What is the role of film festivals? What’s their raison d’être? Why do thousands of people bother to congregate at certain places each year to sit in darkened rooms and watch movies? In addition to the business side of things (networking, deal-making etc), I believe festivals should serve first and foremost the celebration of cinema in all its variety and artistic possibility, especially bold, uncompromising voices which otherwise tend to get lost in the marketplace. Obviously red carpets generate media attention which yield clicks that attract sponsors. But at its core, a film festival should strive for something pure, something that, without any ulterior motives, opens our eyes and challenges our minds. That is why it always makes more sense to me for programmers to include risky, unconventional films that confound or even don’t quite work than their safer, easier counterparts that come out in thousands of multiplexes two weeks later. That is also why Taiwan-based filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang’s work always feels right at home within the festival context.
Having won the Golden Lion at Venice in 1994 for VIVE L’AMOUR and its Grand Jury Prize in 2013 for STRAY DOGS (one of my personal top films of the 2010’s), Tsai has long established himself as a master in slow cinema. His films are characterized by long takes, sparse dialogue, and their overall stillness. But even by his standard, his 11th feature DAYS is still quite radical. Premiering in competition at the 70th Berlinale, the first thing you learn about the film is that it is “intentionally unsubtitled”. Not that the characters talk much at all throughout the 127-min runtime, but this decision to render even the very occasional utterings incomprehensible lets you know right off the bat that Tsai is taking visual storytelling to another level.
The director’s muse and longtime collaborator Lee Kang-Sheng plays the older of the two nameless leads. We don’t know much about him except he lives alone and suffers from an unnamed condition. Cambodian newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy plays the younger man who also appears to lead a solitary existence in a nondescript city. For the first hour of the film, we see prolonged , dialogue-free snapshots of the two men’s lives. The more active Anong is seen – in unbroken, static shots – washing vegetables, chopping up cucumbers, preparing a full meal. The ailing and more inert Lee is seen – again in unbroken, mostly static shots – staring into space or receiving traditional Chinese medical treatment. Spoiler alert: if you need your movies to have… plots, DAYS is not for you.
What DAYS offers is an incredibly realistic, near-documentarian sketch of two ordinary lives that informs you of the characters’ circumstances and emotional state without telling you anything. And to me, the question of whether or not we need to see Anong cook his fish soup for 10+ minutes on screen is a non-starter, because the exceptionally, hypnotically private atmosphere of Tsai’s films can only emerge from the entirety of the viewing experience, all its counterintuitive length, deliberateness and mundaneness included.
This also applies to the extended massage/sex scene featuring both leads which seems to go on forever (probably around 20 min). The camera never moves and I counted all but one cut in this (apparently) unchoreographed scene where the two men meet in Lee’s hotel room and find release. We don’t know how this meeting came to be and only realize afterwards that Anong is getting paid for his services. But the insistent, unrehearsed naturalism of the images more than communicates the need for company and closeness of both parties. Repetitive and unrefined? Yes, but just enough to make you believe in these two characters, make you really feel them.
A brief street-side dinner follows the hotel encounter, after which each man returns to their old life. Wordlessly and narration-free, a momentary two becomes a pair of unrelated one’s again. And God if there’s any filmmaker who does oneness better than Tsai Ming-Liang. Ever the great poet of loneliness, Tsai shoots Lee in an unblinking close-up for the penultimate scene as he wakes up alone in bed. We watch as his eyes adjust to the harsh brightness of reality and dreamily wander. In reverie, reminiscence, regret? It’s a perfectly conceived and performed shot that captures the intimacy of the morning hours and the totality of urban isolation. Bellissimo.
My favorite feeling at any film festival is the sense of excitement and fulfillment I get at the end, when I look back at all the wonderful, strange, surprising films I’ve seen and am reminded again just how differently we experience the world. There are so many stories to tell and such insanely varied ways to tell them. The finished product will not please everyone – as DAYS certainly won’t – but that’s okay. The end game is to get more and more people interested in the stories of others and willing to consider their own in a different light. Hopefully film festivals everywhere can remain a platform for bolder, edgier storytellers in this equation.