‘Days’ Review: Slow Cinema God Tsai Ming-liang Returns with One of the Year’s Most Touching Films

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A man with severe neck pain and a handsome young sex worker share a chance encounter in Tsai’s achingly poignant return to feature filmmaking.

A plumber drills a hole between the basement of one apartment and the ceiling of another as a strange disease that causes people to act like cockroaches sweeps over Taiwan at the turn of the millennium. A depressed homeless man, desperate to provide for his family but invisible to the people who drive past his roadside advertising sign, violently mauls the cabbage that his young daughter has adopted as a friend. A Taipei cinema screens King Hu’s “Dragon Inn” during a torrential downpour on its final night in business as various patrons shuffle around inside the theater, each of them looking for a connection that seems to be flickering away forever before our eyes.

While Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang has long been associated with slow cinema, the non-linear deceleration of his style has been interjected with soaring dreamscapes, electric moments of self-reflexivity, and even a handful of sexually charged musical numbers. The pace of his films is perhaps their most immediate signature, but it’s also considerably less consistent than the social anxieties shared between them. From his debut feature (1992’s “Rebels of the Neon God”) to the installation pieces that he’s been making with muse Lee Kang-sheng in the years since his soft retirement in 2013, Tsai’s work has reliably probed the psychic dislocation of modern life, and it’s done so with a roiling fury that belies his arthouse poise.

Sometimes (explicitly) queer, often (undeniably) male, and always tinged with a post-apocalyptic charge that carries through their happiest moments, Tsai’s films are so drawn to the dark recesses between us that even their titles sound like pleas for connection or laments over what’s been lost. “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.” “What Time Is It There?” “The Wayward Cloud.” The likes of “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” might linger in the mind for its ASMR design and time-in-a-bottle wistfulness, but such a bittersweet aftertaste follows an experience that’s bound together by a furious tension between the intimate demands of our bodies and the impenetrable distances that isolate us inside of them. The despair percolating beneath “Vive L’Amour” and “Rebels of the Neon God” eventually gave way to the abyssal howl of “Stray Dogs,” which — similar to Béla Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” from two years earlier — was such a voice-killing scream into the void that people naturally assumed its author had nothing else to say.

In Tsai’s case, that turned out not to be true; he’s been steadily working in the museum world for the last eight years. Nevertheless, the news that he and Lee had collaborated on another feature — one that would revisit the mysterious neck ailment his now-52-year-old leading man began to suffer on-screen and off during 1997’s “The River” — couldn’t help but seem a bit ominous. How much bleaker would this new project be? What would the specter of death add to a body of work that has always bent over itself as it shambled towards the end? If Béla Tarr announced he’d made another movie at this point, I’d probably assume it was a snuff film. Expectations for Tsai’s latest may not have been quite so grim, but I certainly wasn’t bracing myself for one of the most touching dramas of the year.

Shot piecemeal without a script across three countries and five years before it was reverse-engineered into a simple yet achingly tender story of ships passing in the night, “Days” represents something of a departure for Tsai even before it climaxes with the most piercingly sentimental moment he’s ever filmed (it also includes a climax of a different kind, but that’s par for the course from a filmmaker who’s long seen hand jobs and masturbation as signifiers of loneliness). There’s no mistaking the man behind the camera for someone else: “Days” opens with a long shot of Lee watching the rain from a chair inside the nice but fittingly minimalist home Tsai shares with his star and platonic life partner, as if watching the storm from the end of “Stray Dogs” as it whimpers away. And yet the catch-as-catch-can approach of a film that was captured without any clear sense of what it might eventually become endows this movie with an intractable nowness that prohibits the “fall of man” vibe of Tsai’s earlier work from creeping back in.

Some sequences are painful to watch, such as the one in which Lee’s nameless character receives — and gets burned during — moxibustion treatment for his neck at a back alley clinic in Hong Kong. The handheld HD video shots of the actor walking through the city and clutching the side of his head suggest a documentary verisimilitude, and Tsai’s decision to include them in the final cut likewise implies a willingness to let real life bleed into the fictional story he’s telling here (Lee really was seeking relief for his neck, and Tsai’s camera followed him without any plan for how the resulting footage might be used). Tsai neophytes are free to vibe with Lee’s character as a lonely, seemingly well-off man whose spiritual pain has assumed a physical dimension, but that blurred line between organic and staged moments also invites the filmmaker’s devotees to reflect on the actor’s beautifully passive face as a trap and a time machine; for as long as we’ve been watching Lee, he’s never been able to get out of that body.

