Malaysian-born Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang is a poet of loneliness and alienation, and a favorite among devotees of “slow cinema.” Days, his first feature in seven years, finds him working in long, static takes with almost no dialogue and, as a pre-credits caption forewarns, without recourse to subtitles. It’s a fitting aesthetic stratagem for the story of two men whose unremarkable lives converge for a fleeting moment of pleasure.
One of the two men is played by Lee Kang-Sheng, the director’s favorite actor and lifelong friend. (Tsai hasn’t made a film without him since the Rebels of the Neon God in 1992.) First glimpsed staring plaintively out of a living room window as a storm gathers, he seems worried about something. Before long, we learn that he has a neck problem and is seeking therapies to relieve it.
The second man, years younger, lives alone in a downscale apartment where he laboriously prepares meals of vegetables and fish. The ritual of washing, chopping, boiling, and seasoning is conveyed with the utmost interest by the director, who demonstrates again what Chantal Akerman proved with Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 – an intelligent camera can invest even the most mundane actions with fascination.
In addition to an excruciating awareness of the passage of time, Tsai adds an acute body consciousness, beginning with the revelation of what appears to be Lee’s superfluous nipple. We witness a strange acupuncture treatment, a scene of such verisimilitude it merges with documentary. The film peaks with a 20-minute massage sequence in a dimly lit hotel room which, while discreetly lensed, remains intensely carnal.
For many viewers, such an unhurried narrative might be akin to watching lotion dry, but it affords a unique opportunity to get lost in the expertly composed images. The attentive eye and ear are given the freedom to roam where they please, whether stopping to notice the leafy cobweb dangling from the ceiling of the young man’s quarters, or soaking in the sound of rain tinkling on the roof. One key prop involving a music box that plays the theme to Chaplin’s Limelight becomes a symbol of human connection, barely heard amidst the din of urban traffic. If the characters are too underdeveloped and aloof to elicit much emotional attachment, it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker take such full advantage of the resources of cinema.
Days premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2020, where it won a jury prize. It’s poignant to look back and realize that at that very moment, a novel coronavirus was working its way through the population undetected, soon to impede normal human interaction and, for a time at least, make happiness seem beyond reach.