The extremely slow pacing of Tsai Ming-liang’s study in loneliness pays off with subtle tenderness.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 58th New York Film Festival.)
With a movie like Tsai Ming-liang‘s Days, you have to decide if you’re on board with it or not. With its lack of dialogue, and long, static shots (sometimes just of characters sitting down and appearing to be deep in thought), it looks exactly like what’d you think a movie on an artsy film festival circuit would look like. Once you accept that this is what the movie is going to be, however, it makes it easier to just sort of give in and go with it, and be oddly moved by two strangers who find a moment of respite from their mundane lives together.
Lee Kang-sheng is Kang, who lives in financial comfort, but is suffering from some sort of unspecified illness that affects his head and neck. Days is extremely economical with character development, so it’s never really explained what exactly afflicts Kang, or if it’ll get any better. In another part of the city is Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), younger and working class, who spends most of his day doing household chores. The two encounter each other when Kang pays Non for a massage, one that turns rather intimate.
That’s the sum of the plot, such as it is, though using the word “plot” is generous. That’s not a criticism, exactly — in fact, if anything it’s a bit remarkable that a movie so devoted to the idea of not having a plot, and just throwing the audience blind into the middle of these characters’ lives, turns out to be strangely watchable. Non’s daily life in particularly is fascinating in the precise way he washes and prepares vegetables in his shabby little apartment, which in no way reflects his other life as a masseuse/presumptive sex worker. There’s something ritualistic in Kang’s acupuncture treatment, which we see almost from the beginning to aftercare. The massage scene, which lasts for more than twenty minutes, is a clever exercise in teasing: things start to get a little spicy, then they don’t, then they do again. When Kang finally gets his release, he’s really earned it.
It may also be the closest non-medical contact he’s had with someone in a long time, and particularly right now the importance of human touch and companionship cannot be overstated. Kang and Non are in each other’s lives for barely more than a couple of hours, but it’s enough to keep the monotony and loneliness at bay, until they drift apart. They don’t have a falling out (you have to have a relationship with someone before you can end it), they’ve just served their purposes to each other. Maybe Non will remember the evening he spends with Kang for the rest of his life, maybe he won’t, but for that very moment, it means everything. That’s the reward Days offers, if you’re patient.