Chizceke’s review published on Letterboxd:
Here's an essay I wrote about Tsai's entire filmography with an included commentary of Days (2020) at the end. There are spoilers for Days and all of Tsai's other movies in this review. Proceed with care. Here is a version of the essay that includes pictures:docs.google.com/document/d/1mYf8vzQ6OlXPp6ntey1C2tELI3206Al0-OQxYbk18Ro/edit
I am Living in a Tsai Ming Liang Movie
This essay is dedicated to Keegan.
- Fixation as a means of addiction
- What zero pussy does to a mf
This is probably the result of projection or being duped by macho pseudo-intellectual self-help bullshit videos, but I think most people really only give a shit about like two given things at a time. All of the distractory bells and whistles of our society stem from our base needs for food, love, belonging, sex, pleasure, family, connection, meaning, survival, the like. When we are deprived of these things for too long, either by accident, choice or a combination of both, we can become bored, tired, hurt or even suffer a bit of trauma. People can get out of these ruts through problem-solving, action and self-belief, but a lot of the time humans aren’t perfect, logical beings. Many of us buy into instinct, what feels immediately pleasurable or comforting, and chase the things that provide us these emotions to numb ourselves from the pain. I know my life is often completely steered by really dumb/toxic things, like media consumption, unrequited love interests, peer approval and playing The Binding of Isaac. Deep down, I’m a pretty shallow and selfish person who uses fixations and addictions to distract myself from my own deficiencies and failures.
Tsai Ming Liang’s mission statement as a film director is to explore the dangers of fixation and addiction. He depicts people who attempt to use these fixations to alleviate pain in the absence of their base needs. Our desire to chase or avoid one particular thing consumes our entire being, causing us to blindly trample through barbed wire fences and atop shards of broken glass if it means getting what we want. The characters attempt to use fixation to numb or ease the pain, but it never manages to dissipate. In my Lily Chou Chou review, I discussed how the solace the characters found within pop music ultimately became a crippling dependency: a fixation that detached them from reality and perpetuated their wallowing. The same can be said for the preoccupations that Tsai’s characters get stuck in. The son in The River tries every medical treatment possible to remedy his neck pain: he can’t get over an ex-lover who he shared a one-night stand with. The man and woman in Stray Dogs spend day and night gazing at a landscape mural in a ruined building: it shows them an unattainable utopia. The gay guy in Vive L’amour falls in love with a hunk after he exchanges dismissive conversation and slight favours: he attempted suicide at the start of the movie. We are endlessly starving for a sense of peace that the fixation promises but never gives us. Even after trying every remedy, the son from The River wakes up at the end of the film with the pain still in his neck. No matter how many tears are shed in front of it, the mural in Stray Dogs brings the man and woman no closer to where they want to be in life. The gay guy in Vive L’amour is content to wank under a bed while the hunk and his female lover fuck on top, so the next morning once the female lover has gone to work the he can crawl up from under the bed and present his feelings bare to the hunk through a second-spanning kiss, as the hunk lies asleep completely unaware of his presence.
Tsai’s fixated characters are a product of their environment. Tsai’s home is the urban wasteland of Taipei, and he shows how this uncomfortable and dehumanising place has moulded his subjects into passive, broken people. They are desensitised from their own fellow humans, choosing to propel their lives through minimum wage labor, petty crime and cheap forms of gratification. Tsai’s characters almost always live in apartment complexes, confining themselves in a tiny space and segregating themselves from others. When characters do share a room, it’s either to emphasise how unlikely it was for two particular characters to find love amidst their conditions (The Hole, The Wayward Cloud, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone), to highlight a sense of dysfunction or absence between the members inhabiting a space (the boy leaving his parents in Rebels of the Neon God, the death of the wife’s husband in What Time is it There) or for a temporary sexual exchange (most of Tsai’s movies). The entirety of Vive L’Amour is about three different people sharing a complex and exploiting it for their own needs, barely recognising or appreciating each others’ presence.
