Days (Taiwan, 2020) [SDAFF 2020]

Tsai Ming-liang remains one of global cinema’s great oddities. With each subsequent release his works seem more esoteric, more difficult to categorise, and increasingly closer to being impossible to explain without sounding like a posing eccentric. His debut feature, Rebels of a Neon God (1992), seemed comparatively straight-forward. Subsequent works simply slowed down, film by film, to what should be considered ludicrous extremes. The shots grew longer. Scenes stretched out. Narratives simplified, and in the most extreme cases simply disappeared. Days, shown this year at festivals around the world, is his 11th feature film. It fits snugly into Tsai’s career and previous works. It tells a simple story in sparse terms and over a full two-hour running time. On paper it reads like an act of masochism to sit through; the ultimate in arthouse pretense.

Here’s the thing: it actually works. What seems in theory to be the most boring idea ever is oddly hypnotic. Tsai deliberately slows the pace of his audience along with his films. As a viewer one simply cannot help it. In the dark of the theatre, trapped between members of the audience, politely unable to browse the Internet or to telephone a friend, there is nothing else to do but allow Tsai’s work to pull one into a contemplative mood and come along for the ride.

This has a profound effect on how a film is viewed. In a conventional narrative film, most background detail exists purely to build a general mise-en-scene and fill the screen. It is not intended to come under scrutiny. In Tsai’s hands, a minutes-long shot of a man lying on a mattress or walking down a street leaves the viewer with so much time that there is time to study every element on the screen. Every movement and gesture an actor suddenly stands out and gains a sense of significance. The audience effectively stops watching a film and soaks in it instead. They marinate in single moments. It is not a superior form of filmmaking, but it is arresting in just how different it feels. It marks Tsai out as a genuine artist, and a near-unique filmmaker.

The most accessible example of Tsai’s work is likely Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), which plays out the final night of a dilapidated cinema that acts more often as a hook-up site for gay men than as a movie theatre. The most effective example is arguably his short feature The Deserted (2017), produced in virtual reality and enabling the audience to actually look around the locations in an immersive 360 degree fashion. Days falls somewhere in the middle: it is a more progressed version of Tsai’s style than Goodbye, Dragon Inn, but unlike The Deserted it does retain a story element.

Tsai’s regular main actor Lee Kang-sheng (he has appeared in all 11 features) plays Kang, a middle-aged man suffering from a neck injury. Newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy plays Non, a masseuse. After introducing each man in their day-to-day lives, Tsai has them meet: Non conducts a full-body massage, after which the two men have sex.

The slow technique allows Tsai to generate a profound sense of intimacy between the two men. It strikes an underlying sensuality and a physical feeling of touch. With an exacting patience Tsai creates a realistic and extraordinarily emotional state that boasts realism in a fashion that few films manage to achieve. The performances are so subtle as to be almost non-existent. The photography is simple and matter-of-fact.

Lee has genuinely suffered from a neck injury for the entire length of his relationship with Tsai. It is deftly woven into the film here, including what seems a wince-inducing scene involving acupuncture and burning mugwort. Lee’s constant discomfort is driven in at length before he finally gets a massage for relief. It is another advantage of this particular form of slow cinema: Tsai makes one feel the pain almost as much as his protagonist.

Tsai’s work is unapologetically an acquired taste, and his recent work seems to have wisely shifted from theatrical works of cinema to something more akin to a contemporary art installation. In that regard Days feels like something of a throwback. It is not his best work, and it feels retrograde by several years of artistic development, but at the same time it has a wonderful effect that is well worth experiencing. There remains no one in the screen arts quite like him.

Days is streaming as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival which runs from October 23-31.