Tsai Ming-liang's 'Days': A Diary of Connection and Loneliness

Tsai Ming-liang's 'Days': A Diary of Connection and Loneliness
Photo Credit: 台北電影節提供

What you need to know

Tsai Ming-liang's new film 'Days' makes us nostalgic for a time when loneliness and alienation had a romantic tinge.

Covid-free Taiwan is one of the few places where Days (Rizi / 日子) still makes sense as a theatergoing experience. The usual draw of slow cinema is that, for a few hours, it takes us out of our hectic life and immerses us in a restful, isolated world. For that, a theater is required — or a museum. For the many people across the globe today who feel uneasy going out in public, it’s a strange time to be watching a Tsai Ming-liang film.

Days, about two unnamed men, has almost no discernible dialogue. But that doesn’t make it a silent film. Tsai’s lengthy master shots are complemented by an enhanced ambient soundtrack, designed by Dennis Tsao, that captures the sounds of nature (rain falling on leaves) and urbanity (bus-filled traffic). These sounds are key to the immersive cinematic experience. A stray cough even makes us reinterpret the penultimate scene.

The film was born from hours and hours of miscellaneous documentary footage. Tsai and a skeleton film crew followed longtime collaborator Lee Kang-sheng around as he descended from his mountain retreat to the city to seek treatment in various cities for a serious illness. He’s not acting when he presses his temple and neck, or when he stiffly walks the streets. One treatment is a fire needle acupuncture session, and some uncharacteristic excitement arises when he’s almost burned.

Intercut with that, we watch as first-timer Anong Houngheuangsy, a Laotian migrant worker in Thailand whom Tsai befriended, elaborately cooks a simple meal for himself, or minds a clothes stall at a night market. This footage is faux-documentary: Tsai asked him to do what he usually does as naturally as he can. After his first scene, he learns to ignore the camera.

Up to this point, the narrative is the result of Chang Jhong-yuan’s editing. The two men are portrayed as loners through an old cinematic trick. A brief period in real time feels endless in screen time, so the one-shots, no longer than 10 minutes each, give the impression that the two men lead lonely lives. Chang’s cinematography is saturated with color. When Anong washes green vegetables in a red plastic basin, even the veggies look plastic.

Tsai thought long and hard about whether and how to have the two men meet. He decided to have Anong moonlight as a masseur who comes to Lee’s hotel room in Thailand. We can tell that the preceding scene, in which Lee tidies up his room, has begun to be guided by a planned narrative. We just don’t know what that narrative is yet.

Anong arrives, and his massage turns sensual, then sexual. The scene is slowly, tastefully, and organically done in two shots, and we can see a connection when they lock eyes at the point of climax.

They shower together. Before Anong leaves, Lee gives him a small music box. In a film where solitude is the norm, and no moment or object stands out, two men listening to a music box makes it a symbol of the continued possibility of human connection. It provides Lee an opening to pour out his kind soul, and allows Anong to express his gratitude at having his humanity recognized.

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Photo Credit: Berlinale

Anong returns to his working-class life, elaborately cooking simple meals for himself and hustling to get by. From time to time, sitting alone in a crowd, he pulls out the music box, which, in stark contrast to his daily life, reminds him of that one time someone in this foreign land valued him.

In the most depressing way possible, Days makes us nostalgic for a time when loneliness and alienation had a romantic tinge to them, a whiff of the existential, and weren’t just the way we live now. We used to at least have the cold comfort of moving through the city, mingling in a crowd. The film, having premiered at the Berlinale at the end of February, already feels dated.

As for Lee, we see him at night slowly trudging a mountain road back up to his home. He has brought a new koi fish with him and takes pictures of it, supposedly sending them to Anong. He sleeps alone. In the morning: a thousand-yard stare.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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