When Kang, played by Lee Kang-sheng, crosses a busy road, holding his head with his left hand, his neck being stabilised by a brace, there is a strange familiarity to the scene without it being fully the signature of Tsai Ming-liang. The camera follows Kang, recording him from the side, in a sort of medium close-up. The camera moves with Kang, follows him, follows the stares of the people around him, but also the ignorance of those who are too busy with their phones in order to see what is happening.
The camera is shaky, and therefore a true rupture, a break from Tsai’s ‘traditional’ way of filming his muse. It is a wake-up call, after having floated along with Kang and Non, played by Anong Houngheuangsy, both in parallel worlds. There is a middle class world, a world of relative ease and freedom. This is the world of Kang who lives in a spacious house in the mountains. He looks out of the window, watching the thunderstorm outside, which rolls over the area. A slight reflection shows the rain on the glass window. On Kang’s right-hand side, there is a glass of water on a table. The reflections make it look as though the rain drops into the glass.
There is the world of Non, a migrant from Laos, lost in the city of Bangkok, a young man in search of a better life, trying to make a living in a city that never sleeps. He is alone, like so many migrants, who uprooted their lives and who will remain uprooted forever. This is where both worlds meet: in solitude and in the desire for human contact, in this feeling of bonding, however temporary, which makes one continue; continue to dream, to work, to breathe.
It’s been seven years since Tsai Ming-liang last put his muse on screen. There were short films, but the director had originally planned to stop making features. Stray Dogs, released in 2013, was a perfect end, a beautiful (and painful) swan song at the end of a long list of films which put solitude and desire in urban spaces into focus. No one in Slow Cinema had worked quite like Tsai, no one had portrayed characters in the way he did. And nothing much has changed, it is almost as though Tsai has never left the stage, but kept playing instead, kept the lights on for those waiting for the next stage show.
This is a lie.
In fact, a lot has changed since 2013. The world is different, here and over there. Time and history have moved on. Tsai’s muse has aged visibly. He is no longer in search for something in the cities, but has instead retired to a house in the middle of nowhere. His breathing is heavy, it seems, but his face is (e)motionless. Seeing Kang in several long-takes, with a loving patience which only Tsai can create with his camera, I begin to wonder whether Lee’s film characters have always had this stoic expression, this seeming disconnection from the immediate surrounding. It feels like a defence measure – I disconnect, so I cannot be hurt.
And yet, there is this longing, which is hidden behind a shell of flesh and bones. A longing for something better. I remember Tsai’s The River (1997) in which a young man first plays a dead body in a river for a film school and is then struck by a mysterious neck pain. River and Days are brackets in Tsai’s filmography, seeing that his character is once more struck by a mysterious neck issue. Kang looks fragile and broken. He sees a doctor, but doesn’t seem to feel better after that. I cannot help but think that Kang’s physical issue is an expression of unconscious needs, desires, wishes. And pains. Suppressed, hidden, brushed under the carpet.
I myself have only recently understood that my long-term suffering from a stiff and really painful shoulder doesn’t have a physical source. If anything, I have over the years learnt that so much of what is happening inside my body is often a mere expression of my psyche. With this (new and personal) knowledge in hindsight, I can only wonder what causes all this pain in Kang (Lee). Is it, perhaps, the desire for sexual release?
Kang and Non are two generations that meet, two worlds, both familiar and alien, two people who are searching. There is something gentle about Tsai’s observation of Non’s cooking and showering. For me, Tsai’s films have always been interesting for their use of architecture as a means to mirror the film characters’ internal struggles. This made him stand out in the rather large output of Slow Cinema we see today, most directors using empty landscapes, or nature in general, to reinforce angst, longing, hopelessness. Days is different, and this is where Tsai diverts from his usual filmmaking.
Days is about the body. About bodies, in the plural. It is no longer about architecture, about narrow alley ways, city streets, empty houses. This, too, is a rupture, a consequential one. Architecture had always been a prism through which we saw the characters. Now, the characters are with us just the way they are. They are naked, fragile. They are human, they are exposed. Perhaps no other film of Tsai is as human and fragile as is Days. In his film Your Face, he began to explore the human, removed from all mirrors, metaphors, distractions. It was quite a beautiful film to watch, albeit simple, ordinary, everything but outstanding. And yet, Tsai’s slow drift towards the human on screen is, after so many years of filmmaking, intriguing.
With Days set, for now at least, at the end of Tsai’s career, the director’s filmography feels like an onion. Beim Häuten der Zwiebel – this was a title of one of Günter Grass’ books. Peeling an onion. One peels off one skin after another until you reach the core. Tsai’s films have always been essentially about the human. So has Slow Cinema as a whole. At the end of Days, it becomes clear that Tsai has peeled off each and every layer of the onion. Each previous film was a layer, a skin. The result, the core, is a deeply moving, deeply honest observation of two human beings in an age of growing solitude.