Days

Days ★★★★★

I travelled to Berlin only to see this. Tsai Ming-liang’s cinema has given so much to me that I thought it only fair to give something back. I was pressed by the desire to finally, for the first time, see one of his films on the big screen, and motivated by the confidence that none of his previous works had disappointed me. I was not expecting disappointment, but I was also not expecting this.

Funnily enough, despite the fact that Tsai is my favourite director, I don’t think that I have ever cried during one of his films. They often touched upon my deepest emotions, but never pressured me to externalise them. They always inspired self-reflection, but never to the point of physical catharsis. When the first music box scene in Days started, I teared up. By the time it was over, I was weeping. Throughout the rest of the film, the crying wouldn’t stop. I had to contain myself from loudly sobbing, which would have embarrassed me in a large room full of strangers. When the film was over, I could hardly move or breathe. I thought that, if I left the chair, I would fall to pieces.

It was like a valve had opened. All of the tears that I hadn’t shed for Tsai’s previous ten features came out at once. All of the loneliness I felt over the past years, all of my sadness poured out of me. I will not get into the personal significance of it all, but Days spoke to the precise emotions that got me into Tsai’s cinema in the first place, and it did so without the least bit of effort. It is a quiet display of Tsai’s extraordinary sensibility and human empathy. I was also saddened by a rather somber element of the music box itself, which I will save for the end of the review.

Now that the rant is over, I will try to write some semi-serious thoughts about the film. The premise is as simple and minimalistic as it could be. Lee Kang-sheng — playing a wealthy character for the first time in thirty years — has a neck problem, which he attempts to solve with warm baths and acupuncture. This is the second film, after The River, directly inspired by the actor’s real-life physical ailment. Anong lives a quiet, simple life. In a long sequence that reminded me of Chantal Akerman, we witness his meticulous cooking routine. Later, we learn that he works as a prostitute.

Many will hail this as Tsai’s return to form. It lacks the musical numbers and abstract set pieces that characterised several of his films from The Hole onwards. It also doesn’t have the quasi-mystical ruin settings of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Stray Dogs. The themes are much closer to Vive l’Amour or What Time is it There?, what with the film’s focus on loneliness and urban alienation. However, there is also much of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone in the massage sequences, in the contrast between the clinical, almost violent acupuncture and Anong’s much more caring, humane massage. The pace is much closer to Stray Dogs and the Walker series than to anything else: the slowness is extreme, almost palpable. Days is certainly a Tsai for the few, not for the many.

However, I was delighted to see that the director is still experimenting and finding new ideas. I almost shouted at the screen “Who are you and what have you done with Tsai Ming-liang?!” when I saw a dynamic, hand-held camera closeup. There is a shot in this, which is now one of my absolute favourites of the director’s entire oeuvre: a building whose side is entirely composed of semi-obscured windows covered with plastic sheets. If you squint, you can make out the silhouette of a cat on the top right. Taking their time, the cat moves from one side of the building to the other, briefly disappearing and reappearing from view due to the windows being partially covered. It was like a shot from the Walker series but, instead of Lee Kang-sheng’s calculated performance, it’s the unaware meandering of an animal. The level of observation that it took for the director to find this shot is, quite simply, stunning.

This was also the first time that I managed to watch a Tsai Ming-liang film at the cinema, and it was almost exactly what I expected. People were nervously chatting, looking around and sighing. The lady sitting to my left walked out in the middle of the film. The one sitting to my right saw it fit to reply to her text messages during the screening and then fell asleep. I now understand where Tsai got the idea, in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, of movie theatres being so chaotic.

But now I must return to the somber nature of the music box at which I hinted earlier. Because it’s not a coincidence that Tsai, an old-school cinephile, chose for that item to play the theme from Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. He is old, conscious of his own mortality and knows that Days might be his swan song. That was already the case with Stray Dogs, but while that was followed by Tsai’s most productive period outside of feature-filmmaking, this time it feels frighteningly real. I do not wish to push the director beyond his limits when I say that I will gladly take a hundred more films by him. But I am also aware that all days must come to an end, all beautiful moments must dissipate. If the director wishes to rest, so be it.

Thank you for all that you’ve done, Tsai.

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