preparations are applied to the body’s acupressure points.
The treatment is unsimulated, and so is the pain. “Days” arose not from a prewritten script or story but rather from footage that Tsai shot of Lee over several years, capturing, among other things, the actor’s efforts to treat his own long-term illness. Nearly every shot lasts several minutes, as shots often do in Tsai’s movies, as if they were trying to test the limits of the medium’s capacity for sustained contemplation. But that’s already the wrong word: “Days” never feels like a test, never feels severe or punishing. Its gestures are profoundly empathic. But it knows that real empathy, a critical watchword more often bandied about than understood, takes more time, care and attention than most filmmakers or viewers are willing to invest.
Running a little over two hours, “Days” feels as though it has all the time in the world — enough time for Tsai to cut back and forth between Kang and Non, a quiet, hardworking young Laotian immigrant living in Bangkok. (He’s played by Anong Houngheuangsy, and as with Lee, much of what we see of him is drawn from real life.) Non’s background, like Kang’s, is of little consequence; the present, immediate and fleeting, is what matters. The camera drinks in the details of Non’s routine, from his prayers before an altar in his sparsely furnished apartment to his painstaking preparation of a dinner of fish and vegetables. You can fight these moments of quotidian stillness, but it’s best to luxuriate in them. They remind you just how much you can learn about a person from what they do and how they move, often far more than what they say.
Not much is said at all in “Days,” which begins with a pointed note that the dialogue has been left unsubtitled. Don’t worry, you won’t miss a thing, least of all when Kang and Non finally meet. Their brief encounter, a massage appointment in a Bangkok hotel room, is banal in its particulars and almost indescribable in its impact. For minutes on end the camera observes the intimate play of hands on flesh, skirting the imperceptible boundaries between the therapeutic, the transactional and the sexual. Part of what gives it such emotional and visceral force is the fact that we’ve already seen these bodies out in the world, at work and at rest. The most private, personal acts are shown to exist on an experiential continuum with the most ordinary ones.
You can take stock of the contrasts between these two quiet souls — one older, one younger, one richer, one poorer — and also ponder the significance of that music box, whose constant tinkling refrain strikes a sentimental, even cloying note that seems to subtly shift in meaning as you listen to it. But what “Days” gives us is something that can’t really be intellectualized or even explained: a vision of grace that collapses the boundaries between the real and the fictional, the corporeal and the spiritual. There’s something enormously moving about the image of Lee’s beautiful, broken body receiving these tender ministrations, not just from his younger costar but from a filmmaker who has spent a career looking upon him with love.
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: Lumiere Music Hall, Beverly Hills
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