'Days' ('Rizi'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of Homegreen Films
A minimalist brain massage.

Tsai Ming-liang describes a chance encounter between two men that sparks unplanned feelings.

Award-winning filmmaker and video artist Tsai Ming-liang continues to move toward cinema that looks more and more like a video installation in Days (Rizi), which recounts the everyday lives of a middle-class man and a poor boy who gives body massages. Their relatively innocent professional encounter in a hotel room stirs unforeseen emotions, which will probably lead nowhere.

There’s nothing obscure about the story, told in two-dozen fixed-frame shots held for around five minutes each. But one does wonder whether the author’s intentions would not have found more receptive audiences in one of Berlin’s experimental sections like Encounters instead of competition. The film, rigorously shot and defiantly static, is more likely to win a Teddy award, for which it is also nominated.

Tsai’s recent work has included many museum pieces, and his films seem increasingly interrelated with his installation work. In some ways Days recalls his thought-provoking Journey to the West, in which a Buddhist monk walked through Marseilles in slow motion, only Days has little to do with time per se. By using uneventful long takes to slow down daily activities like cooking and showering, Tsai highlights little more than their banal, repetitive nature. An opening title warns that the film is deliberately unsubtitled. It doesn’t mention there is no need for subtitles because there is no dialogue.

Perhaps one meaning lies in the different uses the rich man and poor man make of their time. Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) lives alone in a big house with a backyard goldfish pond and spends his time on himself. In the opening shot, he appears expressionless and impassive, soothing himself by listening to the sound of falling rain. One might almost think it’s a filmed photograph if he didn’t blink once or twice. Some kind of film projection or reflection cuts off the top of his head with a white line. Later, we learn he has ear problems or other head pains.

In another part of town, Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) is a healthy young man in a simple apartment who worships at an altar, then launches into tediously washing a colander full of vegetables. Suffice it to say, he is very thorough. The camera never moves or changes its POV, and the shots are held a very long time.

Kang’s headache calls for treatment in the city. At first he tries acupuncture, coupled with heated pieces of tin, herbs and wires. Generously changing the camera angle from the actor’s face to his back, Tsai allows us to watch this painful-looking treatment in real time. But apparently more is needed. Kang checks into a hotel and orders a massage. Who should appear but Non, the boy washing vegetables. Now his time belongs to the man who is paying him. While Kang lies facedown on the bed, unclothed, Non strips to his underwear and, in real time, performs a full-body massage with baby oil, complete with an offscreen happy ending.

The film’s key moment is Kang’s gift of a small music box to the boy, in addition to paying him for the massage. Showered, dressed and sitting on the bed beside Kang, Non cranks the box and plays tunes over and over, as though it were the first present he ever received in his life, while Kang looks on indulgently. It's a moment of interpersonal communication in a cold, indifferent world, and it touches both of them.

Kang even has dinner with the boy in a fast food joint downstairs before they separate. But as Non waits on a bench, in front of a blanked-out billboard that recalls a film screen, he is obviously thinking about the encounter that has just taken place. And since he gets the music box out, it is probably with wistfulness. Its delicate sounds are drowned out by the street noise.

The film’s minimalist aesthetic makes little concession to the usual forms of cinematic expression and extends to the set design: living spaces devoid of furniture, the nondescript hotel room, the typical street scenes. The two actors are similarly inexpressive, their faces blank as though personal interaction was a major risk.

Production company: Homegreen Films
Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Anong Houngheuangsy
Director-screenwriter: Tsai Ming-liang
Producer: Claude Wang
Executive producers: Tsai Ming-liang, Yu Pei-hua
Director of photography, editor: Chang Jhong-yuan
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
Running time: 127 minutes