Tsai Ming-liang’s latest feature film “Days”, which won the jury Teddy Award when it was shown at the Berlin International Festival early in 2020, is slowly and patiently observes two different gay persons at its center. While it feels so simple and mundane on the surface without any particular narrative direction, the movie gradually engages us as immersing us into its calm and meditative mood, and you may find yourselves reflecting more on some of those quiet wordless moments in the film after it is over.
At the beginning, we are introduced to a middle-aged guy named Kang (Lee Kang-sheng, who has appeared in all of Tsai’s feature films), and he is silently looking outside the window in the living room of his modest middle-class house. We do not know what he is looking at, and his phlegmatic face signifies nothing at all, but, as the camera simply stares at him during next several minutes, we come to wonder more about whatever he is feeling or thinking behind his expressionless façade.
From Kang’s subsequent scene which is unfolded in some oriental medicine clinic, we come to gather that he has some physical problem in his neck. As a guy who has also frequented oriental medicine clinics for a similar neck problem, I observed Kang’s acupuncture therapy session with some mild amusement, and I got a small laugh as watching him paying some attention to his neck muscles later.
These and other moments of Kang are alternated with the scenes depicting the daily life of a young man named Non (Anong Houngheuangsy). Like Kang, he is living alone, and the movie shows us how he goes through the same day in his rather shabby residence. At one point, the camera just looks at him working in his kitchen during several minutes without any interruption, and, though nothing significant happens on the surface except those vegetables diligently handled by Non, this extended shot steadily holds our attention via its effortless verisimilitude coupled with a subtle but genuine rhythm of daily life.
As time keeps going for both Kang and Non, the movie tentatively flows from one plain moment to another while distancing itself from both of them as before. The movie does not show anything about who they are or how their respective lives have been, but there is always a palpable sense of life from their surrounding environments, and the movie feels like a documentary especially when the camera patiently follows after Kang as he walks along a busy urban street filled with many different people.
The movie was actually edited from what was shot here and there by Tsai and his crew members during several years, but its individual scenes are seamlessly connected together to generate a sort of narrative flow, and then it eventually arrives at the narrative point where its two main characters meet each other in a nice and comfortable hotel room. As arranged between them in advance, Non gives Kang a full-body massage, and the movie calmly looks at how Non works on Kang step by step. While it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Non does a bit more than usual massage, this key scene is presented with enough sensitivity and tactfulness, and we come to focus more on whatever is exchanged between them beneath the surface.
However, the movie still sticks to its austere storytelling approach even at that point. After their massage session is over, Kang and Non talks a bit with each other, but their brief verbal interaction is barely audible, and, as already told to us from the very beginning, the movie does not provide any subtitle. Kang shows some gratitude to Non via a little small gift, and then he comes to have a little dinner with Non at a nearby restaurant, but the movie observes them from the distance, while we wonder more about what exactly Kang feels about Non during this moment.
What follows next during the rest of the film is another quiet wordless observation of how days continue to pass by as usual for both of them. We see Kang going through another day at his residence. We watch Non working at his kitchen again. We see Kang doing some night walk. And we watch Non becoming a bit melancholic as looking at that little gift from Kang.
Under Tsai’s thoughtful direction, we often sense subtle emotional undercurrents beneath the screen, and his two lead performers did an effective job for that. As a seasoned professional actor, Lee Kang-sheng makes an interesting contrast with the unadorned non-professional acting from Anong Houngheuangsy, who is incidentally a Laotian immigrant to Thailand. Their tentative physical/emotional interactions during the second half of the film function well as the modest but tangible emotional anchor of the movie, and that is the main reason why the last shot of the film leaves some bittersweet emotional impression on us.
Overall, “Days” is surely one of those ‘slow movies’ which require you a considerable amount of patience (According to the IMDB trivia, it has only 46 shots, by the way), but it is worthwhile to watch for its admirable mood, storytelling, and performance. As a matter of fact, I am already willing to revisit it someday for appreciating its seemingly plain but undeniably strong aspects more, and that says a lot about how it works well for me.