Review: Days

After being told that the film is “intentionally unsubtitled,” the first thing available to a viewer’s senses of Days is a sound, and at that a sound often heard in the work of Tsai Ming-liang: the patter of falling rain. But then a shot completes it: it’s of Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), sitting in his home, looking out of the window; on a table to his right is a glass of water, the surface of which vibrates with the weather. Kang is bathed in a beautiful blue light, while the space immediately in front of him is visible through the glass: the outside reflected in, flattening the perspective—and due to the angle, the wall of his balcony forms a line across the top third of the screen, going right through his head. The shot holds utterly still for nearly five-minutes, and in that time, Kang keeps steady watch of the storm, breathing softly; it’s a restful image, soothing, but Lee’s face is one of the great faces of the cinema, and it’s cast always in a mould of sadness. The rapt and loving intensity of Tsai’s gaze is profuse in this shot, and, somehow, the director sustains it across the entire duration of Days.

Tsai establishes a parallel: he introduces Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), a man about as young as Lee was when he and Tsai started their collaboration. The camera is tucked away in Non’s kitchen, unobtrusively observing him stoke a fire, readying himself to cook. He washes vegetables and fish in a thoroughgoing fashion in his wetroom; a cut returns him to a pot bubbling away over the coals, as he begins preparing a cucumber with tremendous deliberation, and adding oil and seasoning to the dish. The duration of these shots is pushing into Chantal Akerman territory—the scene recalls the fully lived-in preparation and cooking rituals of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. In capturing the details of Non making fish soup in nearly real-time, Tsai is doing more than invoking (to borrow from the title of Ivone Margulies’s book on Akerman) the ‘hyperrealist everyday,’ since there’s great dignity in Non’s comprehensiveness—Tsai does in this scene in miniature what Days does as a whole: it nourishes, it provides sustenance.

Non works in a Bangkok market, selling bits and bobs out from a stall, much like Lee’s Hsiao-kang did in the clandestine roadside set-up of Vive l’amour. Kang, meanwhile, is undergoing treatment for a neck injury, a condition which has afflicted Lee in the actor’s real life, most notably referenced by Tsai in The River. Kang withstands a horrendous acupuncture session—his muscles twitch as flecks of burning ash land on his back. After the needles are removed from his spine Kang is shown resting, bemused, still in pain; lines are imprinted on his face from the bench he’s been buried in. He occupies the left of the frame. Non appears again, taking up the right of the frame while he eats his meal. The pair are ready for each other, to share the space of the frame together, before they have even met. 

The reception of Tsai’s films (in the West) tends to foreground two aspects of them: their slowness and stillness (use of static long-takes)—which amount to their ability to be categorised within the discourse of slow cinema—and the representation of loneliness and estrangement as located in urban environments (most frequently in Taipei). And while that’s fine, since these are important concerns of Tsai’s body of work and are visible throughout the oeuvre, but other, equally consistent features of the films can be overshadowed and under-scrutinised as a result of this tendency. The soundscapes of the films often go ignored completely; a bit more attention is granted to composition, but perhaps not enough to rightly emphasise what an astonishing visual artist Tsai is; the class discourse within the films goes under-noticed—who is the subject of slow cinema but the dispossessed?; the acting in the films provokes too few remarks; and new discussions have been prompted (and yet still more are deserved) by Tsai’s turn to digital cinematography, where before he swore only to shoot on film, alongside changes in his style and the potential for even greater durations, as suggested by Stray Dogs and a number of his shorter works, like Journey to the West. But the facet that matters most to me, because it’s the most pained, is the nature of Tsai’s filmography as queer art. 

