In the first musical number of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang’s seething takedown of pornography, “The Wayward Cloud” — a pseudo sequel to 2001’s “What Time Is It There?” — Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) emerges from a city water tank, bathing himself after a day of shooting sex scenes. He emerges in the form of a glittering merman, scaly spines protruding from his back, kicking off a musical number — Tsai’s surrealist use of dreamscapes entering inspiring new territory, expanding on a technique he’d previously implemented in his 1998 pandemic movie, “The Hole.” Early on in his latest film “Days,” Hsiao-Kang has a forest of blazing needles pricked across his back for a type of herbal acupuncture procedure called moxibustion. A former creature of fantasy looks as though he’s being experimented on by alien robots.
Everyday rituals and moralistic behaviors transform themselves into personal odysseys of emotional entrapment in the films of Tsai Ming-liang. His latest singularly artistic venture is a harmonious departure from his usual oeuvre in the sense that Hsiao-Kang’s physical ailment now looms large over his emotional state, creating a kind of cyclonic conflux of complete and total despair. Dreams of sex are a thing of the past and, some mornings, storms seem to be about the only natural thing left which still make sense.
Cutting away from a torrential downpour, the sound cuts out. We see Hsiao Kang attempting to relax, but something seems to be making this impossible. 20 years ago (in “Vive L’Amour“), Tsai shot Lee shot in a similar manner, floating in the bath of an apartment he’s illegally staying in. Delinquency is a way for young Hsiao-Kang to feel like he’s a part of daily life — like he’s actually living. Like so many follies of youth, transgression is a means of rebellion, an effort to ease his own anxiousness about how much he fears the uncertainty of the future. But this was 20 years ago; now, it’s as if Hsiao-Kang has been paralyzed by fright in the form of literal pain, the pain that comes with knowing past comforts may never come again with old age.
But this is only one side of “Days,” a film which beautifully personifies Abbas Kiarostami’s sound theory that “cinema is only half made on the screen.” While Tsai began shooting footage of his muse Lee Kang-sheng as he was overcome by illness, it was not until meeting a Laotian worker named Anong Houngheuangsy a few years later that the idea behind the film was fully born. Suddenly, two different sets of images coming together presented a way to explore two different sides of loneliness; but what ails one may be mended by another.
In a poetic reversal of roles, “Days” finds the labor of youth nursing the physical limitations of the old. Taking the time to show audiences how much care Anong takes when working with his hands, simply to provide nourishment for himself, and the ways in which that care manifests in his ability to help soothe Hsiao-Kang. Staging the climactic scene with a kind of subtle framing trickery, Tsai withholds revealing which direction the door of the hotel is via a reverse-shot switcharoo, a marvelous extension of Tsai’s notable themes of lonely persons crisscrossing in space, both physical and cosmic.
Never directly addressing the intimate sequence within the “narrative” (the film is deliberately unsubtitled, and sequences such as the moxibustion scene do this to deliberately keep audiences in the dark, like daily life around us in which we are not apart; we don’t know what or why anything occurs outside Hsiao-Kang and Anong’s everyday living spaces and the emotions brought out by Tsai’s soundscape) “Days” feels like one of the director’s most blatantly queer films. But part of what makes Tsai’s work so special is how he never puts labels on such things. It all comes back to needed release and connection; the details both are and aren’t important. The point is that love pains all of us, no matter what we crave.
At least, that’s usually Tsai’s coda. “Days” feels far humbler (not that Tsai wasn’t a respectably humble artist already, despite opinions to the contrary). He presents sex work as a therapeutic activity, not something taboo that one need be ashamed of — a fascinating counterpoint to ‘Wayward Cloud’s’ ending. Hsiao-Kang has always been willing to take extreme measures to mend the hurt in his heart – the motorcycle incident/offer of aid in “Rebels of the Neon God” being one of the most powerful moments of honest surrender in all of cinema — only now its almost as though literal ailment has almost petrified him in place. Until he meets Anong, all Hsiao-Kang can do is sit and let others poke and prod at his withering body, hoping that it might help life feel meaningful again.
“Days” opens in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles, August 13