“Slow cinema” is a loose, not-quite-genre descriptor that refers to a certain kind of arthouse-oriented film from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia that moves at a deliberate pace and usually favors extended takes, minimal cutting and quite often immersive sound design. The phrase often conjures an image of cinema that’s daunting and inaccessible. When a film prioritizes slowness, or makes you as a viewer aware of time’s passage, it can be easy to write off as dull or dour. Though legitimately boring slow cinema certainly exists, the films of Taiwanese tone poet Tsai Ming-liang are a powerful rebuttal to the idea that slowness implies self-seriousness or tedium. With subtle suggestion and little more than a gaze, his work can encompass absurdity, intense alienation and even a little bit of horny intimacy all in one.
Tsai’s latest film Days encapsulates not just a range of sensory experiences, but an entire spectrum of emotion, turning on a dime from a kind of blissful solace to profound loneliness in the space of the same frame. Since his debut, 1994’s unassuming coming-of-age film Rebels of the Neon God, Tsai has collaborated extensively with actor Lee Kang-sheng, whose face is the filmmaker’s ultimate subject — part of the pleasure in keeping up with Tsai’s films, but also part of the profound sadness bubbling at the core of his work, is seeing Lee age and change over time, his unsettlingly boyish looks turning slowly to a stone-like visage.
Even if this is your introduction to Tsai’s filmmaking, it is clear from the opening image — an extended take of Kang (Lee) watching the rain out his window — that this is a man worn down by the heavy weight of time. This is someone whose life is defined by his painful physical suffering and the pursuit of relief — he at times wears a neck brace, his movements sometimes slow and cautious, his general demeanor distant and withdrawn. One gets the sense that life is less passing him by and more slipping out of his grasp, slowly fading into a reflective pool. An opening title card informs you that the film is intentionally unsubtitled, which might intimidate some viewers, but the few words uttered here are ultimately like any other kind of background sound, from the chirping of insects to the subtle buzzing of a lightbulb, dissolving into a simmering level of noise that envelops you like a warm bath.
Because of their regular play with duration, Tsai’s films frequently capture their subjects performing methodical, ritualistic tasks: the shuffling patrons of a movie theater in Goodbye, Dragon Inn; the aimless drifting of teens in Rebels of the Neon God; a monk’s long walk in Journey to the West. Most of the time we spend with Kang he’s passively engaged in various tasks. His daily life is informed by the pain he suffers, not just in the hours at home with his mind somewhere else, but in the intensive acupuncture and extended massages we see him undergo.
Due to the nature of Tsai’s practice, Lee Kang-sheng is asked to do a considerable amount as a performer, even if he seems to be very still: Not only does he frequently perform intimate, vulnerable acts for the camera, but just as often he does little at all. Cameras have an incredible talent for throwing people off, but Lee never betrays any kind of awareness that other people are actually in the room with him. What we experience feels less like the voyeuristic gaze of surveillance, and more like being a fly on the wall during those stray lonesome moments in which a person inevitably loses themselves to deep thought and day-dreaming.
But what’s perhaps most remarkable about Days is that — despite it being a film so much about a person forced to live inside their own mind due to the limits of the physical body — it’s not one-sided or lost in its own head. The film spends quiet, personal time with a sex worker, Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), who gives Kang a deep-body massage in a sequence that makes up a significant portion of the film. Their interaction is embodied and sensuous, but not completely eroticized, as Tsai’s camera remains confident but still a little reserved. Though it’s not a point that the film belabors, this duality of perspective — as we observe both the worker who needs the job and the client who needs their body attended to — reminds us that every emotional exchange is two-sided. Just as sexual and emotional labor are vulnerable and complicated for both parties, so is filmmaking — a close-quarters, often compromising exchange between the on-screen subject pressured to act natural, the filmmaker who wants to be both impartial and impassioned, and the audience who observes it all.