Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 26, 2020 2:18 pm 
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The music box

Reactions range (on Letterboxd) from "a snoozer from start to finish" to "almost my favorite Tsai film" and a loving account from someone who has seen all ten of his films and flew to Berlin just to see this one in the festival, for his first big -screen Tsai experience, and felt well-rewarded, but had to endure bored and disrespectful audience members around him.

Among Tsai's films, though I haven't seen all of them, some of the main themes clearly are loneliness and lassitude and sex, or the implied desire for it, and for companionship. We get all that here in this unusually slow film featuring Tsai's longtime muse and life companion Lee Kang-sheng, along with a young Thai newcomer, Anong Houngheuangsy. (They are called in the credits respectively Kang and Non, but I'll just call them by their real names.)

This time Lee for the first time plays someone well off. Thus he occupies the rural compound here that Tsai and he actually moved into some time ago, and he can afford to fly to Bangkok and stay in a nice hotel room, where he will receive Anong, whom we've observed - and I do mean observed - patiently preparing a meal for himself in his rudimentary but airy digs and on duty in a food stall where he works. Later Anong reappears as a full service masseur, and I also do mean full service. The two men come together, the now fifty-two-year-old one, still suffering from the real-life neck ailment seen in The River and walking with a painful shuffle, and the twenty-something one, after an hour of this two-hour film has passed. Their encounter is the centerpiece and emotional core of this film typically suffused with sadness and loneliness but also with moments of warmth and gratitude, and always a feat of patient observation.

A slow film with long passages where not only the camera but its human point of observation is still, if it works for you, alerts you and awakens your sympathy and skill in observation. Since, unlike the Berlin presentation described by Francesco Quario on Letterboxd mentioned above, the New York version was virtual, we have the peripheral distractions Martin Scorsese has bewailed, and also the temptation to stop and start or interrupt or skip that may aid observation, or not, but disrupt the sense of an ongoing irresistible force you get in a movie theater, apart the glory of the Walter Reade Theater or Alice Tully Hall with their impressive screens and immersive sound systems.

As A.O. Scott observed in his New York Times review of Tsai's 2005 Wayward Cloud, those at all familiar with Tsai "will note that water is an important motif in his films," and in them "roofs and pipes are always leaking" on "lonely, alienated city dwellers." I understand from Giovanni Marchini Camia's detailed and admiring BFI review of Days, that more recently Tsai has made short films in non-urban locations, and also declared himself retired, or ready to retire. Francesco Quario has said this may be the last, though he would "gladly take a hundred more."

In the first half Lee gets an elaborate trad medicine treatment for his neck and backbone with wires and hot coals; before that he spends a long time staring out the window while water flows noisily. Water appears again as we watch Anong, in Bangkok, to whom we go back and forth from Lee, preparing a meal for himself of "fish soup, papaya salad and sticky rice" (Camia) on the floor, with a lot of washing food and water spilled on the floor around him where he squats. This sequence is a soothing alternative to Lee's pain and look of sadness, because Anong's food preparation is calm and methodical, almost happy, you might say. The only thing is - is it just for himself? Because it seems rather a lot of food; and we don't get much of a look at his consumption of it once he's done.

Then we come to Lee in the Bangkok hotel room. It's a large, simple, but well-appointed and peaceful room, with nice wood paneling. Methodically, Lee takes the cover off the big bed and folds it away, counts out money and puts the rest in a drawer. When the sequence of the massage by Anong (in jockey shorts) begins, Lee is already laid out face down, eyes closed. After a while he's asleep and snoring. Now Anong's patience and attentiveness to ritual we saw as he prepared a meal comes into its own as direct human kindness. With amazing delicacy his hands crisscross and circle up and down and over Lee's back. Many details suggest that as a masseur he's trained and knows what he's doing. And then, Lee is on his back, the caressing becomes sexual, the jockey shorts come off.

This sequence isn't pornographic, barely even sexual but rather, sensual and more simply patient, attentive, and touching. As Lee gets closer to satisfaction and there is tenderness and warmth in Anong's participation and they embrace and kiss with real feeling, and as with Anong's following Lee into the shower and continuing there to spray him and soap him and massage him, this is always modest and undramatic and real, but no mere mechanical servicing, for sure.

No wonder, then, when both have dried off and dressed they sit down together on the foot of the bed. Lee gives Anong a present of a little music box that plays the theme from Chaplin's Limelight, and Anong keeps winding it and winding it so the theme plays on and on; and here, Quario begins to weep and will go on weeping for the rest of the film.

Here also the dragging-on-and-on quality of the film takes on a new, plangent meaning, because it's saying these two lonely men, one weary and past middle age, the other young, don't want to part. And so there's a coda sequence to the encounter that happens outside, in a little Chinese noodle shop, where they sit together eating, facing each other - but not like the still: they're separated from us by a street full of loud passing traffic. Then there is blackness. And we rejoin the men, apart again and in different countries. As Quario has come to Berlin for Tsai's new film, Lee has come to Bangkok for a massage, and now we're all back at home.

At the end, Anong and Lee are alone again. And no one in this film has uttered more than a few words, and there have been by choice no subtitles.

I would say this is a pretty memorable film. I will not easily forget the sight of Anong later, after Lee is gone, sitting on a bench in noisy traffic, listening to the music box play the Limelight theme again, over and over and over.

Days 日子, 127 mins., debuted at Berlin Feb. 2020 (where it won the Teddy Award), showed at Taipei July, IndieLisboa Aug., and, where it was screened virtually for this review, New York starting Sept. 25. Also to be shown at London in Oct. 2020.

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