The director’s extremely textured visual and audio direction further sells this decrepit feeling of Taipei. There’s constant whirring from the car and bike motors that are emitting smog into the already grey city skyline. Tiles on the walls and floors are always cracked and grimy. A common site in Tsai’s films is that of construction sites and worn down buildings to give a sense of ruin and unfinishedness to these cities which promise glamour and opportunity. The artificial pastel hues of cheap furniture, architecture, billboards and plastic goods sold by vendors alongside the cheeky (probably unlicensed) branding and product placement seen throughout Tsai’s movies creates a clear juxtaposition with the environment they’re situated in: their optimistic, consumerist values stick out amidst the tattered, derelict decay of the city. I’m instantly reminded of my times visiting metro Manilla in the Philippines, where my 10-year-old self would have petty existential crises over the extreme divide between the rich and poor areas and communities that melded right into each other. Outside of Taipei, Paris and Kuala Lumpur are the only two other cities which are featured in any of Tsai’s movies. Does he shoot them any less soul-crushingly? Guess. While the sites are dreary, Tsai's shot compositions are beautifully fucky. He loves awkward, fixed angles that distort human proportion and invade personal space. There’s always an amazing sense of depth which helps sell the scope of the city and its barren emptiness. Symmetry is a concept unknown to Tsai. The stiltedness of the compositions capture the discomfort and restlessness of the characters. They navigate these obtuse spaces over arduously-held still shots, guiding the audience to dart their eyes around many focal points onscreen. Tsai’s visual direction is one of his finest assets which I’ll probably talk about the least in this essay.
The world is often at the brink of ending in Tsai’s films, but it is always of secondary concern to the plot. Whether the smoke of forest fires is filling the air, water shortages are causing the mass commodification of watermelons or a cockroach-psychosis virus has cut down the world’s population to a 1/10th, Tsai isn’t ever very concerned with intricate worldbuilding or fully explaining the logistics of why and how things are falling apart. His apocalypses are merely plot devices and symbols to explore the emotional isolation, depravity and longing of his subjects. The state of the world shapes our connections with other humans, and that's what Tsai thinks matters the most. Our lives are full of problems all the time, yet we’re always preoccupied by the smallest things which are in our most immediate proximity.
You can't talk about Tsai’s auteurist traits and textures without mentioning his fixation with water. Tsai explains that the cheap places he rented when he was a young student had pipes and toilets constantly fucking up. He assumed that annoying water leakages were a mundane, common experience faced by most people and wanted to include it in his films as a way of highlighting a problem shared by everyone. Whether the water on Tsai’s sets is dripping, raining down, leaking, flooding or being sucked up in a drought, it all acts as a symbolic representation of our repressed emotions attempting to reach the surface. Our thoughts and desires which can’t help but gush out under the hopelessness of our conditions. The water is representative of the cumulative heartbreak we all experience but cannot verbalise. It’s trying to remind us that our fixations cannot be replacements for the things we need to live. Simple things such as belonging, love, the act of just drinking a cup of fucking water itself. This inability to be honest and accepting of our emotions is something so universal and ordinary yet so devastating.
Outside of a few cathartic crying scenes throughout Tsai’s movies, it’s sad that Tsai’s subjects can only fully express their powerful emotions during fits of pure fantasy. Two of Tsai’s feature length films are musicals, those being The Hole and The Wayward Cloud. The musical numbers in these films erupt with romance and movement and directness, tonally clashing with the harsh realistic grip of Tsai’s usual style. The choreography and design of these numbers can range from cute and simple blocking to highly elaborate and symbolic sets and costumes. They reveal the wonder and sadness of their subconscious fantasies in a way only twee song and dance could. Tsai admits: “I realised that I could use Grace Chang’s songs as weapons. I could use them to defend against the world I didn’t like.” In the Wayward Cloud, aloof pornstar Hsiao-Kang realises his love for Shiang-chyi as he smokes a cigarette between her toes, with both of them sitting underneath a dining table. While this hint of intimacy is both subtle and awkwardly communicated irl, a proceeding musical fantasy segment expels Hsiao-Kang’s feelings in clear ecstatic glee. Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-chyi are both wearing drag as they prance through crowds of people holding pastel-coloured umbrellas, laughing maniacally along to the lyrics of the song. Hsiao-Kang’s pornstar mistress also joins in with performance to snatch Shiang-chyi away from Hsiao-Kang, revealing his conflicting emotions about which woman he should choose. His internal struggles and desires are portrayed in a black-and-white fashion through an ironically colourful and hyperactive lens. My favourite of these musical segments is the simplest of them all, that being the final scene in The Hole. The man and woman who live in vertically-neighbouring apartment rooms who have spent the entire movie avoiding each other, connected only by the hole in their floor/ceiling and with the woman on the brink of cockroach-psychosis death, are both finally united together. They’re holding each other arm in arm, gazes locked, wearing glamorous clothing which blows in the artificial wind as Grace Chang’s unburdened statements of love croon in the background: “I don’t care who you are/but darling, hold me close.” These segments are a testament to both Tsai and the performers’ impressive and sparingly-utilised tonal range. They criticise the hopefulness and escape of both musicals and fantasy in general through their intoxicatingly lively presentation. They are fun and crazy and another reason why I love Tsai.
