Tsai Ming-liang exists in a strange position within the cinephile consciousness. As one of the greatest Taiwanese directors and a leading practitioner of slow cinema, his films share distinctive traits – long, static long-term shots, the frequent presence of rain or floods, a patient eye fixed on a decaying ultra-modern Taipei – that are so deeply imprinted that fixation on them can obscure his other interests. While some of his films have been international hits (particularly Goodbye, Dragon Inn from 2003), many others are underrated, lost in the whims of bad DVDs and extremely limited circulation. The viewers often prefer his aesthetic unity over the narrative unity of his films. Because Tsai is one of the most teleological directors and presents a film-by-film procession that focuses on his muse Lee Kang-sheng, who has appeared in all of his feature films since his 1991 debut, Rebels of the Neon God. This cinematic relationship finds fascinating new twists in Tsai’s latest Film Days.
Understanding Lee’s role is vital, and not just because his distinctive, hesitant movement and speech is a template for all of Tsai’s actors. Tsai is openly gay, and the backbone of his films is a kind of unfulfilled longing for Lee, who is straight but often plays queer characters. Their collaboration is tortured by this relationship, leading to narratives from outsiders who yearn for meaning and community in a world that is changing before their very eyes. (The 2006 title of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone makes this clear.) Crucial for this is the presence of Lee and other recurring actors such as Chen Shiang-chyi, Miao Tien, and Yang Kuei-mei. In these films he plays more or less the same character who was originally called Xiaokang, but ultimately only Kang (xiao is Chinese for “small”).
While it’s not entirely accurate to view all of Tsai’s work as a single ongoing narrative, it feels like his oeuvre led straight to Stray Dogs of 2013, especially his tour de force ending. It is no surprise that he then announced that he would no longer make feature films. While continuing to create short and medium-length works in fiction, documentary, and even galleries, he kept that promise until Days, which appears to be an exciting new chapter in his career.
Days, one of Tsai’s least pared down, direct and moving works, was created under unusual circumstances that began a few years ago. Lee suffered from severe neck pain (which, oddly enough, was due to Xiaokang’s suffering in The River (1997)) and Tsai traveled with him to film his intensive acupuncture treatments. At the same time, Tsai Anong met Houngheuangsy, a Laotian immigrant in Bangkok, and began filming his daily routine, especially cooking. This resulted in Days, which crosses between these two strands in its first half. Although the footage was shot without a specific concept, it is as brilliant as any of Tsai’s other films in which Lee and Anong are patiently watched in their day-to-day business. There is some stylistic variation here, including a hand-held scene of Lee wandering the crowded streets of Taipei, but the camera is largely motionless. It captures the reflection of the sunset on a glass building as a cat creeps inside, or contrasts the aging Lee, all pain and weathered features, with the youthful Anong, as alluring and attractive as Lee in his early collaboration with Tsai.
Halfway through, this imagination suddenly tips over when Kang and Anong meet in a hotel for an erotic massage. The effect is powerful and adorable when you see these men trapped in such intimacy (whether transactional or not) over a period of about half an hour that is conveyed in about five shots. The summing up effect of Days, especially the long, fading finale in which the characters resume their daily lives, is just as melancholy and powerful as in Tsai’s other films. But there’s something new here: an element of fulfillment, the belief in a deep, life-changing connection – even if it’s just for a single night.
Days opens in selected theaters on August 13th.
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