Tsai Ming-liang’s latest socially conscious queer drama is screening as part of MMoCA’s Spotlight Cinema on November 10.
Header Image: Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) lounges in his hotel room following a straining day walking through the streets of Taipei.
One of the ongoing problems of narrative film is its inability to capture “real life” as it is experienced. Narrative is always an imposed form, a way of ordering the events of the day into a logical progression that gives meaning. Interrogating contemporary forms’ ability to reflect the lived realities of modern society was one of the hallmarks of the New Taiwanese Cinema movement of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, with its filmmakers seeking a new form of naturalism to make socially concerned films.
Tsai Ming-Liang, one of the main figures of this movement’s second wave, has stretched this naturalist style past its breaking point over his prolific career. This impulse was present from his first feature Rebels Of The Neon God (1992). But starting with 2003’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, he has presented the sociopolitical realities of Taiwan through progressively slower films, refining his style into a radically reduced minimalism. Days (2020), Tsai’s return to features after seven years, screening Wednesday, November 10, as part of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Spotlight Cinema series, marks a lateral step on this long trajectory.
Days’ loose story traces two men’s lives in modern Taipei. Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) is an older, well-to-do man, living a solitary life and undergoing extensive therapy for a neck injury. (Kang-Sheng is the star of all Tsai’s features to date, and has a neck injury in real-life that has been frequently worked into them.) Meanwhile, a young Laotian man named Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) lives an equally solitary but more active life, diligently preparing his own meals and working odd jobs. Eventually, the two meet when Kang hires Non for an erotic massage, gives him a music box as a parting gift, and shares a silent meal with him. In true Tsai style, this is all that happens over the course of two hours.
After releasing Stray Dogs in 2013, Tsai had publicly sworn off feature films for the rest of his career. It then follows that Days wasn’t conceived as such. The full narrative only took shape as Tsai collected footage. In some ways this confounds analysis of the film. In the absence of an intentional aesthetic whole that usually shapes a feature, it’s hard to know what qualifies as an aesthetic decision. Certainly the movie is stylistically in line with many of Tsai’s films, as Days continues the durational extremes of Stray Dogs and his later Walker shorts, with his mostly static camera highlighting the lonely repetition and stillness of everyday routines.
It’s the handful of scenes with camera motion, then, that suggest a sort of stylistic shift for Tsai. Whether by happenstance or not, these shots are always related to a physical threat or transformation to Kang, like when a handheld camera follows him down the street in his neck brace, and pedestrians and taxis rush past. It feels positively overstimulating compared to everything else in the film. While the camera moves more slowly, it’s still noticeable in the scene where Kang gets an intensive acupuncture treatment, as well as when he ultimately meets Non for his massage. As interventions (both therapeutic and threatening) emerge against Kang’s body from out of the frame, the film stretches against its own stillness alongside him.
Though the two characters share screen time, we ultimately get a more intent look at Kang’s body, because his requires more attention. As the body with more medical necessity, all others in the film exist to fix and preserve his own. Bodies provide the motion of the film, their alternating stiffness and pliability offering more narrative motion than the leads’ staid faces. For his part, Non’s body is a wellspring of therapy for the old—the young body produces only labor (making food, providing sex) while the old body largely receives. Tsai seems to suggest that the existential tragedy of life for both characters is for the old to be in a constant state of receiving and the young constantly giving. It is only at this symbiotic meeting that their connection can exist.
Non still experiences some sense of fulfillment from their interaction (given that he plays the music box over for himself repeatedly after they meet), yet the story still plays like a vampiric allegory. You can’t separate their intimate connection from the power differential between a moneyed man and a hired immigrant sex worker. But Tsai sees this dynamic as its own sort of cage, one that’s equally limiting for a man who, as we’ve seen watching him grow old in Tsai’s films, has become increasingly disabled over his life and can seem to only find intimacy in paid relationships. It’s here that Days finds its roots in the Taiwanese New Wave, framing this missed connection as a microcosm of a more broadly schismatic Taipei. All of Tsai’s interspersed shots, which alternate lush landscapes outside the city with the dilapidated buildings within, indicate the film took shape from a broader city-focused piece, the place’s human extensions emerging from the architecture.
Moving forward, then, the open question is all about Tsai’s cinematic concerns. While he hasn’t abandoned his interests in wayward lovers, the social classes of the city, and the ups and downs of a life of solitude, from watching Days, we may get the impression that even this incredibly careful film is still less rigorous than his others. If Kang is Tsai’s surrogate, maybe Non represents his recent re-engagement with motion and shorter forms, providing the burst of inspiration he needs to find a path sideways from his pessimistic features. No matter where his next films lead, rest assured they’ll continue to look beautiful.
There’s more where this came from.
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