'Days' Review: A Slow, Wordless March Towards Loneliness [NYFF 2020]

Misery may love company, but loneliness craves it. Yearns for it. Counts down the minutes waiting for company to arrive until life is but a hollow shell, an endless repetition of mindless tasks, wasting away waiting for something that may never come. And then when that company is finally there, doesn't know what to do it with it but shyly dance around it.

Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang has long delved into the feeling of alienation, isolation, and the miracles of human connection with his films, and Days is no exception. A mesmerizing exercise in the mundane, Days is almost completely free of dialogue — and intentionally unsubtitled for this reason — inducing a kind of calm hypnotic state that makes the viewer even more aware of the sharp stabs of loneliness felt by his longtime muse Lee Kang-sheng. Lee stars as Kang, a middle-class man wandering through the lonely urban landscape of Hong Kong, biding his time until he meets Non, a young Laotian immigrant working as a masseuse in Bangkok (Anong Houngheuangsy).

Kang floats through his beautiful empty house, staring at the goldfish pond in his backyard as the rain patters on his windows. He heads to Hong Kong to receive an acupuncture treatment, disconnected even from the mass of people surrounding him on the streets. Meanwhile, Non keeps busy in his shabby Bangkok apartment, praying to the altar in his home before going about his day, washing vegetables and cooking, surrounded by little in his apartment except for the constant dripping of water from exposed pipes. The film paints a stark difference in these two men's lives, bonded by little except for an all-consuming sense of loneliness.

The filmmaking is as sparse as the story, with Tsai setting up unmoving wide shots that stretch on for five, 10 minutes, with little change happening onscreen except for the shifting reflection on the window, the patter of the rain, or the changing orange lamplight. Non moves in and out of frame, always keeping busy, but Kang is as still as a statue, his expression never changing from one of morose detachment. Tai's camera is both voyeuristic and immersive, placing us just outside Kang and Non's lives, but within their headspaces — the suffocating sense of isolation in the empty spaces of the frames, the unchanging tedium of everyday life. There's something to be said about how Tsai deconstructs the innate voyeurism of the camera and uses that window into these characters lives as an attempt to peer into their souls. Lee and Houngheuangsy's stoic performances don't lend much in the way of emotional insight, but Tsai's deliberately lethargic filmmaking style engrains you in a sense of quietude that feels both calming and crushingly lonely.

Days climaxes in the meeting between Kang and Non, which moves as slowly as the rest of the film. Kang waits anxiously in a hotel room before Non arrives, folding the hotel bed comforter before perching on the corner with a cigarette. In the longest still shot of the film, Tsai's camera watches dispassionately as Non gives Kang a full-body massage, the audience only seeing Kang's face and back while Non's is hidden from view. Non actually goes through the full effort of giving a professional massage before the two men become intimate in a scene that feels not at all at odds with the rest of the film's languid non-action. But what hammers home the spark the two feel is the moment that comes after, when Kang gives Non a music box, the two of them sitting side by side to play its twinkling music. It is eroticism as emotional catharsis, an exceedingly intimate moment of human connection that feels all the more fleeting for how its effects linger on.

Despite the closeness with which Tsai treated Kang and Non before, he pulls back when they spend time together outside of the hotel, sharing a meal at a streetside restaurant before parting ways. Days refuses us the satisfaction of voyeurism after we've already peeked into the depths of this achingly intimate moment they shared, and leaves us instead with only the detachment — Kang returning to his beautiful empty house, Non playing the music box at a loud street corner while waiting for a bus. The window has closed, and we're left only with our own lonely realities.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10