To that end, it almost feels like a betrayal that Tsai has found a new, younger muse who’s roughly the same age now as Lee was in “Rebels of the Neon God.” His name is Anong Houngheuangsy, he’s an undocumented Laotian migrant worker who Tsai spotted selling noodles in a Bangkok foodcourt, and he plays the able-bodied young man who provides a contrast for Lee’s degradation, or perhaps the other part of the older character’s wordless call-and-response (there is virtually no dialogue in “Days,” though a disclaimer at the start nevertheless warns that the film is unsubtitled).

Tsai’s camera watches Houngheuangsy prepare a meal in real-time inside his purgatorial concrete box of a Bangkok apartment, the handsome new actor wearing only a pink bathing suit as he squats over his bathroom floor to make fish stock. The sterility of the image overrides a sense of voyeurism as we focus on the productive work of a body sustaining itself and grow hungrier for either of the film’s two characters — one confined by illness, the other by socioeconomic immobility — to share something of themselves with anyone else, let alone each other.

When they finally do, their meeting arrives in neutral terrain without any situational context; one needs a massage, the other needs money, they both need human touch, and that’s all we get. But the vacuum-like seal around this eroticized sequence — which thaws from sensual to sexual over the course of shots that are sustained for so long you hardly clock any change through the static — allows the emotional reciprocity between Lee and Houngheauangsy to achieve a rare force unto itself. After more than an hour of impermeable seclusion, the rabid nipple-biting and off-screen tugs don’t seem like the stuff of therapeutic sex work or some other transactional exchange bent towards a primal release so much as they do a desperate act of mutual healing. These are two parched men reveling in the same private oasis without any idea of when they’ll ever be able to find another drink amid a defeated world in which people feel so helpless they pretend they can’t see each other. As Tsai conveys in one particularly striking handheld shot of Lee crossing a busy street, it’s as if everyone knows the score and we’re all just trying not to look into the camera.

“Days” becomes such a resonant addition to Tsai’s exhumed body of work because the filmmaker recognizes and embraces that uncharacteristically sentimental undertow; the last 30 minutes of this (relatively short) movie reward viewers who’ve spent the previous 90 minutes searching — reaching — for a souvenir they might be able to take away from it. Tsai’s films have ended with unexpected grace notes before, but such uptick flourishes have been couched in dream sequences or other flights of fancy that tinge them with a sinister kick. The crushingly poignant final shot in “Days,” on the other hand, is so matter-of-fact that its most crucial extras may not have even known they were in it.

The movie doesn’t end with a sudden come-to-Jesus moment that finds Tsai recanting the rest of his films, nor does its Chaplin-esque flavor extend towards the kind of salvation found in the dying minutes of “City Lights.” Tsai still makes slow, plotless cinema that will seem perverse to those who aren’t on his wavelength or at least patient enough to lean forward and listen to the static, and he’s still haunted by the apathy hardwired into human survival. He’s still the kind of filmmaker who would let a scene continue long after its characters have left the room, if only so that we can see a motion-activated hotel room switch off in their absence, and feel a hollow warmness in the knowledge that it had brightened up for them. But if Tsai’s unblinking camera has always trained its eye on the darkness, it’s never been so interested in looking for the cracks where the light gets in. The pockets where people overlap — where they share something instead of simply living and dying around each other. And it’s a good thing too, because I’m not sure how many of us are still able to see those slivers on our own.

Grade: A-

Grasshopper Film will release “Days” in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, August 13.

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Celebrated Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang discovers painting

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TAIPEI – Tsai Ming-lian, one of Taiwan’s most celebrated film directors, lives in “renovated ruins” in the hills of Taipei surrounded by abandoned houses.

The outskirts of the capital city are full of these kinds of buildings, where hikers can still find old furniture, light fixtures, and even wall hangings left behind by past inhabitants. They can be difficult to date, such is the speed of decay in the island’s subtropical climate.

It’s an apt home for Malaysian-born Tsai, 63, who has built a career spanning four decades in his adopted home of Taiwan, creating slow dreamlike films that are more visual art than commercial cinema, with long takes and increasingly spare dialogue.

Since winning the 1994 Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion for his breakout work “Vive L’Amour” about three people unwittingly sharing an empty apartment in Taipei, Tsai has been a frequent fixture on the arthouse film circuit. His latest film, “Days,” which follows two men going about their daily lives in Bangkok, was screened at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival where it won the jury Teddy Award for LGBT-themed films.

