It’s easy to imagine Western audiences watching “Days,” the newest movie from Malaysian director Tsai Ming-liang, and breaking a sweat at the first words which greet them before any image does: A disclaimer that what follows over the next two hours will be “intentionally unsubtitled.” Hold on, they might think, Bong Joon-ho just insisted subtitles are but a small barrier; this is asking much more!
It takes all of 20 minutes to discover that, whether Tsai means the words as a wry joke or not, it actually isn’t all that necessary as a warning. That’s because “Days” is a movie where the dialogue isn’t provided in words but in sights; a dark and slowly approaching storm delivers a thunderous monologue, a man precisely making up a bed utters a whisper of passion. Jhong Yuan Chang’s camera sits perfectly still for minutes at a time while we observe from fixed perspectives—sometimes looking across from below, sometimes down from above, always invited to expand the frame at our pace. Its patience encourages our own. In the meantime, environments morph into living, breathing canvases of solitary life in an urban jungle.
For a time, we’re asked to seek a relationship between the images, and while that’s all some might need to know to confirm this is a mosaic they’re fine to pass on, the opening image may be enough to sway them. It’s a splendidly captivating, hypnotically layered composition containing a bounty of details the curious movie-watcher will find themselves investing in, like the flutter of a man’s eyes and the rate of his breathing. Soon enough, the mere cut to a new frame – the simplest and most foundational of cinematic acts – becomes its own kind of thrill.
It isn’t a verite documentary Tsai has created, however, and that opening frame is enough to make the unsuspecting viewer understand as much. A wave of sadness, or maybe its loneliness, ripples across the proceedings; even if we can’t quite hear it coming, Tsai ensures we get swept up in it. The camera may provide a literally static perspective more often than not in “Days,” but stoic it is not. There’s a poetry in the visual simplicity, fortified by the absence of a musical score and the way Tsai turns ambiguity into its own interpersonal code by which his two protagonists maneuver the spaces around them….or otherwise remain as still as our own eye.
Even calling them protagonists doesn’t quite feel right; it’s almost too universal a word and not universal enough. Tsai is purportedly the screenwriter of “Days,” and it’s funny to imagine what the screenplay for a work as wordless and aesthetically enveloping as this one would look like. Observing someone quietly and thoroughly washing his produce while crouched on a dirty bathroom floor might not tell us about his hopes and dreams, but it almost signals how far he continues to be from them. The movie doesn’t invite us to get to know its two principal characters – a young man and a slightly older man – so much as we get to know their faces, with all their crevices and bumps and lines suggesting an outsider’s mentality. If we find ourselves drifting away during the movie’s more languid periods, it’s typically the performers’ hardened commitment that draws us back in, and the feeling we get that under those exteriors is someone gazing out at the world through eyes like windows to a home they can’t quite escape.
It may constitute a spoiler, then, to say “Days” eventually reveals itself as a romance, but it’s a romance in the loosest and purest sense of the word. To put it another way, “Days” is about the possibility of romance sprouting through the literal concrete of all-consuming modernity, a concept Tsai advances by isolating his protagonists (played by Lee Kang-sheng and Anong Houngheuangsy, the latter in his disarmingly good screen debut) against the ambience of urban bustle, as if they’ve been deemed unworthy of the time and consideration of others.
Perhaps they’ve put themselves in that position, which is all the more heartbreaking to consider once “Days” arrives at its most splendidly crafted sequence, one whose sensuality is potent enough to defy those strange Twitter-centric arguments that cinema has no need for sensuality anymore. It begins with a tender massage where urgency is of no concern, and perhaps this, we feel, is what Tsai is intending to do with his movie as well—massage our senses, loosen expectations and smoothen out the knots of a modern-day cinema in which romance insists on being heard instead of merely being present.
"Days" is not rated. It's available Friday in some Texas theaters.
Starring: Lee Kang-sheng and Anong Houngheuangsy
Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
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