|Director Tsai Ming-liang|
|Actor Lee Kang-Shen|
|Actor Anong Houngheuangsy|
DAYS (Rizi) B+ Taiwan France (127 mi) 2020 d: Tsai Ming-liang
It’s been 7-years since his last feature film, Stray Dogs (Jiao you) (2013), which at the time was announced as his last and final film, and in many ways it felt like a summation of his entire career. Once again starring the wordless Lee Kang-Sheng, the picture of disaffected youth early in his career, now older, more world-weary, a non-actor who has been with this director from the beginning in 1989 when he was working in television, appearing in every feature since meeting by chance outside a Taipei arcade, making their partnership unique in the annals of cinema. Never intending for Lee to appear in every film, their relationship evolved over time, with the director appreciating the actor’s complete independence from acting methods, declaring 20-years later, “Without this face, I don’t want to make films anymore” (Tsai Ming-Liang on Lee Kang-Sheng | Asia Society), actually working a decade longer than Jean-Pierre Léaud worked with François Truffaut (never appearing in every film), with both actors growing up onscreen right before our eyes, where it’s hard to think of one without the other. Tsai’s early films played at the Chicago Film Festival where he made regular appearances, looking like a Buddhist monk, where his films are like fervent prayers, evoking a mysterious connection to otherworldly realms, where the glacial pace sets him apart, with near perfect cinematic compositions, including long extended takes where next to nothing happens, slowly allowing time to pass, establishing his own pace and rhythm, yet if it’s possible to connect on his wavelength, to fully identify with his lead character, his films are among the most personal expressions in the entire cinematic universe, as evidenced by Francesco Quario on Letterboxd. Using no dialogue or subtitling, this film combines the cultures from three different cities, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Bangkok, opening with a middle-aged Lee sitting in the living room of the director’s own home in Taipei, calmly looking out through a glass window as a storm rages outside, contrasting themes of tranquility with a combustible energy. He also introduces a new character, the much younger Anong Houngheuangsy (aka: Non), a Laotian immigrant who works in Bangkok, met in a chance encounter selling noodles in a food court, seen following a meticulous cooking regimen that resembles the ritualized kitchen habits so fondly recorded by Chantal Akerman, thoroughly cleaning fish and vegetables on his apartment floor as he prepares a meal over a live indoor charcoal fire, which probably violates every known health and safety code, but this is Bangkok. After the meal, he takes a shower using a bucket of water that he continually splashes over his body, using soap out of a bottle to thoroughly wash his face, seen later hanging around outdoor booths set up for nighttime food or shopping. After the storm, a chronic neck ailment is associated with Lee’s character that recalls a similar reference in THE RIVER (1997), identifying a real-life medical issue following this actor, with Tsai including some radical acupuncture heat treatments with burning embers that he received in Hong Kong, filmed with near documentary style precision, looking painful and gruesome. Afterwards he spills out into the busy city streets, with a hand-held camera following him through the hustle and bustle of street congestion, where at least part of the film mirrors Lee’s medical treatment plan, including walks to and from the doctor’s office.
