The weight of isolation is balanced against the power of human connection in this poignant film from director Tsai Ming-liang
When the Teddy award-winning Days first screened at this year’s Berlinale, audiences were oblivious to how the silent void of isolation – the focus of Tsai Ming-liang’s latest slow cinema feature – would become so relatable to a world dominated by lockdowns and quarantine. The film follows two solitary men: Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a middle-aged man who suffers from chronic pain, and Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), a Laotian immigrant in Bangkok, who come to share an intimate moment together, only to return to their secluded existences.
Days is largely composed of static shots that track the everyday activities of its lonely leads. Preparing a meal, preying, or staring contemplatively into the distance are all tasks completed without company. Not until 30 minutes have passed does a frame feature more than one person. Fittingly, dialogue is sparsely used in this intentionally “un-subtitled” work; we don’t need to understand what is said to understand these characters. The wordless stretches are instead filled by the background noises that score life – bustling traffic, the whirring hum of appliances.
This unconventional style extends into an atypical production process. There was no location scouting, no screenplay, and no rehearsals. Tsai forewent the staples of pre-production to craft a more authentic atmosphere. This naturalistic tone paired with the gradually progressing story creates a meditative film; the experience relaxes the body and mind. Despite its lulling nature, Days defies any expectations of inducing inattentiveness or boredom, with the two-hour running time slipping by faster than films packed with narrative twists.
This transfixing experience is further instilled by subtle and soft performances by leads Lee – a veteran actor without whom Tsai has never made a film in his three-decade career – and Houngheuangsy in his first film role. Their complementary performances bring forth the underlying tragedy of the film. This isn’t a weepy, explicit sadness, but one that forever runs beneath the surface. That is until Kang hires Non for a massage. The way Non caresses and massages every inch of Kang’s oily body mimics the rhythmic repetitions of the daily rituals that constitute the majority of Days. This, as the longest and most memorable scene, becomes the film’s centre of gravity, especially with its sensual culmination.
Tsai consistently draws so much from so little throughout Days. Kang and Non’s poignant story proves relevant in a world where we’re increasingly left to ourselves. The magic of their special bond is beautiful to witness – a timely reminder of the value of human contact.
Days was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.Where to watch