As a cinema studies major in college, I read — or, more precisely, hate-read — Robert McKee’s Story, the industry bible for commercial screenwriting.
On page after page, I scoffed at its provincial advice. One of McKee’s signature strictures, that a film’s plot should be established within the first 10 minutes of screen time, would have ruled out too many of the best movies in film history, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to L’avventura to Week-End to Persona.
McKee may be an instrumental voice in constructing a successful capitalist product, but a genuine work of art? Not necessarily his bailiwick.
My mind drifted briefly to McKee during Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang’s latest film Days, now running exclusively at Lake Worth Playhouse. One of slow-cinema’s reigning titans, Tsai opens the film with a six-minute, unbroken medium shot of Tsai’s muse/avatar, Lee Kang-sheng, sitting at home observing a rainstorm reflected through his sliding glass door. A glass of water sits on a table next to him, but he never reaches for it, for that would break the spell. Lee is expressionless, like Tsai’s camera. Is the director seeking to out-Tarkovsky Tarkovsky until he calcifies into Warhol?
But for patient viewers able to tap into the movie’s wavelength, there’s a therapeutic quality to this approach. Days is a film as white-noise machine, lulling us into a kind of hypnosis, lowering our blood pressure and heightening our awareness of its earthy soundtrack. It’s a sensation that continues throughout the film, so much so that each edit (and there are only 45 cuts in the 127-minute movie) can feel like a jolting reset rather than a narrative building block.
There is a story, sort of, although it takes much of the running time to discern it. Lee plays Kang, who, while visiting Bangkok for an unnamed medical procedure on his neck and back, requests the services of an after-hours masseuse. That’s how he connects with Non (first-time actor Anong Houngeuangsy), a Laotian immigrant whom we had previously seen cooking, with a primitive stove, in his spartan apartment.
This leads to the film’s stunning centerpiece, an erotic massage that achieves its arousal without the crutch of nudity, in a sequence that is so raw, true and visceral that it almost makes you forget everything that came before it. Non departs the encounter with a gift from his client — a tchotchke whose meaning surpasses its modest physicality — and the men go their separate ways.
Like many Tsai films, Days is revelatory in its visual poetry, eschewing dialogue completely and exposing cinema’s overreliance on the spoken word. “This film is intentionally unsubtitled,” reads a disclaimer during the opening credits. Days isn’t silent, per se, but the dialogue consists merely of formalities and pleasantries, as much ambient noise as the crackle of fire, the tweets of songbirds, the rush of city traffic and the squirts of oil from Non’s toolkit.
With much of its “meaning” left to spectators to intuit, Days is foremost a sensorial feast, and it’s arguably Tsai’s most granular example of foregrounding form over content. Several shots initially bedevil, as we require their extended lengths to decipher them, like the imposing image of a weathered building façade behind a rusted streetlamp, or the seemingly painful treatment Kang undergoes in a seemingly hardcore version of acupuncture. Sometimes curious sounds with no visual correlation set a scene in motion, allowing us the unusual pleasure of unraveling them.
Though his films share a consistent visual language, Tsai’s movies cover a range of emotions and genres, from the wry comedy of The Hole to the juvenile cruelty of The Wayward Cloud. Days joins the nostalgic Goodbye Dragon Inn as the most tender entries in his canon, and is a beautiful example of his gift for understatement. Two lonely strangers cross paths and share a moment of mutual satisfaction, easing each other’s pain and displacement. It’s a plot you could literally scrawl on a cocktail napkin, delivered in a wordless, semi-improvised screenplay that would indisputably flunk a Robert McKee story seminar.
But it’s the reason I sit through all the pedestrian dross and lacquered prestige pictures every year. It’s that rare film that so excites in its novelty that it opens up new possibilities in its medium.
DAYS. Director: Tsai Ming-liang; Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Anong Houngeuangsy
Distributor: Grasshopper; Not Rated; at Lake Worth Playhouse’s Stonzek Theatre, or rent the streaming version at grasshopperfilm.com/film.days