Calling Days Tsai Ming-liang’s most accessible feature that I’ve seen doesn’t really say much in a lot of ways. This is partly because it’s not all that accessible in the broad scope of arthouse cinema, just in relation to the filmography of its writer and director. This is also partly because it does very little to change the usual modus operandi that Tsai utilizes in all of his movies (though the subtle changes that he employs are exhilarating to someone who is as a much a dyed-in-the-wool fan of his as I am). I guess when I call Days his most accessible feature, I mean it less as “this is an unchallenging movie that I would recommend off-hand to anybody” and more that it is the movie of his that is most direct about the sort of emotions it wants you experience and when.
Melancholy and loneliness are no strangers to Tsai’s cinema but it is something that usually has to be dug out of his patience static shots while Days has no interest in having you work for this experience, it hits you right in the face with it. There’s maybe a brief grace period with its first shots as it sits watching a man who just sits and watches the off-screen rain or still life in a garden with lengthy extensions between each shot, but that feels more as a function of Tsai Ming-liang wanting to allow the audience to adapt to how his movies are meant to be watched*. But from the moment that you are introduced wordlessly to two separate characters, one played by Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng (implementing his real-life neck injury that has been bothering him on- and off-screen since between Vive L’Amour and The River) and another played by newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy, you get the idea of the empty-feeling mood it’s meaning to place upon you while Tsai still finds room to allow real sucker punches deep into the film.
There’s not very much that goes on in Days to fear spoiling (though I will suggest that you may want to watch the movie before going on), but the most I can say is that Kang and Non begin the film at distant and pointedly separated areas and slowly the film brings their paths to each other for a very emotionally charged centerpiece sequence that introduces a musical cue that is devastating on arrival before moving right back on in different directions. I imagine it’s probably a different experience for those fluent in Mandarin Chinese (though given the very minute amount of dialogue that feels legible – probably less than 10 minutes worth – not that much), but for the rest of us, the movie is presented wholly unsubtitled to allow Tsai’s visuals to do the work themselves: taking each shot to the furthest in duration and minimalizing enough of the movement on screen so that the slightest turn from one of the two main characters – usually retained in some boxy composition – is something we’re hyperaware of. Not even strictly the movements of the characters themselves: the smoke from the needles in an acupuncture sequence and the gentle aftermath of rain dripping and flames licking are only a few of the textural elements in certain shots that keep it feeling in motion and detailed while nothing is actually occurring before our eyes. At one point, we are met with a shot filled with hazy windows reflecting the dawning sun and can just barely make out the motions of a cat behind that haze, taking a seemingly inconsequential shot and making it exciting in one go. There is another moment of breath-taking excitement in stillness just from a usage of shallow-focus. All of these moments of off-hand motion feeling monumental ends up giving a particularly intimate experience even before the characters’ meeting within the hour-mark and it’s something that probably couldn’t be possible without an excellent sound mix to maintain the room tone.
Because one of the best surprises of Days is how many times it lulls me into the silent rhythm of a near empty room or a mundane domestic activity like cooking vegetables and such before using the suddenness of those cuts to throw me into the chaotic hustle and bustle of urban Bangkok, like having water tossed onto oneself and interrupting the deep connection Tsai is composing between viewer and character. This is a trap I fell into more than once watching this movie and while I do hope to see myself rewatching Days in the distant future, I certainly hope it’s not frequent enough that I am able to prepare for that shock once again. It comes to a full circle to emotionally crushing point when that surrounding city commotion combines with a previously established and tender diegetic music cue in Days‘ penultimate scene, something to give adversity to the warmth felt between Kang and Non during their brief encounter and marking one of the movie’s two peaks of storytelling through sound (the other being the first appearance of that musical cue).
But while life goes on in Days and threatens to leave behind the beautiful moments one could have in the white noise of metropolis, the fact remains that those beautiful moments were still there and were still had, ephemeral as they are. Some of those moments will just enjoying the silence and the solitude and some of those moments will be pushing back against the loneliness with the physical touch of another, in both obligatory and passionate tones (I hope I am not burying the lede by only addressing now that this is a movie about gay men). And this is something that Tsai Ming-liang has always had an interest in communicating with his pictures (interspersed with other things), but Days feels like the most potent and streamlined version of that approach where every discipline Tsai has developed in shot duration, on-screen movement, and ambient sound over his 30-year career feels amassed to its ultimate emotional payoff. And that’s probably what made this hit my gut harder than any other movie by a filmmaker I already loved as one of cinema’s best living conjurers of slow, pensive humanity.