The commercial release of “Days,” however, and Tsai’s other projects, have come to a halt thanks to COVID. The pandemic has triggered an onset of mood swings for Tsai, which has made him uncertain about how and when to start his next venture.

“I spend a great deal of time waiting,” Tsai told Nikkei Asia in an interview. “I will finish my projects. I am not canceling, but postponing them. It’s like I’m waiting-waiting for the pandemic to pass. But you know it won’t pass quickly. Everybody is cognizant of that. It’s uncertain how fast or slow we’ll get through this. Hence, I feel stuck.”

Top: Malaysian-born Tsai, 63, has built a four-decade career in his adopted home of Taiwan, creating slow dreamlike films that are more visual art than commercial cinema. Bottom: Tsai’s portrait of his principal actor and muse, Lee Kang-sheng, from a scene in ‘Days’. (Photos courtesy of Tsai Ming-liang)

Like many of Tsai’s films, “Days” is full of extended takes of its actors doing things alone: walking, lying down, eating. It is a signature style that can be found in many of his other pictures, including a series of experimental movies such as 2014’s “Journey to the West”, which follows an anonymous Buddhist monk as he slowly walks through various urban environments.

The solitude and loneliness of Tsai’s characters is an echo of his personal life, as he has enjoyed spending time alone since he was a child in Malaysia.

“I like solitude. In my upbringing, sometimes I had many opportunities to form close relationships with others. But other times, I had the opportunity to be in solitude. I especially liked those times of being alone. You could reminisce, imagine, do what you like, show up as what you truly are,” said Tsai. “I don’t think of loneliness as something negative. More likely, it has many positive meanings. For example, you may have more imagination because of loneliness. You may miss someone you like more because of loneliness.”

The isolation imposed by COVID, though, is something new for Tsai – a “forced” solitude full of restrictions, fear and uncertainty.

“It’s a slightly different feeling. You become worried upon seeing people. Do you know what I mean? Under COVID, when you go to the market to pick up something, you will intentionally avoid the crowd. Or when you notice someone approaching you, you dodge away a little,” Tsai said. “You’re afraid that people will come in contact with you, and vice versa. This is another type of alienation, with a tinge of fear.”

To cope with his mood swings and anxiety, Tsai has turned to his self-taught hobby of painting. In addition to re-creating scenes from “Days,” Tsai’s other projects include a series of paintings inspired by his collection of vintage chairs and sofas, as well as painting on cabinets.

Top: The pandemic has triggered an onset of mood swings for Tsai, making him uncertain about when to start his next venture: ‘Hence, I feel stuck.’ Bottom: Anong Houngheuangsy, who plays Non, a Laotian immigrant to Thailand in ‘Days’, and Tsai Ming-liang. (Photos courtesy of Tsai Ming-liang)

Even with Taiwan under a “soft lockdown” since May – after nearly a year and a half successfully containing the disease – the pandemic is not Tsai’s first experience of turmoil on the island. First arriving there in 1977, two years after the death of authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan was still a very conservative society under martial rule.

Tsai recalls how, despite the fashion of the 1970s, young men could find themselves asked to cut their hair by a police officer if it was deemed too long. Even as a student in the film and drama department of the Chinese Culture University, Tsai was required to take a class in “military basics 101.”

His status as a foreigner – even an ethnic Chinese one – gave him a greater sense of freedom and rebelliousness compared to many of his fellow students. Drawing on this experience produced Tsai’s first sparks of creativity, compelling him to express the feelings of restriction and confinement aroused by Taiwan’s repressive society.

Gradually over the course of the next decade, Taiwanese society began to thaw until martial law was finally repealed after 38 years in 1987. One-party rule didn’t end until the first democratic elections were held in 1996. This period coincided with the rise of neorealist filmmaking known as “New Taiwanese Cinema” as the island’s more commercial film industry lost ground to Hong Kong.

During that time, Tsai recalls how many Taiwanese were “still learning how to utilize their newly earned rights and freedoms” and they went about building what is arguably Asia’s most open society today. Much of that came from the high rate of information and culture that was pouring in from abroad, he said.

Never afraid to branch out, Tsai’s work transitioned from the more story-focused style of his earlier films to his current “personal style” of filmmaking that features a “slower pace and a heavier accentuation of image and aesthetics,” he said. “Gradually, I came to think less about the story, and more about aesthetics and image. Because of this shift of style, from story-focused to image and aesthetics-focused, art museums discovered my films. They thought my work was perfect.”

