Filmgoers with the tolerance for glacial queer dramas will watch Days‘ most erotic sequence a-swoon. In Malaysian director Tsai Ming-lang’s first film since Stray Dogs (2013), longtime star Lee Kang-sheng lies facedown on a hotel bed while Thai newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy gives a back massage. For almost twenty minutes we watch the shades of discomfort and bliss on Lee’s craggy camera-ready face; Tsai, breaking from his penchant for infamous long takes, shoots Lee in closeup and cuts to Anong, straddling Lee while his expert hands crunch those back muscles. The sequence ends with, well, a happy ending.
Giving this sequence its extra-textural poignancy is how it summons remembrances of pleasures past. Single filmgoers like this writer haven’t experienced intimate human contact since March. Although set in a Bangkok of an unidentified time, Days might’ve been shot during the COVID pandemic. At Tsai’s insistence the film lacks subtitles, as if they mattered: the scraps of dialogue turn into mere white noise. The unnamed bachelor played by Lee sticks to low key indulgences: washing vegetables, getting acupuncture, or, as the opening sequence shows, staring out the window. These are long scenes. Long scenes. At first glance the director of The River (1997) and What Time Is It There? (2001) seems to have reverted to form: by holding his camera in position, usually in medium shot, for at last five minutes he forces audiences to absorb the texture of bathrooms, imagine the reek of damp broccoli, and savor the taste of rank sweat. Because Days is his most sensual film, those long scenes generate suspense. Tsai’s achievement is to find the erotic in the meditative.
Inhabiting an everyman persona that recognizes how it shades into blankness, Lee has calibrated his minimalist performing style to a metronome-worthy precision. Noting how he has aged is a reminder of the infrequency with which Tsai has rewarded his alter ego with closeups. During the Anong massage the sinews of his face tighten as if from the pressure of sensual release. The desires ungratified in Days recall the equally desolate women in the work of Chantal Akerman, who turn to their work to stave off atomization of city life. When Tsai captures Lee’s anguish from wearing a neck brace, his expression is no different than in the clutch of sexual release.
Although Days sounds like a film of unrelenting bleakness, Tsai suggests that the activities with which his characters keep loneliness at bay give meaning to the moments when the clouds break. After the sex, Lee gives Anong a music box as a present; the theme from Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight would be a hamhanded selection by another filmmaker, but Tsai treats its plaintive notes like a fresh breeze blowing into a city apartment. Lee chases after him. A meal follows. Their concentration on the food is a way of not concentrating on each other; Tsai’s two-shot has a documentarian’s accuracy. Watching them, I thought of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, an abyss of age and education separating them. The sequence also reaches closer to our own time: Tsai’s 1992 Rebels of the Neon God, in which the much younger Lee still reckons with filthy apartments and misunderstood motives. Hang on to your hang-ups, Tsai says. They make us human.
Days debuted at the Berlinale and played at IndieLisboa, Taipei, and New York Film Festival.