I’ve used the word “characters'' to describe the actors in Tsai’s films up to this point, but a more accurate way to put it just might be “people.” That sounds pretentious, but Tsai wrings the most out of his actors by making them play themselves. He’s passionate about finding a naturalistic dynamic between the script and the people he’s working with. As such, most of Tsai’s films utilise the same handful of cast members in more-or-less the same roles over and over again. Chen Chao-jung is repurposed to play some incarnation of a petty thug, Yang Kuei-Mei and Chen Shiang-chyi play self-determined, hustling female lovers. Lu Yi-ching plays the mother of the dysfunctional family unit whereas Miao Tien (now deceased, god bless his soul) would play the father. And after watching two or three of Tsai’s films, you’ll begin to realise that one particular fucko continues to be in the main role time and time and time again, and whose acting ability is definitely responsible for providing Tsai’s films with their uniquely meandering and pathetic flavour.
Lee Kang-Sheng plays the main role in all 10 of Tsai’s feature length films, an ultimate benefactor whose contributions make Tsai’s films as endearing as they are. His origin story, laid out by Tsai across two different interviews, is as follows: “I needed to find an actor to play the ‘bad boy’ role and auditioned several actors, but I was not happy with any of them. Then, after watching a film by David Lynch, I came out of the cinema and saw Lee by the side of a game arcade where he was sitting very quietly on a motorbike, working as a lookout to see if the police were coming or not. I was interested and said to my friend, ‘let’s talk to him’... [Lee Kang-Sheng] didn't receive formal acting training... He didn't have any acting concept. He just acts himself. I let him relax and act himself in front of the camera. It's very precious when actors are not acting in films… There was one take [for Rebels of the Neon God that] I had to redo about twenty times. It was simply a shot of Lee turning his head, but I felt that he was not completely natural in the way that he did it. So I started doubting him. I asked him to turn his head more naturally and to blink his eyes as he turned, just to remind us that he was a person, not a robot. But Lee replied, ‘that’s how I am naturally.’” Lee Kang-Sheng is adorable. He is an icon. His performances seem stiff and peculiar at first, but as the cliche goes, it’s his imperfections that make him perfect. Lee bares his soul with every performance: we have seen him eat, wank, cry, hustle, piss, shit… He walks around in his underwear half the time he’s on screen. Watch as he makes out with a watermelon with full sincerity, as he sobs and slaps himself in the waiting room of a hospital or he swigs beer in contentment as he stares at the Stray Dogs mural. Lee is vulnerable, he is prone to fixation. He is the embodiment of the human spirit who is willing to try again and again, choosing to face the day no matter how much love is lost or how many gallons of toilet water spurt up from the pipes under the floorboards. I sound like I’m patronizing or infantilizing Lee, maybe I am, but this guy feels like a friend. He is not a hero, nor protagonist, but a person. “We all grow, change, achieve and go through ups and downs… There aren’t many stories or plots in real lives. Just simple, trivial matters. You may find that Lee is similar to all of us.” Without Lee Kang-Sheng’s human touch, there would be no Tsai Ming Liang.
