'A slow and moving depiction of pain' - Days review - whynow

Washing lettuce never looked so enchanting: Tsai Ming-Lang’s Days is a slow and moving depiction of pain

When Tsai Ming-Lang’s 2020 film Days opens with a white screen and a line of text stating that the film has been left ‘intentionally un-subtitled’, I worry that I’m about to watch a film designed to test my patience. I move the cursor to the bottom of the screen – this is the London Film Festival in 2020 and I am watching at home on the BFI Player – to confirm that the feature is over two hours long.

 At first, Days does seem the sort of film that one might imagine as a send-up of the contemporary art world: “New Taiwanese film Man Bathes and Prepares Lettuce for Two Hours receives rapturous reception among audiences in London and New York”. That sort of thing.

The first scene comprises a single shot, several minutes long, of protagonist Lee Kang-Sheng sitting in a chair, looking out the window at the rain, a glass of water on the table beside him. In the next scene, Kang is lying in a bath with his eyes closed. Again, the scene comprises a single shot, and again, nothing happens. After several more long static shots – a verdant landscape cloaked in mist, Kang standing in the garden – a scene where the film’s subject stretches his neck seems action-packed.

But that is a cheap joke and this is no cheap film. Days is better than that; this is not a film designed to test the audience’s patience nor is it a film that plays tricks with smoke and mirrors. If an audience is initially suspicious, Days can disarm these suspicions with its bold, intimate portrayal of a man in… what? Crisis? Love? Or just life?

From what Days shows us, we can’t exactly know, although in a Q&A that accompanies the film, both director and actor reveal that actor Lee Kang-Sheng was struggling with his health and was in constant physical pain, more, he says, than he lets show in the film. Kang has appeared in all eleven of Tsai Ming-Lang’s feature films and here he does exactly that: he appears. And he does it exquisitely. We see him bathing, boiling water, and preparing lettuce. We see him receiving acupuncture treatment. We see him walking, sitting, smoking. He does not act as such, and yet he conveys great feeling.

The lack of subtitles turns out not to be a problem because nobody speaks, save for a few words muttered here and there. But the absence of speech does not mean that nobody communicates. The film’s longest scene begins with Kang lying prostrate and naked on a bed. After several minutes, another, younger man enters the shot. He massages Kang’s feet. Then his legs, his back, and his shoulders. This goes on for some twenty minutes, caught in one long, static shot. Eventually, the men kiss, and the younger man gives Kang and orgasm.

His climax is the film’s climax also: a moment of relief in a film about a man in pain, and a moment of intimacy in a film about a man alone.

They shower. Kang smokes a cigarette. In a touching moment, we watch him count bills and hesitate briefly before he approaches his lover to pay him. Then, sitting on the bed, Kang hands Anong a music box, whose sweet melody he plays slowly. A scene that might be sentimental in another director’s hands is anything but. In a film of so much silence, the notes are resonant with a feeling that neither of the men, we understand, could express with words.

 We watch the men eat dinner, the camera positioned at the other side of a busy city street. The film’s slow denouement sees Kang return to his solitary activities. Once again, he boils water and prepares a meal. He gardens. On a fold-out mattress on the floor, he sleeps while a breeze ruffles the curtains.

Then we see Kang’s face, close-up. There is pain and tiredness, sadness in his eyes. There is real feeling here, so much that one almost strains to watch. The moment is exceptional because we see the way Tsai Ming-Lang has brought Kang to life not through a story, and certainly not through his words, but through patient attention to his body and the spaces it inhabits.

In the final shot, we see Anong, Kang’s lover, sitting alone on a bench at night, playing the music box that Kang has given to him. It is a poignant symbol for what has passed between them, something quiet, sad, and delicate. Anong stands up and walks away, and the screen goes white.

In the Q&A afterwards, Ming-Lang explains that after his 2013 film Stray Dogs, he became bored of making commercial films. ‘The ways in which I was able to tell stories was extremely limited,’ he says. ‘I veered more towards installation style works almost like tableaus… like paintings.’

Looking at a painting is a useful analogy for the experience of watching Days. Like a painting, I find myself dreaming it up again once I’ve left it, wanting to return to its atmosphere, to see all of its beautiful, carefully rendered details up close, to be still with it, and to hear the way it charges the silence with feeling.

Days won’t have you gripping the edge of your seat as you watch it, but it will leave you thinking for weeks afterwards.

Rampa  They Will Be