Tsai Ming-liang's 'Days' is a Still, Hypnotic Immersion in Loneliness and Human Connection

Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng create a tender, cavernous narrative that affirms the monotony and beauty of being and the exhaustion that stems from that dichotomy.

Tsai-Ming-liang’s Days
NYFF

Days opens with a single still shot, bathed in a dim, somber blue. Writer-director Tsai Ming-liang’s penchant for gorgeous, disarming composition is immediately on display, as is his career-defining muse, Lee Kang-sheng. Lee has been the focal point of all of Tsai’s films, be it a musical narrative feature or a short in which he simply walks a cityscape in a red robe. After the 2013 Venice premiere of Stray Dogs, Tsai equivocally suggested it was time to retire. But the arrival of Days is anything but surprising.

Another Tsai and Lee film collaboration somehow seemed inevitable. As long as the two are alive and well enough to work, it’s hard to imagine the ever-developing story of Lee coming to a complete halt. Here, Lee, now in his fifties, sits in an armchair in the middle of the frame, a near-thirty-year evolution of Tsai’s onscreen alter-ego everyman whom the two introduced with the iconic Rebels of the Neon God back in 1992.

The product of disaffected youth, he appears to be worn, weary, in need of substantial rest. He seems truly alone. The monochromatic blue, the constant pounding of rain on sheet metal, the chameleonic strip of glass across the top of the screen, the waving trees in its reflection, the untouched glass of room temperature water on the nearby slate table, and Lee’s unflinching person all communicate the contemplative nature of the film that was hinted at in the opening message: “The film is intentionally unsubtitled.”

The shot lasts a little over four minutes without any movement or dialogue before the film cuts to Lee semi-submerged in a spa-like tub where we linger again on his motionless body and barely blinking eyes for a long while. It continues like this, a mere ten shots comprising the first thirty minutes. Within that time, we meet the only other character in Days: Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), a 28-year-old Laotian immigrant in Bangkok. The camera cuts patiently between Lee calmly grimacing his way through neck pain at his mountainside home (a real-life ailment that’s been part of his onscreen persona since Rebels) and Non silently preparing a meal of fish, sticky rice, and papaya salad in his modest apartment.

We learn quickly that the lack of subtitles isn’t a linguistic challenge. There is virtually no dialogue in Days. Where others might flesh out what Lee is feeling through conversations about existentialism or elaborate displays of emotion, Tsai takes a meditative, minimalist approach, creating still lives to ruminate on until the catharsis of drawn-out physical connection weakens us and digs a well of carnal desire, or, at the very least, yearning for passionate human connection.

The corporeal takes center stage in Days. We get the first glimpse of this after Lee travels to the city and we witness a documentary-style shooting of an acupuncture-meets-mugwort treatment for his neck, a difficult treatment to watch without squirming. Eventually, Lee and Non come together when the former hires the latter for a full body massage and sex. Openly gay, Tsai is known for his portrayal of his sexuality through Lee onscreen, and Days marks the most sensual, hypnotic display of his experience as a gay man yet.

During the erotic encounter, the camera is static and the room is silent, but the mental and emotional energy onscreen is kinetic, moving. It’s as if the image is a sponge, soaked in a lifetime of longing, and Tsai is wringing it out over us like warm water, our pores absorbing the brief, emotional, existential solace as if we need it to survive. And, to Tsai’s point, we do. The soul needs human connection like the body needs food or water.

Tsai immerses us in the mundane, melancholic isolation of the two men pre-encounter so as to create a supremely therapeutic release in their eventual connection, which, despite playing out over thirty-four minutes in almost entirely still frames and entrancing repetitive motion — whether massaging, eating, or cranking a tiny music box over the same tune for five minutes straight as a means of expressing mutual contentment — feels achingly short in the way any blissful human connection does.

Coming off of Your Face (a documentary comprised solely of faces staring quietly into the camera for long periods of time) with the languid and lingering Days, Tsai has firmly established his late-career obsession with near-monastic levels of rumination on the human experience, as he’s come to know it. That the sound of one’s own breath is often louder than what’s happening on-screen affirms the deliberative nature of his films in this vein.

Tsai brilliantly and poignantly uses repetition to make it easier for viewers to place themselves in Lee’s — and even Non’s — shoes. He’s carved out a cavernous narrative for a reason. We’re meant to inhabit the space, see ourselves in wandering reflection, and feel our perpetual loneliness assuaged once we start to experience the sensation of Non’s kneading hands on our own bodies instead of merely seeing them on Lee’s. It is at once an affirmation of the monotony and the beauty of being and the exhaustion that stems from that dichotomy.

Luke bleeds film and music, got his master's in film & ethics at Duke, and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball.