LFF 2020: Days Review
Tsai Ming-liang’s films have always had a complicated relationship with the idea of sexual intimacy. When they don’t stray into nihilistic territory, such as the quite-literal climax of his unclassifiable slow cinema musical The Wayward Cloud, they frequently fixate on lost souls struggling to make a meaningful human connection - such as the gay tourist in his 2003 film Goodbye Dragon Inn, aimlessly trying to find a sexual encounter in a supposedly haunted cinema. Tenderness isn’t exactly an alien subject in his work, but his near silent latest effort, Days (Rizi), feels revelatory in its compassion, a tale of one sexual encounter that manages to illustrate the loneliness in the lives of two very different men, all without a single word spoken.
Those men are Kang (played by Tsai’s recurrent muse Lee Kang-sheng), a rich, middle aged man who is seeking treatment for various ailments causing pain in his head and neck, and Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), a younger man who works as a masseuse in Bangkok. Tsai illustrates their loneliness using static long takes of home routines - Kang is often photographed staring into space, in a seemingly depressed stupor, while Non is characterised via his methodical approach to household tasks, including a 15 minute sequence of him preparing a meal of fish and vegetables. These are two men who have a disconnect from the wider world for different reasons, be it a crippling pain (a recurrent theme in Tsai’s films with Lee, taken from the actor’s own medical history), or a rural lifestyle that makes it harder to maintain connections in the city, and their eventual brief encounter feels all the more meaningful due to the slow way in which the mundanity of their routines is unravelled.
Tsai started filming this project several years ago, with the first scenes shot all the way back in 2014. Throughout production, he didn’t even know the form it would eventually take, with no narrative idea solidified when cameras started rolling. This apparent aimlessness hasn’t been hidden, with many sequences (such as the aforementioned extensive cookery scene) created after the director spent time video chatting with his actors, and wanted to incorporate more of their home lives into these characters. Which is why it’s so surprising that the film might be Tsai’s most emotionally direct - a case of a filmmaker intuitively understanding his performers to the extent that a quietly moving narrative seemed to forge itself around them.
The film’s centrepiece is their hotel room encounter, with what is nominally a massage with a happy ending taking on a far deeper resonance after spending so much time immersed in the monotony of their lives. Far from the darkness that has overshadowed many sexual encounters between characters in his previous films, the presumably transactional nature of the hookup is offset by a genuine tenderness - a wordless, slow cinema spin on a film like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, where an unassuming shag leads to far more profound discoveries for the central pair.
Again, the idea of developing a brief but all encompassing connection via a massage is in many ways a fantastical conceit the director has been known to play around with - his meditative dramas have taken musical, or ghostly, detours in the past, slowly untethering from reality in otherworldly ways. Although not boldly fantastical, he takes the quasi-mythical nature of an emotionally overpowering hookup, depicted time and time again in predominantly LGBTQ films, and applies it to an otherwise grounded look at two differently disaffected lives. For the two men, this is a brief, semi-romantic fantasy, a moment of connection in lives that are currently without it. It’s a rare moment of emotional closure in a filmography so often preoccupied with longing, or disaffection.
Days plays at the London Film Festival.
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