Movies want to sell us on the idea of meet-cutes and love at first sight. That random encounter on the train with a beautiful stranger? That could be your soulmate. The flirty waitress who takes your order? She might be the one. In real life, those brief run-ins rarely go anywhere, but we’ve all been raised on the romantic notion that, maybe next time, it could be magic.
Not much happens in the terrific Thai drama Days, because not much happens in our normal days — but then something changes, and it’s so electrifying and sensual that it retroactively rewrites everything we’ve seen before in the film, just like a random meeting with an enticing new love can add an unexpected spark to an otherwise ho-hum afternoon. The latest from acclaimed writer-director Tsai Ming-liang is very much slow cinema, that wing of arthouse films that favors quiet, long unbroken shots and a measured pace. But that stillness is crucial in depicting the relatively empty existences of Days’ two main characters. For most of the movie, we watch these men in their separate environments. But they will eventually come together. And then nothing is the same.
Opening Friday in L.A. and New York, Days stars longtime Tsai collaborator Lee Kang-sheng as Kang, a solitary individual who resides on the outskirts of town, apparently suffering from unnamed ailments. (At one point, we spend several minutes watching him undergo an intense acupuncture treatment.) Middle-aged, middle-class and perpetually solemn-faced, Kang barely speaks, and the rare times he (or anyone) does, his minimal dialogue isn’t subtitled. But what becomes apparent quickly is you don’t need to know the words: Tsai (Stray Dogs) allows his long takes to put you under their spell, preferring we focus on his films’ pensive mood rather than worrying about the plot. If that sounds intimidating or off-putting, fear not: The filmmaker’s dynamic, static compositions give you plenty to take in as Kang navigates through what appears to be a lonely, physically painful life.
Plus, Tsai crosscuts enough to another character — one seemingly very different than Kang — that we sense we’re watching parallel stories that will ultimately intersect. That other man is Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), who’s younger and lives in a dingy apartment in the city. There’s no obvious connection between the characters, but we notice similarities: As Non spends time preparing his dinner or walking around town at night, he’s silent, to himself. He feels as cut off from the world as Kang does, and because Tsai trains his camera on both men for so long without cutting, we notice how un-momentous their days are. We’re not privy to their inner monologues, so we can’t say for sure how they’re feeling, but the stripping-away of the incidents and activities that usually define movies — the all-important narrative engine that’s meant to keep us engaged — creates a beautiful alternate reality we rarely see on screen. Movie characters aren’t often truly alone or depicted doing the mundane things that fill up most weeks. (That “boring” stuff is usually cut out so we can get back to the cool action.) But for its first hour, Days embeds us in their nondescript routines. It can be jarring in its intentional banality, but it’s also weirdly liberating: Right, this is what emptiness feels like.
A movie as apparently plot-free as Days doesn’t seem like the kind that needs a spoiler alert, but to really explain this film’s power, it’s important to reveal what happens at the halfway point. (I’ll try to keep things as vague as possible.) Wordlessly, the two men eventually enter each other’s orbit. Kang goes to a hotel room. Non meets him there, bearing lotion. Kang is naked face down lying on the bed. Non is only in his Calvin Kleins. What comes next is among the most erotic sequences I’ve seen in recent years — especially in comparison to everything that came before. It’s not particularly graphic, but its intimacy and frankness — and the fact that it’s the first time in Days we’ve seen two people in the same frame actually interacting in any meaningful way — is exciting and deeply moving. As always, the characters don’t speak, but they don’t need to. Their bodies and their reactions say everything — at last, the touch of another human being.
What exactly is going on? Do Kang and Non know one another? Is this encounter a one-off? Because Days continues to just silently observe, offering no details — I only know the characters’ names because the press notes told me what they were — we’re left to suss out the particulars on our own. But when their encounter is over, Tsai doesn’t significantly change his approach to filming the characters. They share an uneventful meal — we see them from across the street, each of them focusing on their food — and then they return to their separate, solitary lives. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear Days had returned to the tone and pace of its first hour, and in a sense it has. But you won’t feel the same way about those static shots. Now you feel an absence, a reminder that Kang and Non were once together, albeit briefly, and they’re not anymore. Suddenly, the feeling of loneliness is even more intense.
I’ve described what happens in Days because it’s harder to describe how it makes you feel. And that’s because each person will come to the film differently — they’ll read their own things into it, and they’ll take away different impressions. The same person may not even react the same way after multiple viewings. I saw Days for the first time last year, knowing nothing about its story, and I quickly deduced it was a film about separation and reunion — I figured Kang and Non were lovers forced to be apart who, at last, are finally back together. Maybe I was thinking about being away from my wife — maybe that colored my feelings. This time, I realized that, most likely, Kang and Non had never met before. They may not have known each other’s names — they still might not. (I’m not going to mention a couple plot things that validate my belief that they’re strangers, mostly because I think it’s important to discover them on your own. But other interpretations are certainly possible, too.)
Initially, I was disappointed that I’d gotten this film’s “plot” wrong the first time. But after Days ended this time, closing on a piercingly wistful final scene, I recognized that Tsai and I were speaking the same language, but perhaps using different words. Movies sell us on the notion of puppy love and cozy, airbrushed devotion, but they’re not so great at dramatizing longing. I don’t just mean sexual longing, although that’s a part of it: I’m talking about that bone-deep need to connect with another person, on any level. Whether you’re in a long-term relationship or single, that isolation never quite goes away — to some degree, we’re all occasionally like Kang at the start of Days, sitting in a chair staring out the window expressionless. What’s he thinking about? We fill his downcast visage with our own regrets and sadnesses — and in every silent scene afterward, we do the same. The movie’s about us as much as it’s about Kang and Non.
Days is a mirror, but it’s also a love story — one so fleeting that it’s almost too unbearable when the faint flickerings of love do occur. In movies, we think of romance as this thing that makes everything better and gives our lives meaning. But in its stillness and isolation, Days suggests that those random encounters are just that — they’re the odd anomalies in our otherwise lonely days. We see ourselves in mirrors, and I suspect not everyone will respond to Days like I did. That’s part of its mastery. But I know this for sure: You’ll walk away from the film thinking about Kang and Non’s love scene — but you certainly won’t think about it as much as these melancholy souls who, for one moment, found a different life.