NICHOLAS CHANG | REPEAT OFFENDERS
A Melbourne International Film Festival Review
Days is a fitting title. It's simple and straight to the point. It'll make viewers feel like they've been watching Days for that amount of time, but it reflects the characters' experiences and ultimately, their lack of journeys in the mundanities of Taiwan. And there is something profoundly moving about Tsai Ming-liang's lyrical direction if you let yourself get absorbed into the images.
Days focuses on two individuals: Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) and Non (Anong Houngheuangsy). In the first scene and for five minutes, Kang sits in his living room, sheltered in his large house and watches the rain patter in the backyard. Nothing else happens in that shot. Then, Days cuts to Kang bathing — his eyes closed to let himself daydream. The audience is positioned as an outsider, shut off from his internal thoughts in another long take. He goes out in public and Days signals a plot might begin, only to show Kang at an acupuncture session. He senses pain in his head and neck, but he isn't sure why. Meanwhile, we learn about Non's daily routine in a virtually undecorated and almost empty apartment. He starts the day with religious worship at an altar, then completes a series of chores such as washing vegetables and methodically preparing traditional dishes from his native village, unless he works at his local parlour.
It is not until after a full hour that Kang and Non finally cross paths. Before that, there has been no sign of a plot. Maximising its minimalistic tendencies, Days consists of extremely long takes, where viewers might say nothing happens. The dialogue is limited, and whenever we hear it, there are intentionally, no English subtitles. All this suggests something of importance in the character reactions and mise-en-scène and we are there to observe their monotonous routines. Is there any meaning we can create or interpret from their actions, or is there none after all? Days makes it clear that it is defying the conventions of traditional and even arthouse cinema, bound to polarise any viewer.
Halfway through Days, I believed the film wasn't working for me. It relentlessly tested my patience and I was close to checking out until Kang and Non meet. I do not want to reveal the details of what happens, but it leads to one of my favourite scenes of the year. For more than fifteen minutes, I was glued to the complete sensuality and humanity captured in such static yet engaging takes. Something about it made me tear up. It is difficult to explain, but only then did I see that the absence of a plot was purposeful, where the lack of substance is the actual substance. That scene recontextualises the entirety of the first half, where the character actions seem unimportant and irrelevant but now create a subtly emotional impact in the second half.
Days lingers between the feeling states of boredom and emotional hypnotism, but Tsai Ming-Liang carefully calculates its beats and rhythms. The excruciatingly detailed portrayal of the minutiae of Taiwanese life creates a feeling of emptiness and it offers us an achingly bleak look into human loneliness and longing for connection. As Days introduces me to Ming-Liang, I don't know if this film was a good foray into his filmography. But as I hear that the lack of plot and dialogue is characteristic of his works, it's clear that Ming-Liang knows how to create structure and rhythm.
As the long takes let us focus on the performances, Lee Kang-Sheng's acting is full of genuine sorrow and pain, both physically and emotionally. There's an emptiness in Kang we can detect, something he wants filled and he finds that when seeing Non, but through the methodical nature of Ming-Liang’s direction, we know that any relief is short-lived. There is something aggressively mundane yet relaxing about how Non handles his chores, which leads to a great performance by Anong Houngheuangsy that is grounded in realism. Through subtle performances, movement, action, and routine quietly build character. It is not easy to notice but ultimately, actions speak louder than words which makes Days unexpectedly effective.
However, Days can only get trying for too long. Some takes are too lengthy and risk losing audience immersion, which makes Days exhausting to watch. Trim thirty minutes, and it would not remove Days' overall impacts, but it is clear Ming-Liang wanted the film at its length, a filmmaker in complete creative control of his craft. Make of that what you will. Days establishes its minimalist nature from the start and lets us know that it will not be for everyone. It may not be the film for you after all. But if you're willing to embrace the vibes, it's ultimately a dreamy, reflective and crushing meditation of life. Difficult to shake off.