It took only two movies for Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang to establish his trademarks: Slow-paced storytelling, scarce dialogue, alienated characters. And that was back in the mid-’90s; today, Tsai’s movies fit comfortably into the category of slow cinema, a burgeoning trend that has ironically caught fire in world cinema. “They’re making them faster than we can watch them,” Paul Schrader says.
Comprised of 42 shots in 127 minutes (that’s an average shot length of 3.02 minutes per shot, as opposed to the modern Hollywood standard of 2.5 seconds per shot), Tsai’s latest, Days—playing the Colorado Dragon Boat Film Festival, March 4-7—is slow to a T. The story: Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) and Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) cross paths in a busy city. Kang, wealthy enough to live in a home with a goldfish pond, suffers from back and neck problems. Non, who lives in a small apartment and washed vegetables in his bathroom, is a masseuse. After Kang consults an acupuncturist, he visits Non for a full-body massage that ends with sexual gratification. For payment, Kang gives Non money and a music box that plays “Terry’s Theme” from the Charlie Chaplin film, Limelight.
Non listens to the box by the side of a busy road, and the noise from the cars drown the music out—and any hope of sentimentality.
Days is loaded with withholding, and in the music box scene, you can neither hear the music nor see the cars whooshing by. The movie is also largely free of dialogue, and what little exists is spoken softly and “intentionally unsubtitled,” according to the movie’s title cards.
That might put you off on Days, but entertainment is not the game. Questions arise with any work of slow cinema: Where does one’s mind go when it’s not being led? What do you see when you watch nothing? What do you focus on when you look at a composition with no definite focal point? There’s one static shot in Days of a building, a crisscross of frames and architectural lines presented with absolute stillness. It’s beautiful. Then, the silhouette of a cat making its way along the rafters: Movement. In another shot, Kang looks at his phone in his courtyard. Kang is still in the middle of the frame, but the goldfish in the corner are not. In the massage scene with Non servicing Kang, does your eye drift to the bottom of the frame, attracted to the movement? Or do your eyes wander the darkroom in search of clues? Is this a love hotel filled with clients in other rooms receiving similar treatment? A business hotel Kang and Non agreed to meet at? And if so, does that information provide social context? Is this common, or must these rendezvous be conducted in secret?
With slow cinema, your mind fills in the gaps—but only the gaps your mind finds in the first place. For some, it’s an infuriating endeavor. For others, it’s soothing viewing that stimulates an aspect of voyeurism rarely tickled by modern cinema.
Written and directed by Tsai Ming-liang
Produced by Claude Wang
Starring: Lee Kang-sheng, Anong Houngheuangsy
Grasshopper Films, Not rated, Running time 127 minutes, Playing the Colorado Dragon Boat Film Festival (virtually) March 4-7, 2021. Details at denverfilm.org.