There is ecstasy and anguish to the world as Tsai Ming-liang captures it, observing the sonorific isolation of existing in the modern metropolis in such films as Stray Dogs, his debut Rebels of the Neon God, and the surreal The Wayward Cloud. His latest, the queer longing microepic Days, is perhaps his most narrowly ambitious yet acutely emotional film, as much a chamber piece as it might be possible for him to make. The filmmaker has defined himself as a master of accumulation, molding narratives of few words but instead with powerfully synchronized imagery and sound, building to something overwhelming. The result, whether he delivers realism or allegory, are films whose feelings are impossible to reduce to easy descriptors. Words are insufficient in his films and for them, so naturally Days doesn’t require them to produce something profoundly moving. Nor, as Tsai Ming-liang sees it, does it take words for a fleeting moment of connection.
Days presents one of the Taiwanese master’s most effectively meditative constructions, quickly lulling us into its subtle rhythms of feeling with its rain-soaked atmospherics. We are presented with two characters in long contemplative takes that chart the circumstances of their lives, all building towards their meeting in a spartan hotel room. The first of them is Kang, played by Tsai’s regular star Lee Kang-sheng, a middle-aged man who lives alone in his more rural home surrounded by a soggy forest. Periodically, we see Kang receiving extended treatments for his neck, back, and head, including one intensely intimate bout of acupuncture.
The film establishes him as a broken body seeking comfort for a mysterious and unspecified ailment, but in Lee and Tsai’s patient expression, it’s clear that he suffers a spiritual one as well. That his physical pain goes undiagnosed (to us, at least) only further solidifies that the mirrored pain in his soul is the most elusive and hard to pin down ache of all: an innate need to connect.
The second man is the equally alone Non, played with similarly attuned minimalism by Anong Houngheuangsy. Non lives in his tiny apartment in the city, spending his mornings preparing vegetables and food to be sold in the evenings in a sparsely attended tent market. Separately, he works as a masseuse, defining Non as someone who must hustle multiple jobs in order to survive in the unfeeling city. There is a solitude in both of their routines, but also an emptiness that they alone cannot fill, perhaps one that their world is designed with the ability to provide for them.
But as Days collects these lonely moments, it amasses a weight that is only relieved when they collide. The effect of physical touch here is seismically cathartic to both character and audience. But it is the moments that follow, in the exchange of a small token of tenderness and the sharing of a meal, that fully expose the full breadth of Days as a powerful and poetic film on the loneliness of modern life that captures the bittersweet brevity of moments where we are seen.
With an immersive and emotionally intelligent use of sound, Days ends on a note that reflects how moments of clarity and connection become quickly obscured by the sensory onslaught of life’s labors. And yet such moments can sustain us, even as they grow dimmer in retrospect.