Days Review: Tsai Ming-liang returns with most touching drama of 2021

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A man with severe neck pain and a handsome young sex worker share a chance encounter during Tsai’s painfully poignant return to the movies.

A plumber pokes a hole between the basement of one apartment and the ceiling of another as a strange disease causes people to behave like cockroaches swarming Taiwan around the turn of the millennium. A depressed homeless man, desperate to provide for his family but invisible to those passing by his roadside billboard, violently kneads the cabbage his young daughter has adopted as a friend. A Taipei cinema screens King Hu’s ‘Dragon Inn’ in a torrential downpour on its last night of operation as various patrons stroll inside the theater, each looking for a connection that seems to fade forever before our eyes.

While Taiwanese author Tsai Ming-liang has long been associated with slow cinema, the nonlinear deceleration of his style has been interspersed with dizzying dream-like landscapes, 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 is also considerably less cohesive than the social anxieties shared between them. From his first feature film (1992 “Rebels of the Neon God”) to the installation pieces he produced with muse Lee Kang-sheng in the years following his sweet retirement in 2013, Tsai’s work has reliably probed the psychic dislocation of modern life, and it’s done with a seething fury that belies his art-house composure.

Sometimes (explicitly) queer, often (unmistakably) masculine, and always tinged with a post-apocalyptic charge that runs through their happiest moments, Tsai’s films are so drawn to the dark recesses between us that even their titles sound like calls for connection or lamentations. on what was 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 mind for its ASMR design and nostalgia for time in a bottle, but such a bittersweet aftertaste follows an experience bound by a furious tension between them. intimate demands of our body and the impenetrable distances that isolate us within them. The despair that seeped under “Vive L’Amour” and “Rebels of the Neon God” finally gave way to the abysmal howl of “Stray Dogs”, which, similar to “The Turin Horse” of two-year-old Béla Tarr earlier was such a shouting into the void, people naturally thought its author had nothing more to say.

In Tsai’s case, this turned out to be wrong; he has worked regularly in the museum world for eight years. Nonetheless, the news that he and Lee had collaborated on another feature film – one that would revisit the mysterious neck disease that its 52-year-old lead actor began to suffer on and off screen during “The River” in 1997 – couldn’t help but looks a little worrying. How darker would this new project be? What would the specter of death add to a work that has always leaned inward and stumbled towards the end? If Béla Tarr was to announce that he had made another movie at this point, I would probably assume it was a snuff movie. The expectations for Tsai’s latest might not have been so dark, but I certainly wasn’t preparing for one of the most touching dramas of the year.

Shot piecemeal without a script in three countries and five years before it was retro-engineered into a simple but painfully tender story of ships passing through the night, “Days” represents something of a departure for Tsai even before. that it does not culminate with the most piercing feeling. moment he’s filmed before (it also includes a climax of a different genre, but it’s comparable to the journey of a filmmaker who has long seen handjobs and masturbation as signifiers of loneliness). There is no possible confusion between the man behind the camera and someone else: “Days” opens with a long shot of Lee watching the rain from a chair inside the pretty house. minimalist that Tsai shares with his star and platonic life partner, as if watching the storm at the end of “Stray Dogs” as he moans. And yet, the catch-as-catch-can approach of a film that has been captured without any clear idea of ​​what it could possibly become endows that film with an intractable present that forbids the vibe of “falling”. of man ‘of Tsai’s earlier work to go back. in.

Some footage is painful to watch, like the one in which Lee’s unnamed character receives – and burns himself during – moxibustion treatment for his neck at an alley clinic in Hong Kong. The hand-held HD video shots of the actor walking through the city and holding the side of his head suggest documentary verisimilitude, and Tsai’s decision to include them in the final cut also implies a willingness to let real life go. blend in with the fictional story he tells here. (Lee was really looking for relief for his neck, and Tsai’s camera followed him with no plans for how the resulting footage might be used). Tsai neophytes are free to vibrate with the character of Lee as a lonely and seemingly well-off man whose spiritual pain has taken on a physical dimension, but this fuzzy line between organic and staged moments also invites devotees of the filmmaker. to reflect on the actor’s beautifully passive face like a trap and a time machine; for as long as we’ve been looking at Lee he’s never been able to get out of this body.

To that end, it almost feels like a betrayal that Tsai has found a new, younger muse who is roughly the same age as Lee in “Rebels of the Neon God”. His name is Anong Houngheuangsy, he’s an undocumented Laotian migrant worker Tsai spotted selling noodles at a Bangkok food court, and he plays the able-bodied young man who contrasts with Lee’s degradation, or may -be the other part of the older character’s wordless appeal. -and-answer (there is hardly any dialogue in “Days”, although a warning at the beginning nevertheless warns that the film is not captioned).

Tsai’s camera watches Houngheuangsy prepare a meal in real time inside his concrete purgatory box in a Bangkok apartment, the handsome new actor wearing only a pink swimsuit as he crouches on the floor of his bathroom to make fish broth. The sterility of the image outweighs the sense of voyeurism as we focus on the productive work of a self-sustaining body and one of the two characters in the film – the one confined by illness, the other by socio-economic immobility – shares something of themselves with someone else, not to mention each other.

When they finally do, their encounter happens on neutral ground without any situational context; one needs a massage, the other needs the money, they both need human touch, and that’s all we get. But the void-like seal around this eroticized streak – which goes from sultry to sexual in shots that last so long you register virtually no change through the statics – allows for the emotional reciprocity between Lee and Houngheauangsy d ‘achieve rare strength. to himself. After over an hour of impervious isolation, rabid nipple bites and off-screen tugs don’t seem to be the business of therapeutic sex work or any other transactional exchange geared toward primitive liberation as much as they do an act. desperate for mutual healing. These are two withered men reveling in the same private oasis with no idea when they will one day be able to find another drink in the midst of a defeated world in which people feel so helpless that they pretend not to. meet. As Tsai conveys in a particularly striking freehand photo of Lee crossing a busy street, it’s like everyone knows the score and we’re all 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 this unusual sentimental stream; the last 30 minutes of this (relatively short) film reward viewers who spent the previous 90 minutes looking for – looking for – a memory they could perhaps get out of it. Tsai’s films have already ended with unexpected grace notes, but those ascending flourishes have been expressed in dreamy sequences or other whimsical soarings that tint them with a sinister kick. The hugely poignant final shot of “Days”, on the other hand, is so straightforward that its most crucial extras may not even know they were in it.

The movie doesn’t end with a sudden return-to-Jesus moment that sees Tsai retracting from the rest of his films, nor does his Chaplin-like flavor extend to the kind of salvation found in the closing minutes of “City. Lights “. Tsai always makes slow, uninhibited movies that will seem kinky 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 associated with human survival. He’s still the kind of filmmaker who would let a scene go on long after his characters left the room, if only so we could see a motion-activated hotel room go out in their absence and feel. a hollow warmth knowing that she had brightened up for them. But while Tsai’s fixed camera has always focused her gaze on the dark, she has never been more interested in the cracks where light enters. The pockets where people overlap – where they share something instead of just living and dying around each other. And that’s also a good thing, because I don’t know how many of us are still able to see these shards for ourselves.

Note: A-

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

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