We begin to hear a sound before its opening shot. The torrential downpour of unseen rain, fading in through its opening white screen in a hazy lull. As we listen, onscreen we are told that the following film will intentionally be presented without subtitles. We are then led into the film’s opening shot–a static frame of Lee Kang-sheng sitting and facing a pane of glass reflecting the seemingly endless amount of rain from outside. The shot lasts long enough for you to potentially lose track of its length, and even more so of the subtleties in this sequence alone. The flickering of Lee’s eyes. The murky, clinical isolation of his minimal environment. The ache of his posture, both thematically and over time, very literally. If you’re even somewhat familiar with the work of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang, these elements should ring equally as familiar, and if not, then perhaps it will be this opening alone that cements whether the rest of what follows will be to your liking or not.
Since his 1992 debut Rebels of the Neon God, Tsai’s work has been rooted in a very distinctive mode of stillness. The terms ‘liminal space’, ‘collective isolation’, or ‘emotional/ sexual catharsis’ have been used by many in attempts to analyze his filmography, and for the most part rightfully so. But where I personally have heard not as prominently is the honing of those conjoined traits into an entirely singular form of cinema; one that has belonged to Tsai only for nearly three decades. It only makes so much sense as to how his audience–this writer included–had grown exponentially since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. There isn’t a single one of his films that didn’t equally operate as an empathetic window into lives that any viewer can see their reflection in, especially in this very contemporary period. From the final operating hours of Goodbye, Dragon Inn’s rundown Taipei cinema drawing parallels to the closing of repertory/arthouse theaters all throughout the US, the erotically mournful release in the final moments of Vive L’amour, and to the close-but-still-isolated lives in the midst of a literal pandemic of The Hole.
It is filmmaking endlessly and inherently rich in humanity; despite its stillness, its muted ambience, and repressed emotion. His decision to curate screenings of his 2013 film Stray Dogs specifically in museums and galleries from his home country more than confirms his crafting of the kind of cinema that could very well double as art installation. Through his distinctive eye, we witness familiar elements continuously made new again, under different touches, different faces, different feelings. His wide-angle, marginally lonely photography remaining his most definitive means of expressing longing in a world that modernizes every day; changing without remorse, fully in spite of the lives within quietly scrambling for the faintest etching of connection. I couldn’t possibly have imagined being within the company of another person when it came time to see his newest film in a theatre. Something in me knew that it was an experience that called for limiting my own self to just that, and all it really took for me to know that my intuition was very much in the right were the theatre lights dimming to pitch-black, and the aforementioned opening sequence playing, somehow already making me feel safe. As if I was suddenly back home.
Days is the title of his beautiful, piercingly tender new film. It is a work that acts as a congregation of everything that defines Tsai’s body of work, yet simultaneously acts as a new phase for him. This would more than certainly apply to the essential contribution by his most prominent collaborator–lead actor Lee Kang-sheng, having been in every single one of his films since Neon God in his early 20’s, and now past 50 in Days, performing with such a stunning reaffirmation of his ability to utilize his body in ways that break the heart, but only well before mending it back together again. Tsai continues the documentation of his lead actor–often playing a version of his real self named Hsiao-kang–this time capturing the treatment of his supposedly real-life neck pain; not unlike the mysterious injury he receives in 1997’s The River. We follow him through desolate urban surroundings and dangerously elaborate acupuncture sessions, highlighting Tsai’s unique approach to this project, in which the film itself was shot over several years, highlighting not just Lee’s character, but as well as a separate character named Non (played by Anong Houngheuangsy) who spends his time preparing apartment meals in a Jeanne Dielman-esque fashion, evoking a parallel sense of longing within his own isolated lifestyle.
The film’s first half is spent keeping these two at bay; placing deep emphasis on the temporal mundanity of their ways of living. The time-spanning scope of the filming of the project isn’t necessarily ingrained in the story of the film itself, but rather conveyed through how Tsai simply just holds on the two and their juxtaposing of the spaces they inhabit. Apart from an extended handheld sequence, Days is entirely comprised of beautifully static frames that do nothing but hold. Until the second half arises from the sudden cutting of audio, with a wide shot spanning the exterior of an apartment building; its complete muteness allowing the cat seen from inside the windows to be its sole subject despite its framing as a speck within the grandiosity of its own space. In the most subtle of ways, Tsai performs a metamorphosis; transforming his film from one that explores the loneliness of bodies within spaces, to another that allows bodies to suddenly share a space, exemplified in its climactic scene that ranks amongst one of the most effortlessly moving sequences of his entire career. And despite its lack of subtitles potentially luring off viewers, Tsai substitutes the power of words with the ever-so-superior power of faces, bodies and gestures, simply allowing his mastery as a visual storyteller to be yet again proven without unease.
It is a film that calls for patience and a gentle sense of air, as well as one in which your engagement will be more-or-less contingent on your mileage for what constitutes as ‘slow cinema’. But where Days stops at the possible description of slow, it instead becomes something formless. Tsai’s minimalist approach evokes a feeling of the stage, as if watching a Broadway actor performing the same actions as Lee or Anong could incite no different a response. But with his textbook elemental approach of camera space, it comes back around to a yet another powerful exploration of how despite the ever-shifting gaps of distance, the words that cannot be said, or the lingering approach of your life’s halfway point, connection is a thing that sprouts. It is all we have to allow ourselves to extend to the hands of another. Our gateway to feeling like we are all capable to mattering to another person. That at some point, we’re being thought of, especially when we would never have even known it. It’s all built within the notions that Tsai has used as groundwork since the beginning, and with the dawn of his late-career period it feels as if he could very well possibly have said everything he wanted to say through film. Let’s hope not.