It’s not so much time that makes you feel old as the weight of all the days. Returning with his first narrative feature since 2013’s Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming-liang’s Days (日子, Rìzi) spins a tale of twinned loneliness in which two men, one young one older, one rich the other poor, embody two kinds of sadness as they live out their days of detachment as living ghosts in world which seems to have no place for them.
Tsai opens with the face of his muse, Lee Kang-sheng billed only in the credits as Kang a wealthy man living in a spacious home surrounded by the beauty of nature. The lengthy, unbroken scene finds him staring impassively out of a window while a storm rages outside, the sound of rain falling while the reflection of trees blown by the wind is eerily reflected behind him. We can see that Kang is a man in great pain, his eyes filled with a melancholy desperation. He stretches and rubs his neck, his physical discomfort perhaps a manifestation of the emotional suffering which he tries to heal by fire, enduring painful moxibustion in search of relief.
Meanwhile, in Bangokok, Laotian migrant Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) is quietly tending fires of his own, firstly those of ritual offering and secondly of sustenance as he stokes the embers to cook the old fashioned way in his tiny, spartan apartment. While Kang is a resolutely passive presence, Non fills his lonely days with industry, constantly at work as we witness him laboriously prepare his dinner with documentary realism. Non is at home with solitude in the private space, but forever alone outside of it. He stands to one side at the market where he works as customers mingle around him, always out of place and unseen like a ghost hovering in the corner of the frame.
Parallel lines who meet, the two men eventually share a poignant, nominally transactional encounter in a nebulous third space of a neutral hotel room to which Kang has called Non for a sensual massage, presumably how he makes ends meet in Bangkok. Once again the young man does all the work while Kang lies impassive, Non oiling his fingers as he runs his hands over the older man’s body easing his pain through physical contact before he retreats off screen and we hear fabric falling, his Calvin Kleins hitting the floor as the two men briefly connect through an intense act of lovemaking, later proceeding to the shower where Non, still in the role of caregiver, tenderly washes the dejected Kang. Before he leaves, Kang idly hands the younger man the gift of a music box, a spontaneous decision that sparks a moment of melancholy emotional release. They struggle to say goodbye. Non leaves and Kang chases after him, Tsai lingering in the empty space of the hotel room while the two men head for dinner before returning to their respective days in someways changed and others not.
His pain perhaps temporarily eased, Kang is not quite so passive as before, doing something or other with a fish and going for late night walks, but still finds himself lying awake while the sounds of outside wash over him, his eyes wide with fear and sadness. Non, meanwhile, returns to his routine but even more of a ghost than before, sadly cradling the music box as if in memory of his momentary connection its sound drowned out by the noise of anonymous modernity while the world goes on all around him, an invisible figure ignored by passersby walking alone into the night.
A opening title card warns us that this is a film intentionally unsubtitled, much like life left to our own shallow grasp of meaning in thought or action, but what little dialogue there is hardly requires interpretation we feel it all the same. Tsai conjures an almost Antonionian sense of emptiness in place, a lengthy still shot of a “haunted” building peeling at the facade suddenly brought to life by the brief shadow of a cat in a window, while abruptly shifting to handheld to follow Kang, somehow alone and clutching his neck in pain in the chaotic streets. Both men exist at angles to the world, as if in some kind of secondary plane, meeting only for an instant and then returning to their solitary existences with only the brief memory of connection perhaps more painful than its absence. Tsai charts competing reactions to existential loneliness, the listless ennui of the wealthy Kang and the ceaseless industry of migrant worker Non, but finds them both equally displaced, searching for connection in an increasingly disconnected world.
Original trailer (dialogue free)