A plumber drills a hole between the basement of one apartment and the ceiling of another as a strange disease that causes people to act like cockroaches sweeps over Taiwan at the turn of the millennium. A depressed homeless man, desperate to provide for his family but invisible to the people who drive past his roadside advertising sign, violently mauls the cabbage that his young daughter has adopted as a friend. A Taipei cinema screens King Hu’s “Dragon Inn” during a torrential downpour on its final night in business as various patrons shuffle around inside the theater, each of them looking for a connection that seems to be flickering away forever before our eyes.
While Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang has long been associated with slow cinema, the non-linear deceleration of his style has been interjected with soaring dreamscapes, electric moments of self-reflexivity, and even a handful of sexually charged musical numbers. The pace of his films is perhaps their most immediate signature, but it’s also considerably less consistent than the social anxieties shared between them. From his debut feature (1992’s “Rebels of the Neon God”) to the installation pieces that he’s been making with muse Lee Kang-sheng in the years since his soft retirement in 2013, Tsai’s work has reliably probed the psychic dislocation of modern life, and it’s done so with a roiling fury that belies his arthouse poise.
Sometimes (explicitly) queer, often (undeniably) male, and always tinged with a post-apocalyptic charge that carries through their happiest moments, Tsai’s films are so drawn to the dark recesses between us that even their titles sound like pleas for connection or laments over what’s been lost. “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.” “What Time Is It There?” “The Wayward Cloud.” The likes of “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” might linger in the mind for its ASMR design and time-in-a-bottle wistfulness, but such a bittersweet aftertaste follows an experience that’s bound together by a furious tension between the intimate demands of our bodies and the impenetrable distances that isolate us inside of them. The despair percolating beneath “Vive L’Amour” and “Rebels of the Neon God” eventually gave way to the abyssal howl of “Stray Dogs,” which — similar to Béla Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” from two years earlier — was such a voice-killing scream into the void that people naturally assumed its author had nothing else to say.
In Tsai’s case, that turned out not to be true; he’s been steadily working in the museum world for the last eight years. Nevertheless, the news that he and Lee had collaborated on another feature — one that would revisit the mysterious neck ailment his now-52-year-old leading man began to suffer on-screen and off during 1997’s “The River” — couldn’t help but seem a bit ominous. How much bleaker would this new project be? What would the specter of death add to a body of work that has always bent over itself as it shambled towards the end? If Béla Tarr announced he’d made another movie at this point, I’d probably assume it was a snuff film. Expectations for Tsai’s latest may not have been quite so grim, but I certainly wasn’t bracing myself for one of the most touching dramas of the year.
Shot piecemeal without a script across three countries and five years before it was reverse-engineered into a simple yet achingly tender story of ships passing in the night, “Days” represents something of a departure for Tsai even before it climaxes with the most piercingly sentimental moment he’s ever filmed (it also includes a climax of a different kind, but that’s par for the course from a filmmaker who’s long seen hand jobs and masturbation as signifiers of loneliness). There’s no mistaking the man behind the camera for someone else: “Days” opens with a long shot of Lee watching the rain from a chair inside the nice but fittingly minimalist home Tsai shares with his star and platonic life partner, as if watching the storm from the end of “Stray Dogs” as it whimpers away. And yet the catch-as-catch-can approach of a film that was captured without any clear sense of what it might eventually become endows this movie with an intractable nowness that prohibits the “fall of man” vibe of Tsai’s earlier work from creeping back in.
Some sequences are painful to watch, such as the one in which Lee’s nameless character receives — and gets burned during — moxibustion treatment for his neck at a back alley clinic in Hong Kong. The handheld HD video shots of the actor walking through the city and clutching the side of his head suggest a documentary verisimilitude, and Tsai’s decision to include them in the final cut likewise implies a willingness to let real life bleed into the fictional story he’s telling here (Lee really was seeking relief for his neck, and Tsai’s camera followed him without any plan for how the resulting footage might be used). Tsai neophytes are free to vibe with Lee’s character as a lonely, seemingly well-off man whose spiritual pain has assumed a physical dimension, but that blurred line between organic and staged moments also invites the filmmaker’s devotees to reflect on the actor’s beautifully passive face as a trap and a time machine; for as long as we’ve been watching Lee, he’s never been able to get out of that body.
To that end, it almost feels like a betrayal that Tsai has found a new, younger muse who’s roughly the same age now as Lee was in “Rebels of the Neon God.” His name is Anong Houngheuangsy, he’s an undocumented Laotian migrant worker who Tsai spotted selling noodles in a Bangkok foodcourt, and he plays the able-bodied young man who provides a contrast for Lee’s degradation, or perhaps the other part of the older character’s wordless call-and-response (there is virtually no dialogue in “Days,” though a disclaimer at the start nevertheless warns that the film is unsubtitled).
Tsai’s camera watches Houngheuangsy prepare a meal in real-time inside his purgatorial concrete box of a Bangkok apartment, the handsome new actor wearing only a pink bathing suit as he squats over his bathroom floor to make fish stock. The sterility of the image overrides a sense of voyeurism as we focus on the productive work of a body sustaining itself and grow hungrier for either of the film’s two characters — one confined by illness, the other by socioeconomic immobility — to share something of themselves with anyone else, let alone each other.
When they finally do, their meeting arrives in neutral terrain without any situational context; one needs a massage, the other needs money, they both need human touch, and that’s all we get. But the vacuum-like seal around this eroticized sequence — which thaws from sensual to sexual over the course of shots that are sustained for so long you hardly clock any change through the static — allows the emotional reciprocity between Lee and Houngheauangsy to achieve a rare force unto itself. After more than an hour of impermeable seclusion, the rabid nipple-biting and off-screen tugs don’t seem like the stuff of therapeutic sex work or some other transactional exchange bent towards a primal release so much as they do a desperate act of mutual healing. These are two parched men reveling in the same private oasis without any idea of when they’ll ever be able to find another drink amid a defeated world in which people feel so helpless they pretend they can’t see each other. As Tsai conveys in one particularly striking handheld shot of Lee crossing a busy street, it’s as if everyone knows the score and we’re all just trying not to look into the camera.
“Days” becomes such a resonant addition to Tsai’s exhumed body of work because the filmmaker recognizes and embraces that uncharacteristically sentimental undertow; the last 30 minutes of this (relatively short) movie reward viewers who’ve spent the previous 90 minutes searching — reaching — for a souvenir they might be able to take away from it. Tsai’s films have ended with unexpected grace notes before, but such uptick flourishes have been couched in dream sequences or other flights of fancy that tinge them with a sinister kick. The crushingly poignant final shot in “Days,” on the other hand, is so matter-of-fact that its most crucial extras may not have even known they were in it.
The movie doesn’t end with a sudden come-to-Jesus moment that finds Tsai recanting the rest of his films, nor does its Chaplin-esque flavor extend towards the kind of salvation found in the dying minutes of “City Lights.” Tsai still makes slow, plotless cinema that will seem perverse to those who aren’t on his wavelength or at least patient enough to lean forward and listen to the static, and he’s still haunted by the apathy hardwired into human survival. He’s still the kind of filmmaker who would let a scene continue long after its characters have left the room, if only so that we can see a motion-activated hotel room switch off in their absence, and feel a hollow warmness in the knowledge that it had brightened up for them. But if Tsai’s unblinking camera has always trained its eye on the darkness, it’s never been so interested in looking for the cracks where the light gets in. The pockets where people overlap — where they share something instead of simply living and dying around each other. And it’s a good thing too, because I’m not sure how many of us are still able to see those slivers on our own.
Grasshopper Film will release “Days” in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, August 13.