The Need for Reciprocity
The great Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang has directed examinations of alienation, isolation, and the fleeting beauty of human connection for decades. His latest film, “Days”, is one of his best, sparest and most intimate works. Lee Kang-sheng stars as a variation on himself, wandering through the urban landscape and seeking treatment in Hong Kong for a chronic illness. At the same time, a young Laotian immigrant working in Bangkok, (Anong Houngheuangsy) goes about his daily routine. These two solitary men eventually come together in a moment of healing, tenderness and sexual release. is a This is work of longing filled with profound empathy.
“Days” has visual language. It starts out by simply observing Lee—now in his 50s looking out a window at the rain. Running around five minutes with no action or dialogue, this initial scene a kind of meditative stance and rhythm that continues in subsequent scenes as Lee moves around his apartment, doing his daily chores, slicing vegetables for his meal, etc.
The scene shifts when he goes for a treatment on his neck and then the scene shifts again when we are with a young Laotian man in his apartment as he gives himself a bath. We are never told anything about this character, but he’s a certain type of sex worker who gives Lee an erotic massage that occupies much of the film’s second hour.
The film center on the quotidian lives of two unnamed men and it reflects people’s unspeakable loneliness and alienation in a world lacking in reciprocity. In a series of tableaux, where the camera remains mostly still and sound is entirely diegetic, the uneventful days of the two men unfold.
Director Tsai warns us from the very first frame that the film is intentionally non-subtitled and almost nothing is said in it. During such moments as Lee’s character sitting in a chair and staring at an off-camera window for a long stretch of time, the film unfolds across his face. It tells a story of grief and regret, punctuated by a few loud screams, with the older man’s expressions changing with masterful restraint.
The characters seem driven to silence by the world. The older man tries to mend his aching body with a neck brace and by receiving a crude form of electrical stimulation therapy. He seeks the help of a masseur. That’s when both men meet for the first and only time. The younger one has been summoned to a generic hotel room, where he administers the oiliest of body rubs on the older one, which includes a happy ending—the only one either of them is likely to ever get.
After the massage, the older man jumps in the shower, and the younger man joins him without being invited, diligently lathering the other man’s body. Afterward, the older man hands the younger one his payment and, then, almost forgetting it. He reaches for something in his suitcase: a gift he offers to the masseur before he departs. It’s a small music box, which the young man, touched by the gesture, is quick to wind so he can finally listen to what he has to say, even if by proxy.
The film’s pathos slips through Tsai’s fingers as we listen to the melancholy song produced by the music box yet Tsai is quick to save us by having the young man wind the music box again and again and again, turning the prop into something else altogether. It is something that allows the unsayable in all of its banality to finally be expressed.