▶︎ Days (Rizi) screens in the BFI London Film Festival at the BFI Southbank on 8 October, at the ICA Cinema on 9 October, and on BFI Player 8-11 October 2020.

Tsai Ming-liang’s return to narrative filmmaking is also a return to the city. Poignant and intensely moving, Days gestures towards a reconciliation with themes of desire and sexuality that have troubled his cinema since the beginning. Following the Venice premiere of Stray Dogs in 2013, Tsai had vaguely announced his retirement, citing exhaustion with the production model of feature films. What followed was a quick succession of smaller-scaled, more intimate works in various formats, including an excursion into VR, all starring his long-standing muse Lee Kang-sheng and often filmed in the rural compound the two men moved into around the same time.

It’s here that we find Lee in the languid series of tableaux that opens Days, weary and middle-aged, pictured living alone in a house surrounded by verdant mountains. Standing in the garden facing the mist-shrouded panorama beyond, he massages his neck and grimaces with pain, suggesting that the ailment his character first developed in The River – a symbolically charged malaise that Tsai drew from Lee’s real life – is still afflicting him two decades later.

At intervals, the film cuts to another character in Bangkok, a much younger man played by first-timer Anong Houngheuangsy. We watch him light a charcoal stove on the floor of his kitchen and then cook himself a meal of fish soup, papaya salad and sticky rice, each step executed with meditative absorption and lovingly observed in static long takes.

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Days (2020)

Living in a bare apartment, manning a stall at a market, and roaming the city alone, Anong is reminiscent of the eternally disaffected urban youth played by Lee in Tsai’s earlier narrative features. Tsai had originally cast Lee after meeting him in a gaming arcade and that this new collaboration was also born of a chance encounter, when Anong was selling noodles in a food court, only enriches the parallel. It wouldn’t be a stretch to interpret the nature of Lee and Anong’s eventual coming-together in Days, and its inherent power imbalance, as a reflection on the intermingling of the personal and the professional in Tsai’s relationship with his actors.

Maintaining a gentle rhythm and almost wholly eschewing dialogue, for its first hour Days oscillates between depicting Anong’s daily life and following Lee as he travels to Bangkok to seek acupuncture treatment for his neck. The two strands eventually converge in a hotel room, where Lee has hired Anong to give him a full body massage which culminates in sex. This scene, extending across a good half hour, functions as the film’s centrepiece and offers the most tender rendition of sex to be found in Tsai’s filmography. Unlike the traumatic climaxes of The River and The Wayward Cloud, for instance – one involving unwitting incest, the other a blowjob evocative of an impalement – here the characters’ accumulated longing is given release in a restorative exchange of affection.

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Days (2020)

Up to this point, the camera had moved once, in a handheld close-up of Lee walking through a bustling crowd, the jerky proximity evoking claustrophobia. The film’s only other instance of camera movement is when Lee is lying naked on the bed with Anong on top of him wearing only a pair of briefs. Although the shot is again handheld and up close, the effect is the opposite. The motions this time are minute and delicate, hardly shifting the frame but charging it with keen empathy as Anong kneads every inch of Lee’s aching body before casting off his briefs, relief turning into pleasure and mounting until orgasm, at which point the two men embrace and kiss, losing themselves in unbridled passion.

In its deliberate pacing and rigorous focus, Tsai’s deeply compassionate portrait generates the most acute investment in his characters. After the ecstasy of their union, the apprehension about their inevitable parting is overwhelming, though Tsai is uncharacteristically gentle in the comedown. Once dressed, besides money Lee also gives Anong a wind-up music box as a gift. They sit on the bed and listen to it play the theme from Limelight, Chaplin’s reflexive late-career masterpiece. After trying and failing to say goodbye at the door, they go out for noodles together. These reciprocal, quietly urgent gestures of intimacy transcend the transactional parameters of their encounter, and attenuate the hopelessness of the separation that follows.

Originally published: 3 March 2020