No director-actor collaboration in all of modern cinema has been as steadfast as the one Tsai Ming-Liang has forged with his perpetual leading man, his perennial star of choice, his muse, Lee Kang-Sheng. As the story goes, Lee was working in a Taipei arcade in 1989 when he met the Taiwanese director, who saw something in the 21-year-old unknown and hired him to act in a television project. The rest, as they say, is history: In the three decades since, Lee has appeared in every one of Tsai’s features, and in pretty much everything else he’s made, too, including a long, filmed conversation about the pair’s complicated relationship and a series of shorts that cast Lee as a Buddhist monk making his way very slowly on foot across various cities.
In Lee, Tsai found more than just an embryonic talent, a fount of untapped naturalism. He also found a pillar of laconic expressiveness around which he could create a whole stylistic vocabulary. All of Tsai’s films, which include such triumphs as Vive L’Amour, The Wayward Cloud, and the (uncommonly, relatively) accessible What Time Is It There?, are catered to Lee’s presence, his aura of magnetic disaffection. They tend to be low on dialogue, because they star a performer who can speak volumes while saying next to nothing—to convey roiling currents of feeling even as his characters rarely vocalize what’s going on inside their heads. You could say that Tsai’s whole body of work has been an attempt to tease meaning out of his favored subject’s silence, captured in long takes that amplify it in search of answers.
Days, the pair’s tender and faintly elegiac new movie, opens with one of these human Rorschach tests: an extended shot of Lee seated at a window, watching the rain, drowning in an unmistakable malaise. At a glance, he could be an older version of just about any character from the two’s collective, collected output—and indeed, like almost all of them, he’s named after the man playing him, though no one ever says that name aloud this time.
Kang, who lives alone in a glass box of a house somewhere in the foggy countryside, suffers from a long-term ailment: an intense, chronic, debilitating neck pain. Tsai fans will note that the unlucky young man Lee played in The River nearly 25 years ago had the same excruciating condition. Is Days intended as a belated sequel? Again, every reunion of this director and actor could function as a spiritual continuation of the last. In reality, Tsai built his new movie and that old one around a real affliction of Lee’s; one might wonder how much it’s contributed to the almost agonizingly deliberate physicality of his performances—and, in turn, how much that has set the tempo of Tsai’s work as a preeminent “slow cinema” master.
Kang sometimes escapes his solitude with a trip to the city to receive treatment for his neck problem. Days, in turn, cuts away from his regular routines to those of another, younger character: Non (newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy), a Laotian immigrant in Bangkok who we see meticulously prepare meals in his skivvies. Eventually, the two will meet, but not until after we’ve acclimated to their respective lifestyles of repetition and seclusion. Tsai stages these scenes with his signature observational patience—that tendency he has to stay planted on a single moment well past the point almost any other filmmaker would cut away. In terms of pure duration, there’s nothing on par with the protracted oners of Stray Dogs, which famously ended with a devastating, unbroken shot of two people staring at a mural for nearly a half hour. All the same, he’ll test attention spans here, too; vegetables are washed, shaved, and chopped in real time, at about the exhilarating speed of paint drying.
Days may be Tsai’s most narrative film in nearly a decade, but that remains a relative distinction. The impression is of a filmmaker chipping away everything subordinate to his interest in stasis. There was no conventional screenplay for the movie; Tsai constructed his nominal story around the mundane action he filmed, not the other way around. And he’s finally done away entirely with dialogue, declining to even subtitle what few lines are spoken aloud. In truth, that choice may be more blessing than curse for a viewer unaccustomed to the languid rhythms of his films: Is it easier to orient oneself to a movie of this much quiet and stillness—to accept its demands on your attention—without any words to distract from the often glorious imagery?
The beauty of Tsai’s approach, a taste worth acquiring, is the way he builds empathy for his characters by pulling us into their geographic, temporal, and by extension emotional space. Every static, carefully composed shot becomes an invitation to step into their lives. Days inevitably builds to the intersection 0f Kang and Non’s stories: a rendezvous in a Hong Kong hotel room, where Non is revealed to be a sex worker who Kang has hired to give him a sensuous full body massage. It’s among the most erotic, intimate, and tender sequences of the director and star’s entwined careers, made all the more powerful in its sense of release by the stark alienation cultivated up to this point.
A more conventional movie, the kind Tsai has never made and likely never will, might treat this centerpiece sex scene like a turning point, the crux of a romantic redemption story. In Days, it’s a moment of fleeting kindness and communion no less meaningful for its ephemerality. The encounter expires as surely as the warbling tune of a music box, but it gusts significance backwards and forward through the film, throwing a new light over the challengingly banal material of the early scenes while casting a bittersweet pall over what follows. Tsai, fluent in the language of loneliness, creates a before and after dichotomy for these strangers: By his estimation, unexpected connection can blessedly break a pattern of routinized isolation, but it can also create a new, perhaps more painful ache of longing through its absence.
As always, much of the poignancy rests on Lee, especially during a wrenching late long take of his weathered face in close up. By now, Tsai’s filmography doubles as a document of his permanent headliner’s aging process. To watch Days in the context of this long-running creative partnership is to bring memories of the men, all more similar than not, that Lee has played before for Tsai; his weariness here carries the weight of a lifetime of relevant roles, almost a franchise arc of alienation and regret. Is the moving mid-film encounter between Kang and Non an explicitly sexualized proxy for the bond between two artists made for each other but destined to eventually part? If so, Days finds a flicker of optimism in the suggestion of a torch passed. After all, Tsai essentially cast Lee’s young costar, a first-time actor, off the street, too. As one collaboration reaches a potential culmination, another begins.