By the time Lee gets back to a hotel room, he sleeps alone in a chair next to a large picture window overlooking the towering city skyscrapers, where if you watch carefully a helicopter enters the picture near the beginning, fades into the distance before returning into the foreground, seen carefully landing on a hotel rooftop. In much the same way, Tsai shoots a glass building exterior, with the camera peering into a row of brownish-tinged windows looking dilapidated, where many are cracked or broken, yet again if you look closely, the shadow of a black cat comes into view just under the top row near the right, stops as if to clean itself and lifts its head before continuing on a journey across the frame from right to left, occasionally moving out of sight, yet moving all the way across the screen. Only a director like Tsai would have the patience to set up a Zen-like shot like that in a film, and only his viewers, trained to observe closely, would discover the hidden secrets contained within. What follows is the centerpiece of the film, as the two characters meet wordlessly in a dimly lit hotel room, with Lee arriving first, making preparations, removing the comforter and sheet, then lying naked on his stomach awaiting the arrival of his guest. Non, dressed only in Calvin Klein whities, initiates a massage, using oil from a bottle to thoroughly rub over his entire body, with Lee from time-to-time making audible moans. In something close to real time, the massage continues with Lee turning over on his back, applying the exact same technique, this time accentuating sexual pleasure. While below the waist remains offscreen, it becomes the focus of attention, graphically showing two men having gay sex, displayed with affection, ending with a flurry of kisses on the mouth. In the aftermath, Lee showers with Non assisting, both getting dressed afterwards, with Lee handing over money, but also a gift that contains a small music box playing the theme to Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT (1952, Eternally (Terry's Theme) ― Chaplin 『Limelight』 - YouTube (2:58), a beautiful reference to Silent film, yet also a film coming near the end of Chaplin’s career that served as a farewell to both movies, art, and America (exiled to England during the McCarthyist witch hunts under accusations of being a Communist, his visa revoked, banned from ever returning to America), among his most personally revealing films, with Non rewinding continually so the music never stops. It’s a heartwarming moment, shown with tenderness and affection, revealing something more than a sexual liaison, offering a gesture of lasting value. As the two men exit separately, Lee catches up to him and they’re seen walking down the street together, stopping at a noodle place to eat, shot from across the street, with all the cars and trucks passing by in the foreground, offering a moment in time, like a photo album snapshot, captured in the background as time literally passes them by.
The film may be a tone poem on isolation and distance, capturing with evocative spareness a feeling of alienation and human vulnerability, feeling at times like a meditation on profound human sorrow, where this film may touch upon the aging process as well, as our bodies that we once took for granted start breaking down with various maladies, yet told with grace and compassion, including intensely-observed close-ups, allowing us a glimpse into the personal lives of familiar friends, perhaps even a bit sentimental at this stage in their lives, yet also finding someone new, representative of the changing times, a young man migrating to a foreign country to live and work, sharing a historical connection with the director, who was born in Malaysia and moved to Taiwan in his 20’s. Later we see Lee, living a spacious existence, tending to his fish in the backyard, as he has quite a collection of tropical fish, where it appears he is even filming them, while Non is back in his apartment preparing food, this time using a different assortment of larger pots. Lee takes an evening stroll, which appears to be physically exhausting, before both are seen sleeping in their beds. Separate and apart for the entire film, they are brought together in one climactic scene, but return back to their solitary lives, yet the camera finds their faces, each lost in thought, capturing years of loneliness etched onto Lee’s face, while Non is younger with a bright future still ahead of him. It’s an interesting contrast in worlds, like a teacher and his apprentice, a master and his student, that also involves the nearly lifelong relationship between Tsai and Lee Kang-Sheng, sharing so many personal moments, yet also extremely aware that they are nearing the end of their run together, making it all that much more gratifying, where the film seems to be an open reflection on their work and personal relationship together, filled with tiny moments and shared memories, but also mutual feelings of endearment that make it seem more like their own love affair. For Tsai, this isn’t just any film, but a culmination of his entire career, mirroring Chaplin at the same age, questioning one’s mortality, offering viewers a personal memento, much like the gift of the music box. Later Non is seen sitting alone on a corner street bench, pulling the gift out of his backpack and playing it, where it can still be heard, but is drowned out by the street noise. The emphasis, however, and the intent behind it, bathes the screen like a gentle rainstorm washing away our anguish and heartaches, with Non finally getting up and walking off into the night. The film connects back to THE RIVER (1997), when actor Lee-Kang-Sheng was only 20-years old, now entering his early 50’s, still looking surprisingly fit, but struck by mysterious ailments that slow him down. The film has a cathartic effect, acting as a salve for an aching soul, offering a medicinal tonic not just for weary times, but it feels more like a love letter to their ongoing screen relationship, openly sharing their uniquely gifted talents, offering one for the ages.