Lee and Tsai’s other subjects are often too stoic to realise the pain of their situation or have simply been conditioned to live on autopilot: this is Taipei and this is what you have to do to survive. They’re admirably strong in resolve, but are nonetheless consumed by fixation. Watch May Lin in Vive L’Amour as she hoists up handmade real-estate signs on street poles. She jaywalks across busy roads to find the best sites, climbing on top of cars to reach ideal advertising spots. She crawls through rusted fences to find rubble to use as paperweights for the signs. Her office lady outfit consisting of a long coat, miniskirt and heels form a presentable facade that only exacerbates how silly and uncomfortable her chores are. Her struggle reminds me of the lyrics to the Xiu Xiu song Hyunhye’s Theme, which is about band member Angela Seo’s productive yet crushing responsibilities as a doctor: “You are working so hard/Sitting still at your desk/Pusan weighing upon you/Fending off our distress/Glitter for your parents/Hoping in discount clothing.” But back to Mai Lin, she eats a slice of cake with an aggressive sense of vitality, taking it straight from the fridge and shoving it in her mouth with her bare hands. She wakes up seconds before her half-functioning rooster alarm clock gurgles for a 4am start. She has sex with an annoying stalker so she can hoist one of her signs outside of his apartment complex. When the dullness, humiliation and pointlessness of this existence is realised, it’s released in a monsoon of awkward, ugly crying. For an example taken to the most depraved extreme, Lee’s character in the film Stray Dogs literally IS a human advertisement, holding a sign in the middle of a busy road. The hood of his flimsy plastic poncho flaps in the wind as he recites an entire poem with tears beginning to swell in his eyesockets for five fucking minutes: “I launch a shrill cry into the heavens/My valiant heart loses hope/My exploits are naught but mud and dust.” I’m not sure whether I’m meant to laugh or cry at his damnation, but I’ll happily choose to respect him. The work and employment that Tsai’s subjects slog through is usually a form of toxic productivity that distracts them from their sorrow and defines their worth as human beings. It’s a fixation in disguise.
The numbing of pain through fixation in Tsai’s films reminds me of the theories behind addiction proposed by Gabor Maté. Maté is a physician who aims to dismantle the stigma centred towards drug addicts and the like. Old mate Maté argues that, rather than addiction being the result of being born with the “eshay” gene, it is most often fuelled by the desire to alleviate the pain we face throughout our lives: to escape our fears of death, our fears of other people and the fear of our minds. Maté states that addiction is a direct consequence of a person’s experiences and environment: “The real question with addiction is not ‘why the addiction?’ but ‘why the pain?’... You can’t look at the genetics of addicts: you have to look at their lives.” While addiction has a scummy ring to it which brings to mind the thought of heroin needles or having 577 hours of playtime recorded in The Binding of Isaac, addictions can even be sourced from things which seem arbitrary or even noble. Listen to Maté: “I’ve distracted myself through work and throwing myself into activities. Once I spent $8000 on classical music CDs. Once I left a woman in labor in hospital to get a classical piece of music. There are these evil classical music dealers in the aisles that say, ‘hey buddy, have you listened to the latest Mozart symphony cycle?’” The endorphin rush provided by addictive external sources compensates for a person’s inability to release it themselves. All addictions provide a fleeting feeling of pleasure followed by negative consequences, yet the addictive behaviour continues to perpetuate despite these consequences. It’s a form of pleasure so irresistible that it’s something people are willing to die for: “as one patient said to me: ‘when I first did heroin, it felt like a warm soft hug, just like a mother hugging her baby.” Even though all of the statements I took from Maté were from a pretty off-the-cuff TED Talk and I know that he does a lot of acid (for productive, regulated, medicinal and spiritual practice, mind you), it’s easy to see why Tsai’s characters are so damn fixated and so damn miserable all the time. Just look at their lives.
