Writing about the punk band Ramones, the critic Robert Christgau said their music had “revealed how much you can take out and still have rock and roll.” With his new film “Days,” the Taiwan-based director Tsai Ming-liang reveals how much you can take out of a fictional feature and still have cinema.
An opening text states something eyebrow-raising: “This film is intentionally unsubtitled.” The movie then presents a shot of Lee Kang-sheng, an actor practically omnipresent in Tsai’s feature filmography, seen through a pane of glass, slumped in a chair. Outside a storm rages; reflected tree branches dip and sway. In a vestibule used, riskily, for cooking, the actor Anong Houngheuangsy cleans vegetables and prepares a soup.
Both men are initially depicted behind barriers, and often they continue to be. And after 35 minutes or so, we hear the first dialogue in the movie — some faint, desultory exchanges during a mugwort-burning acupuncture session for Lee, afflicted with a condition that also puts him in a neck brace for a spell.
This is a slow-paced movie. It’s a little over two hours, and has, by my count, fewer than 60 shots. Given that, and the camera’s insistently realistic, on-the-ground point of view, one could say “Days” makes Chantal Akerman’s legendary “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” look like “The Dark Knight Rises.” But that’s not strictly the case.
Tsai’s motives for stretching his shots become clear after a while, and the film builds an uncanny mood. For much of the movie, Anong and Lee aren’t portraying so much characters as corporeal entities in physical space. A shot of a building with shattered reflective surfaces points you to the fantastic and marvelous in the everyday.
The picture does bring Anong and Lee together, for a massage session that gains in erotic intensity over the course of more than 10 minutes. In its aftermath, Lee gives Anong a music box whose tune harks back to a piece of cinema both classic and classical. And the movie’s two final shots, in which its performers are now miraculously rendered as fully human, are among the most striking evocations of the quiet anguish of loneliness that any form of cinema can offer.
Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. In Mandarin with subtitles. In theaters.
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