NYFF 2020: ‘Days’ Review: Making Passionate Music Out of the Mundane

The latest from the great Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang is nearly wordless, but needs no dialogue to express sexual tension and suppressed desire.

A man sits in a chair staring out his window
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Nobody does slow cinema better than Tsai Ming-liang; the Taiwanese filmmaker has made a career out of portraits of loneliness and urban alienation. In Days — Tsai’s first film since 2013’s Stray Dogs — two bodies wander through life and happen to get pulled into one another’s orbit. The film is intentionally unsubtitled and features almost no dialogue, allowing it to focus on the unexpressed and letting unarticulated desire come through in the performers’ faces and physicalities.

Days opens with a long take featuring regular Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng, who is sitting and listening to the rain. He’s then sleeping in the bath, all alone in a big, empty house. Meanwhile, Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) is a Laotian immigrant living in a tiny apartment, and he goes through his routine chores like washing and chopping vegetables. Each long take is staggeringly, almost excruciatingly, long, but so are the days that these men pass through alone. With a background in stage drama, Tsai focuses on the theatre of everyday life, letting routines and rhythms play out before the camera in extended shots. He follows his trademark spare and minimalist aesthetic: sometimes we’re just left to gaze at empty rooms, or the only sounds for long periods of time are the hums of fluorescent lights or characters shuffling their feet. The film’s audience sees these characters in their most mundane and intimate moments — in all their bodily functions and dysfunctions.

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Kang’s body in particular seems to be rebelling against him: he struggles to manage neck and back pain, which makes it difficult to go about his everyday life. He is visibly suffering as he wears a neck brace, stretches, and receives intense acupuncture and heat therapies to alleviate the pain. After an extended sequence of one treatment, Tsai lingers on Kang’s face, red, creased, and looking like it’s about to burst from the strain; his body splinters from exhaustion, unreleased tension, and the collective impact of the daily grind. Tsai, as per usual, strips away traditional plot structure and big moments of action, focusing on quiet and stillness, creating languid tableaux of the ordinary.

Non is suffering from youthful disaffection while Kang is plagued by middle-aged malaise, and Days oscillates between their diaries. There is a poeticism to each action even though no one is speaking, as everything from the washing of Kang’s skin in treatments to the washing of Non’s vegetables becomes a ritual.

About halfway into the film, Kang and Non arrange to meet, and finally, some of that longing and desire for connection is fulfilled: Non gives Kang a full-body massage, carefully and tenderly rubbing his shoulders and caressing his skin. The massage is captured in two takes, and when the touching leads to further physical intimacy, what we see is perhaps one of the most tender and caring sex scenes in Tsai’s filmography. The stripped-down style and lack of subtitles allow us to center on their gestures and breathing — their small groans of pleasure, body language, and physical chemistry. There is a serene beauty to this coupling, even while it explodes with eroticism and passionate catharsis. The cries for intimacy are quiet but desperate, and we need few words or sounds to understand what they signify.

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Lee Kang-sheng’s performance has each twitch of his eye or pull of his mouth conveying waves of emotion. He and Houngheuangsy dance a fleeting pas de deux in a shadowy hotel room when Kang gives Non a small music box, which they listen to together while perched on the edge of the hotel bed; then, the two share a meal before parting ways. This music box is the only trace of Kang that Non carries back to his daily routine, but serves as a reminder of the short passion that once was, with shared song and connection always there just waiting to be re-opened.

Tsai has been making astonishing works for decades, but here we witness a master who has absolutely perfected his craft. This film about separation and alienation, though years in the making, feels especially resonant in our present time and current isolation, and Tsai turns his camera as perceptively as ever toward people on the margins who are just trying to find their way in the world. In Days, every 24 hours presents the expectation of loneliness and pain, but also a chance at finding romance in the rhythms of our daily life and finding solace in another‘s.

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