Tsai is not fond of having his films labelled as queer—he seems to think it’s a dismissal as much as an act of designation. But it’s also inevitable. Even when the films don’t confirm or activate his characters’ queer desire, it’s still a suggestion, it’s in the their glances, hesitations, the objects they make extensions of their selves: from Rebels of the Neon God up to the aching short film No No Sleep, queerness pervades. As much as I love the film, Vive l’amour is torture to watch. Hsiao-kang’s self-hatred, literalised in a scene I compulsorily watch through my fingers, is hard to bear; his hidden and furtive desires, indicated through Lee’s weary eyes, slow movements, and near silence, trap him in his loneliness, into a space he can’t navigate or understand. The River, and this is an astronomical understatement, is no less wounded. Tsai’s queerness can migrate into camp within (ostensibly) heterosexual films, as in the musical sequences of The Hole and The Wayward Cloud. Goodbye, Dragon Inn, in which the soon-to-be closed cinema acts as a cruising ground for men in Taipei, has a unique operation within Tsai’s work: in the context of the film showing on the cinema’s closing night, King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn, Tsai’s text assumes an anti-homophobic stance. My favourite of the films, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, and the aforementioned No No Sleep, are the two which most closely resemble the particular queer art of Days, but with a crucial difference, since, in both works, the desire, or the possibility of queer reciprocation, is denied. One shot from Days provides a beckoning. It’s of the exterior of a derelict building—Tsai, as I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Stray Dogs confirm, loves ruins—panelled with smashed glass. At first, it’s not all that easy to tell what’s happening in the shot. I spent its opening seconds mystified by the surfaces, like I am by those of the house with the weeping walls in Stray Dogs. But soon enough, a cat is visible a couple of floors up, gradually making its way along; next to it is something luminous. It’s a sunrise, growing in the glass, totemic of the film’s soon-to-be consummated queerness. 

In a Bangkok hotel room, Kang is naked, lying face down on the bed, wrapped in an amorous red light. Non enters the shot, wearing only a pair of tight white briefs. He begins pushing his hands against Kang’s body, traversing up from his feet, brushing playfully against his arse cheeks, and then traces gently the length of his spine before arcing along and down his arms. As the time goes on across only two shots, all that’s audible is the hotel fan, the click of Non’s lotion bottle, the slap and slide of skin on skin, and Kang’s subdued, pleasured moans. In the second set-up, the erotic build-up of the massage progresses into the realm of sexual release, and I would have to think of similar scenes in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM for this high a register of sensual tenderness: all the more moving here because so often denied in Tsai’s filmography. The scene is not complicated by its nature as sex work, nor in noting the age gap between the pair: the transfer of affection, which accompanies the deep, deep satisfaction of the act, is not pretended. Tsai presents the scene as a communion between lonely souls. And it continues after climax, in an I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone vein, as Kang showers with Non behind him, washing him caressingly, caring for him as Rawang (Norman Atun) does for Hsiao-kang in the earlier film. 

Days separates Kang and Non, returning them to their respective solitudes, but marked by the encounter and what it means. But prior to this, Tsai shows the pair eating together, wordlessly, extending this brief meeting for as long as natural. And even before that, as Kang thanks and pays Non, he gives a gift in return for the intimacy gifted him in the form of a small music box, which plays the theme from Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. Tsai’s minimalism has become more ruthless over the years, from What Time is it There? onwards. Some of most recent work, Stray Dogs, the Walker shorts, and now Days, eliminates or simplifies all the cinematic matter they can. The Limelight theme is a good example: a Mandarin version of the theme is sung over the chest-tightening, tear-coaxing terminating shot of the trio floating on the mattress in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. There it plays extra-diegetically, above the film and about the characters. Here, the theme plays intra-diegetically, within the film, to and from and about the characters all at once. 

Days is cinema as a holding space, a structure wherein Kang and Non can, under Tsai’s arrangement, receive each other’s attentiveness and sympathy in the most substantial and fulfilling way possible. Tsai, in this manner, is generous to grant the closing shot to Houngheuangsy, showing Non listening to the music of his souvenir, closing it, absorbing its sentiment, and walking into the evening—but the distinction of Days is truly how it holds Lee Kang-sheng. Lee, who has starred in every one of Tsai’s films over the last 30 years, is something like their life force. He’s the North Star of Tsai’s art. From the lonely, curled-up young man of the early films, through being only glanced at as the projectionist in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (ignoring the less advisable career choice in The Wayward Cloud), right up to this clarifying, gorgeous film, something profound in Lee’s presence has given Tsai the permission, has provided him the access, to make his films. To see Lee’s work across the years, the sensitivity of the pain he’s enacted, the discomforts and devastations performed, rewarded with a film in which he’s finally clasped, shown warmth he can respond to, even momentarily, is a joy beyond joys. Days is animated by Tsai’s abiding love for and adoration of Lee Kang-sheng.

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