Nothing “happens” in the opening scene of Tsai Ming-liang’s “Days,” at least not in any conventional sense: Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a middle-class, middle-aged man, is sitting at his window, looking out at as the rain falls. The shot lasts four-and-a-half minutes, without cutting or moving – just a man, staring out a window and thinking. It’s a deliberate choice, right off the bat; if you get antsy, this may not be the movie for you. On the other hand, it’s okay to get antsy, because the filmmaker isn’t just setting the scene. He’s slowing the viewer’s resting heart rate, acclimating us to the style and rhythm in which he’s going to work for the next two-plus hours.
“Days” is the Taiwanese filmmaker’s first feature in seven years, and does not deviate from his minimalist style – so much so that it is, in many ways, something less like conventional viewing and more like meditation. His story is simple, focusing on two characters: the aforementioned Kang and the younger, working-class Non (newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy). We meet them individually, and casually, as they live their lives: they rest, and they pray. Non works (there is a long sequence of the younger man washing many vegetables). Kang seeks out acupuncture for his back and neck pain.
They go about these unremarkable daily routines, and since we’ve seen a movie or two, we wait for their inevitable intersection. Along the way, Tsai maintains the aesthetic, and everything is minimal: camera set-ups and movement, action, dialogue (which is, per the opening, “intentionally unsubtitled” anyway). Yet these devices, which could prove distancing or even alienating, have the opposite effect; the mind sharpens while watching. The active viewer pays more attention, alert, peering for flickers of emotion in the faces, or changes on the frames’ edges.
This risky approach pays off, and beautifully, when the protagonists finally meet. Still aching after his acupuncture, Kang goes to a massage parlor (and, to be clear, it’s a massage parlor), and Non is his masseuse. That lengthy massage, which builds to a sexual encounter, is played in real-time, with Chang Jhon-yuan’s camera lingering on every detail, noting every intersection, every look, every touch. This is the moment when you feel the picture coming together, because the intimacy of this act is given its weight, not by the playing, shooting, or cutting (the camera remains unobtrusive, and the long takes continue apace) by the quiet desperation we’ve observed in the previous hour.
The sequence is delicate, and attentive, and (perhaps consequently) intensely erotic. And because we’ve seen them share that entire, escalating experience, the (conventionally speaking) aesthetic flatness of the scenes that follow is filled by what we know, and understand, that these two men are feeling. “Days” is a film about loneliness, the despair of feeling adrift and abandoned, even in a city stuffed with people. For just a brief moment, these two offer each other a reprieve from that suffering.
And then… they just go back to their lonely lives, which makes the picture, in its own quiet way, a devastating critique of one of cinema’s favorite notions: that a night of passion can change your life. Or maybe it does; maybe, based on how long the camera holds on them individually at the end, something inside each of them has reset, or at least been kept at bay. You can go either way. These things are up for interpretation.
That ending, poetic and beautiful, is the chronological conclusion of “Days”; emotionally, it crests a few minutes earlier, as the two men go on a modest dinner “date” after their encounter. In a film of long, fully played scenes, it seems short – just a minute or two. Perhaps Tsai wanted to let them have their privacy. He certainly frames it that way, shooting the two men, seated at their table, from clear across the street. We can’t hear, much less understand, a single word. Nor do we need to. [A]