In Tsai’s movies, characters fuck people as if they were inanimate objects. Sometimes, they literally do fuck inanimate objects. I write this as if this is something scary or unfortunate, but I think that’s just my insecure blackpilled nature showing. Tsai believes these fixated sexual responses are a completely natural part of human nature. Tsai outlines how, as a young director, he was baffled about how adverse China’s media and film industry were to exploring sexuality. While he acknowledges that people’s reactions have matured as time has passed, there’s still a lot of work to do: “In Chinese communities, it is a taboo and not talked about.” Every sexual depiction in Tsai’s films is meant to be an act of empathy: “[I use] sex as a means to re-examine human relationships.” This desire to understand is present even as Tsai’s subjects do the unthinkable, even when they choose to fuck their own sons, fuck the belongings of a dead spouse or fuck a watermelon. Sex is normal. Masturbation is normal. The director also aims to break down the stigma centred toward LGBTIQ+ love, with his characters being openly gay/lesbo, bisexual, gender fluid, you name it brother. He does so not as an act of revolution or obligatory representation but as an act of normalisation. All love is defined by our human needs, so why does society choose to marginalise or discriminate against other forms of it? The Wayward Cloud is a movie about exploring the minds of people working in the porn industry. “To work as a porn actor, how would this character feel? Could he still fall in love? Would he have the right to do so?” Each of these revelations isn’t so mindblowing now that we live in a prosex #girlboss pro-socialist twitter cancel-campaign society, but I think it’s great that Tsai was at the forefront of these conversations in such a humble way and within a culture that has been much more conservative than our own. We’re all just hopelessly alone. We want to feel attractive, to feel hope and pride. But true, healthy love is rare. It’s often left unreciprocated or impossible under circumstance or completely transactional or disappointing once it arrives. The love that Tsai’s characters feel betrays its original intent, twisting itself into ugly fixation, addiction and disease. His characters cannot be present, cannot love, because their internal baggage causes them to be selfish and cruel. Yet, their longing remains something that we can dignify. How can sex consume our entire being? How can loneliness consume our entire being? What lengths will we go to just to feel like we have something to lose? Tsai states his intentions beautifully: “My point is that we all feel lonely and need cuddling.”
The absolutely contradictory thing about Tsai’s films is that, even though most of them are so deeply about giving into insatiable base desires and cycles of fixation, each one is so meditatively written, paced and shot. “Meditative” is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot in cinema circles to describe movies which are slow and contemplative. Tsai’s movies can definitely be described as such, but I don’t think I’ve experienced any sort of media which is akin to the actual physical act of meditating. My understanding of meditation is that you do it in order to accept your thoughts and emotions, no matter if they’re positive and negative. Not to get rid of them or necessarily or even calm them down. It’s all about not enacting on them. It’s through meditation that you can learn to let go of external desire. The things that fixate you.
Tsai’s movies are about sitting with the emotions of Lee and the other actors and understanding the agony within their lives. Their loneliness, their aimlessness, their fear, their egregious horniness. The meditative aspect of Tsai’s films compounds on our fragility as humans, as the audience must sit and endure the insecurity of the characters. “You’ll come to realise that our bodies are very fragile, weak, involuntary, not free. From this, we start to think about the meaning of life. Life and illness which we have no control over.” The pain of loss is often explored in Tsai’s films, and their meditative tone is all about realising the impermanence of external things. Nothing exists to last forever. Material things such as possessions, places and locations but also family, friends and relationships. Any day you decide to see someone may be the last chance you ever get to for the rest of your life. The characters fend away this terrifying thought through fixation, but Tsai’s meditative tone and pacing only accentuate the size of the abyss.
There’s no snarky dialogue or bouncy plot to divert you from these harsh truths. Music outside of the aforementioned musical sequences are seldom used. There’s a lot of comedy in Tsai’s films, but it’s dry and cynical and never uplifting. As previously outlined with Lee’s utilisation, you get the divine privilege to watch characters cooking and eating and shopping and shitting and pissing and cumming and staring at walls and walking around Taipei with no destination. These seem like acts of complete nothingness, when in fact they’re the things that occupy 99% of all our lives. It is through the downtime of the characters, away from their fixations, where they can examine what the hell they’re doing with themselves. Whether they’re content, whether they’ve made a mistake, whether it's all worth it. Tsai wants a truthful response, an acknowledgment of the emptiness: “when I want to film a real scenario, or real emotions or real appearances, I put the characters in a lonely situation to observe their reaction in that time and space.”