Top: Unfinished portrait of Anong Houngheuangsy in a scene from ‘Days’. Bottom: Tsai’s other projects during COVID lockdowns include a series of paintings inspired by his collection of vintage chairs. (Photos courtesy of Tsai Ming-liang)

While the most recognition Tsai has received for his work has been in Europe, he has a devoted following at home, where his films are considered an essential part of Taiwan’s more light-hearted “Second New Wave” of filmmaking, alongside the early films of Ang Lee. But where Lee has crossed over into Hollywood filmmaking, Tsai has been unafraid to extract elements like dialogue and a character-driven narrative as he has matured as a director.

Even if he lacks inspiration in the present, Tsai’s tendency to use his own life or even the painful experiences or those of people close to him means that it’s possible COVID could turn up in one of his next films.

The plot of 1997’s “The River” drew directly from the life of Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai’s principal actor and muse, who had struggled with months of neck pain while filming “Vive L’Amour.” Tsai’s 2001 work “What Time Is It There?” was inspired by his and Lee’s experiences with grief.

“When (Lee’s) father passed away, I saw the sadness that lingered on his face,” said Tsai. “One day on an airplane, I stared at his melancholy, unhappy sleeping face. I woke him up and told him that I decided to shoot a movie about a father’s passing away. My father passed away, too! But I had forgotten it. Then Lee’s gloomy face reminded me of how I’d felt when my father passed away. So I shot a movie called ‘What Time Is It There?’.”

Conveniently, Lee lives in the same building as Tsai – as has been their longstanding practice – so he has not lost connection to his creative partner even if filmmaking itself has come to a standstill. For now, Tsai is looking forward to eventually reconnecting with the world and “becoming liberated and free.” What that world will look like post-pandemic remains to be seen.

New Covid-19 cases remain in single digits for third straight day in Taiwan

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TAIPEI - The number of Covid-19 cases in Taiwan remained in the single digit on Tuesday (Aug 5) for the third day in a row.

The drop was heartening news for many, including the government, because cases had skyrocketed on the island for nearly three months.

Eight cases were reported on Tuesday, three of which were local transmissions. The three were all detected in New Taipei city.

“We have been able to quickly conduct contact tracing between most confirmed cases. This means Covid-19 has been controlled quite well in Taiwan,” Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told a press conference.

Taiwan has so far reported a total of 15,798 Covid-19 cases, of which 14,282 were local infections since May 15, when the island first saw more than 100 cases in a single day.

The number of Covid-19 deaths has risen to 814 - all but 12 recorded since May 15, according to data from Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC).

The authorities lifted a Level 3 Covid-19 alert from July 27 after locally transmitted cases dropped under 100 a day.

Level 3 banned people from dining in and using recreational spaces, including gyms, movie theatres, karaoke joints, nature parks and more.

The island has returned to Level 2 status on the four-tier measure. People are allowed to dine-in once again, but must remain socially distanced while doing so, and must wear masks once they leave their homes. The cap on the number of people gathering has been raised from fewer than five indoors and 10 outdoors to 50 indoors and 100 outdoors.

The CECC announced on Monday that Level 2 will be in place until at least Aug 23, before the health authorities reach a consensus on whether additional Covid-19 restrictions can be lifted.

Under Level 2, national parks, outdoor recreational areas and swimming pools reopened on Tuesday, after being closed since May 19.

On Aug 5, Singapore’s Ministry of Health announced that travellers to Singapore from Taiwan will not have to go through quarantine if they test negative for Covid-19 upon their arrival. They must have been in Taiwan for at least 21 days before travelling to Singapore.

Reacting to the announcement, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Taiwan was “thankful for the Singaporean government’s approval of our efforts in fighting Covid-19”.

The travel bubble programme that kicked off in April between Taiwan and Palau may also resume on Aug 14.

Palau’s representative to Taiwan Dilmei L. Olkeriil told local media that the Micronesian island nation was even open to offering Taiwanese tourists the opportunity to get vaccinated during their travel, and was waiting for the green light from the CECC.

But restrictions in Taiwan on travellers who wish to visit are still in place because of the risks the Delta variant poses, especially as the island is in the midst of a national vaccination exercise, said the CECC on Monday.

The current border control measures do not allow foreigners to enter Taiwan unless they have already obtained residency, or have been granted permission by the health authorities. Those who do make it into the island will have to go through mandatory quarantine in designated hotels.

About 37 per cent of Taiwan’s 23.5 million population have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, Mr Chen said on Tuesday.