One could perform a longitudinal survey on Tsai Ming-liang’s filmography — the Boyhood of an auteur. His familiar motifs, characters, and struggles appear again and again over the years, but within the changing context of an aging life. These chronicles decidedly reflect Tsai’s moods and the truth that the camera, too, is not immune to mortality. Any appreciator of his work, from his debut Rebels of the Neon God to the fan favorite Goodbye, Dragon Inn, should be both baffled and warmed in the vast leagues his film are coveted in while remaining authentic to his own cadences.
His most recent work, Days, is audaciously quiet, but that shouldn’t be surprising based on his art-exhibition predecessors, like the promenading-monk short Journey to the West or the interview-style documentary Afternoon. Longtime collaborator Lee Kang-sheng returns with another muted performance that resonates his prior roles (though instead of the usual credited character name Hsiao Kang, he is now just named Kang). He suffers from neck pain, a condition that has been present for the actor since he was young and has been featured in some films like The River. In this respect, Tsai’s consistency is a certain fascination for admirers old and new. Even the camera bodywork begins to ebb away, finding comfort sitting in long gazes.
In another non-surprising coil, there is not much I could tell you about this film in terms of action development. Precisely on his mission of “falling away of narrative,” Days is only best described by interpretation of the viewer’s sensory experiences. Each scene is a wide shot held for several minutes at a time, which could mean a few things. You might ponder about the mindful way Non (newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy) cleans his fish. During the opening scene where Kang is watching a rainstorm through a window, you might suspect that his glass of water is rattling at some point. At least for me, Tsai masterfully conducts an emotional evocation by showing the efforts of sustaining our physical selves, whether it’s repeating the motions of a daily routine or seeking out treatment to fix our ails.
Non and Kang are eventually threaded together, but the elemental pieces of their lives feature in each other’s scenes prior to their one night. Kang’s sparse, fluid-like environment is unnerved when we see him undergoing moxibustion, a form of acupuncture that burns herbs almost directly on the skin but looks as if hot metal plates are steaming from his dorsal region. Non’s cluttered enclosement is awash with a domestic sensuality as he cooks a meal by himself, slimming down his items into a single stew and salad. It’s these moments that build to some very powerful ones: Kang’s lonesome expression after he finishes his session, for one, and when Kang and Non are in a hotel room where the only sound is of a music box, a sonic blueprint that unexpectedly moves one to tears.
Read everything about Days as you please. The possibility of the experience being ruined by spoilers is like imagining spoilers to seeing a Monet. When you see a Tsai masterpiece, you’ll know.
dir. Tsai Ming-liang
Playing at Brattle Theatre from October 1-October 7!