If it isn’t obvious as a rotting banana in the backpack of a 2nd grader starting the following school term, Tsai’s movies are very much about his own contemplations and struggles. Filmmaking is a way for Tsai to examine how he feels about a situation in his own life. “Everything seems to remind me that I have feelings. I can feel many things. We mustn’t be indifferent.” The directing process is a form of meditation for Tsai, much like how the films themselves are a meditative process for Tsai’s actors and the audience watching them. Indifference to our pain leads to numbing ourselves with addiction and other destructive behaviour. Therefore, Tsai must make films so he can learn to understand himself and accept how things are. It’s a way of living with loneliness and sorrow without giving into it. He talks about making films to process grief such as the death of his father, or to empathise with Lee Kang-Sheng through his real-life 8-month-spanning neck pain portrayed in The River. He’s somehow found a way to make a fixation healthy. I’m sure Tsai is some sort of a Buddhist monk. Not just because he’s a chubby bald neotenic-looking man, but because he has stuff like this to say: “you have to change your life tempo, and that’s why I moved to live in the mountains. In the mountains, you feel time. Time is slowly fleeting. Wind blows and clouds move. You can see time. Many people cannot see this, because they only see work, or all kinds of talking. They never stop.” Tsai’s movies are strung out and patient and deliberate in order to confront our painful addictions and the distractive, external world fully. It is only then we can embrace the present moment and live our lives the best we can.
Last week I had the privilege of pirating and watching Tsai’s newest movie titled Days (2020) and it instantly became one of my favourite movies of his. In fact, I think it might actually BE my favourite. It’s a culmination of all the ideas he’s been building a universe around over his entire directorial career. The destructive fixations, the erosion of Taipei, the imaginative compositions, the meditative pacing, Lee-Kang Sheng, every element is here. However, the approach taken on Days has resulted in Tsai’s most stripped down and slow effort to date, and perhaps his most bleak. There’s no musical segments, humour or zaniness to this one. It’s the most about absorbing the characters’ living situation and inhabiting their loneliness. The thesis of Days resounds so clearly through its images and performances that Tsai himself instructs the audience to watch the film without subtitles. I counted the number of shots in Days’ 127 minute runtime. If my tally is correct, I found a total of 40 fucking shots in this film. For reference, the average action movie contains a mean of 1913 shots in its runtime. Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), a quintessential king of slow cinema, has 142 shots, albeit over a longer 161 minutes. Still, my 8th grade maths skills have determined that Days cuts between shots around 70% less than Stalker does. This is some gruelling, glacial shit.
[Spoilers for the entire movie coming up. You can skip to the final paragraph if you want if you don’t want spoilerage.]
Days opens with Lee-Kang Sheng watching rain fall outside his window, and then shrouded in water in a bath. Two seconds in and Tsai’s ultimate symbol of repressed emotion is already being pushed hard. Lee’s character lives in a big house up a large hill. The sights here are picturesque, away from the usual bustle of Taipei, but there’s an emptiness here too. Lee stands among the trees and overgrown weeds, a strain forming in his neck: a reminder of Lee’s real-life physical trauma and a manifestation of the burden his character carries.
Between Lee we cut to another character, a younger man who lives in an apartment complex with no furniture. We watch as he rinses his vegetables in his bathroom and cooks his food on a clay stove, pots and pans on the floor. Despite my familiarity with Tsai’s pacing, the tonal or narrative purpose of these scenes remained unclear to me on my first watch.
We then observe Lee’s visit to a practitioner in order to treat his neck, which looks uncomfortable as shit to put lightly. His body is plastered with cardboard and metal talismans of sorts, connected together with wires and metal rods that have some sort of material burning on them like campfire marshmallows. We see Lee’s face pressed into the chair and ash falling onto his back, the clinicians fussing around as they exchange instructions. Just to top things off, acupuncture needles are inserted to finish the procedure. Lee then walks around the streets of Taipei, his head held in place by a neck brace. A handheld tracking shot (a technique being used for the first time in Tsai’s entire filmography) follows his similarly shaky and pensive movements. The camera gets a stilted money shot of Lee’s face up close, in all his tenseness and shame. He must block out the screeching wheels of vehicles on the road and the glances of passersbys tossed in his direction. He stops and smokes a cigarette to fend off this claustrophobia. Lee’s life fucking sucks.
