Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer on Tsai Ming-liang’s Days
November 3, 2020
Guest post by Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer, student at New York University
A man sits and thinks in silence for minutes on end in the opening shot of Tsai Ming-liang’s first feature in seven years: Days. To be exact, the opening shot lasts four-minutes-and-a-half of unmoved, deliberate stillness. As such, moments are stretched eternal and minutes become days. Tsai Ming-liang’s reluctance to cut away demonstrates a reverence toward time that presents human moments in a siloed fashion that denotes no end or beginning, just an unmitigable sense of constant being.
It’s been almost thirty years since the release of Tsai Ming-liang’s first foray into feature-length filmmaking, Rebels of the Neon God, and he carries the same anxieties about disconnect and drift this many years later. With Days, Tsai adopts the patterning of Rebel’s main theme and stretches it over a two-hour runtime that lays bare the senselessness behind the cyclical rituals people adopt as a means of occupying themselves. Suddenly, the kid, Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng), who spent his time recklessly roaming around town on a motorbike to try and escape the patterned lifestyle of constant capitalist engagement, finds himself absolutely alone. With an entire filmography devoted to observing and documenting human behaviors, Tsai Ming-liang has become a sculptor of surveillance attune to the frailty of the human spirit.
Tsai seems to be worried about rust. His longtime collaborator and cinematic counterpart Lee Kang-Sheng has been afflicted with chronic neck pain for as long as they’ve known each other and Days taps into the hardship of living a life of constant pain and being entirely aware of your body’s fleshy fragility. As the lines between fact and fiction begin to blur, Days begins operating on a therapeutic level that attempts to work through its creators’ troubles through art. Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) rests and wrestles with his neck brace as he attempts to relieve his pains through mongrelized medical treatments that see mysticism mixed with electrotherapy. There’s a ritual to the treatment Kang receives and it is painful to experience it in real-time with real needles and real fire. Kang’s body is in disrepair, accruing a tapestry of wrinkles and bruises that shine as mugworts are burnt on his back; Kang is rusting, deteriorating on the march toward death.
But, the inherent universality of Tsai’s work naturally transcends Kang’s personal afflictions. In Bangkok, a young man credited as Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) wakes up, goes to the bathroom, washes some lettuce, prepares a few slices of fish and proceeds to cook. The camera comfortably sits in a corner of the kitchen and lets time unfold as Non engages in his own ritual of sustenance. Sometimes, Non deserts the frame entirely, but Tsai stubbornly refuses to move and simply forces viewers to wait for his return only to watch him engage in the same exact thing he was doing before disappearing. Much like Kang, he’s also biding time: he sits, stands, cooks, thinks, walks and massages day in and day out, mechanically living out rituals designed to keep him alive and busy.
It was Hsiao-Kang in Rebels of the Neon God that first set out to live a life that rejected the narrative foretold by his parents and it’s absolutely devastating to see Lee Kang-Sheng playing a variation of that same character landing nowhere. As Kang lays silently atop his bed in an absolutely gut-wrenching close-up, his face embodies a certain weariness often unseen in film, the type of weariness that suggests a man has hurled himself into a state of paralysis due to the inability to muster enough courage to get out of bed. A particular wear-and-tear that discerns shiny metal from that which may or may not carry tetanus. It’s the struggle of torn nerves impeding Kang from walking down an alleyway without having to crumble into a fetal position, the stress Non embodies when he doesn’t know what to do or where to go next, and the corroded colors of buildings bound to crumble that Tsai seems to capture as they silently salute death. Tsai’s camera presents life itself in some form of hibernation that’s grown numb to the strain of modern society and somnambulistically enacts rituals with the hope that some sudden surge of spontaneity might prick it back to life.
And perhaps, for a brief twenty minutes of pure intimacy, that spark of life manifests itself in the form of a sensual massage. It’s a beautiful moment of bonding for a film that spends so much time with lonely figures. But, the fact that this spontaneity is presented with the same dry stillness as the rest of the film also imbues it with a sense of inconsequentiality. A beautiful scene is rendered quotidian and viewers are forced to reckon with what is inconsequential and what is not. How does one assess the importance of a moment through the fatigue of everyday life?
The imagery on display is pregnant with hope and yet, the moments that follow said encounter question this sense of hope at every angle. Human affection is rendered transactional and the weight of the moment is trapped within a tiny music box that hosts the theme Chaplin composed for Limelight, a film that sees self-esteem lifting people off the streets and into greatness. But, all Tsai offers is a small tune caught in a small machine that’s programmed to repeat the same melody time and time again until it no longer can.
The image conjures an interesting reading that considers Lee Kang-Sheng’s many faces acting as a transcendental music box of sorts that grounds each and everyone of Tsai’s films in his own frustrated philosophy. Suddenly, that unmitigable sense of constant being takes on a new heaviness as it carries the sighs and sorrows of a weary face traversing not one, but many lives one step at a time, either utterly fascinated by everything he sees or entirely indifferent to his surroundings. It’s the same dilemma that afflicts Tsai’s observational camera and in a more tangential manner, the same quandary that inhibits Kang and Non from valuing one moment over another.
Days’s hypnotic apprehension of the mundane marks an achievement for Tsai Ming-liang. In surrendering to the slowness of your average day, Tsai offers a film that blurs the line between reality and fiction, cinema and surveillance, finitude and samsara, the mundane and the monumental. Doing so, the film offers viewers the opportunity to engage in a meditative purging of sorts that allows them to place their anxieties aimlessness and alienation onto the two characters on-screen and sit back as they have their minds massaged by a genuine master. By the time the credits roll, you’re bound to find yourself in the same position Kang was in toward the beginning of the film: sitting and thinking, paralyzed by a penchant for pondering about the insurmountable amount of things that shuffle in-and-out of your line of sight from the moment you open your eyes every morning.
Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer is a student of Journalism and Cinema Studies at New York University. He was born in San Diego, California, but spent the majority of his childhood criss-crossing between the U.S. and Mexico before attending a boarding school in Rhode Island. He spends most of his days voraciously listening to music and consuming movies. If you’re interested in tracking his audiovisual existence, feel free to stalk him by way of @nicolaspsetzer on Spotify and Letterboxd, or track his ramblings on Twitter at @NicoPSetzer.