We see more of the other character doing bare-essential life stuff. He eats a meal, he takes a shower, he sleeps on his mattress on the floor. He stands by a small carnival selling goods no one wants to buy and playing music no one wants to hear. These scenes begin to feel purposeful. They accentuate the sterility of this person’s life in a way similar to Lee’s character, the almost content sense of nothingness they feel. It’s important to remember the majority of our own lives are occupied in such a state of this character. Days and days of piled-upon unmemorability.
The fixation then takes centre-stage: it turns out Lee has hired the younger man for prostitution. While Lee’s actions don’t necessarily come out in the form of addiction, his desire for this forced, transactional sexual experience accents the pain he wants to escape from. This is also clear in how the younger man is “commissioned” to provide a full body massage, directly treating the physical pain Lee is experiencing every day. This scene is the only funny one in the entire movie, even if unintentionally. Lee sounds like a goose, gargling and gurgling from being massaged and whacked off. His composure deteriorates as he gives into the instinctiveness of his base human needs and desires. It sure made me laugh my top off, but this is the sight of a man having the hole in his heart filled, even if for just a moment. Even if it costed him a fuckton to hire this guy (look at him recount the bills he needs preceding the sex scene). Even if this other guy hasn’t even been present in his life, and won’t be after this temporary exchange. Fixations don’t need to make logical sense, don’t need to actually serve us in a long lasting, positive way, in order for them to feel good.
After climaxing, the couple shower together and sit side-by-side on the bed ready to leave. Lee gives the young man an envelope with the owed money, as well as a bonus present: a small music box. The young man slowly winds the key and tiny, tender notes emanate the hotel room. Both of them sit in silence and embrace the moment. And this is when I start crying like a baby. With this scene, everything that has happened prior makes sense. Amidst our countless days of emptiness, of fixation, of debilitation, of lovelessness, we can still feel genuine moments of connection with others and ourselves. It’s so minute, it might not even be worth living for at all, but the chance of something better is always out there.
The men leave the apartment and share a meal at a small restaurant, acting as the image that serves the film’s promotional poster. A final moment of company these men can appreciate between themselves. The film instantly cuts to the men returning to their everyday lives, doing chores, walking around, going to sleep. We get a shot of Lee’s face as he lies in bed alone, greeting a new morning that is familiar as any other. His expression here kills me. This is the last we see of Lee in this movie.
The film’s final minutes are spent with the younger man, sitting on a bench at night in the city, probably on his way to his next gig. As the diegetic sound of Taipei engulfs him, as couples holding hands pass him by on the sidewalk, the young man decides to wind up the music box again. One last moment to reflect on how he feels, to feel the present moment, to not remain indifferent, before getting back up to leave. Cut to white. The movie ends and I am soaked in tears.
Writing is one of my distractory fixations I use to vent my emotional, philosophical and sexual frustrations to little or no realisation gained or practical improvement made. It has become a sad little echo chamber I retreat into to validate my crummy, incelly feelings as I lose more and more control and purpose in my life. I am addicted to bullshit. Before her retirement, one of the things my very dear therapist told me during our last session was “You are lonely. You are a very lonely person.” I spent most nights of the uni semester last term eating cheese toasties topped with fried onion shallots and ketchup served with a bowl of corn and peas while marathoning the first 8 seasons of The Simpsons. I have no faith that words can change people, I have no faith that media can change people. Quoting Werner Herzog, money moves the world around, guns move the world around, sex moves the world around. You need action, you need physicality, you need to keep your base desires in check. Something my new therapist told me is that meditation can help us disengage with the toxicity of the external world, but it can also inhibit us from posing any source of influence or meaning onto our lives. Meditation itself can be a fixation. I am convinced I’m making the same points in my essays over and over again. I am convinced I will make the same mistakes again. I am convinced I will only further succumb to myself. But, even if they may not end up serving me positively at all, Tsai’s movies mean a lot to me and that the music box scene in Days might be all I need to keep on trying.
Here are all the interviews I used throughout this essay:
And Maté’s TED Talk on addiction: