Days (2020) is a capital A arthouse film that is unafraid to wear out the patience of audience members. Its biggest defenders will argue that it is a meditation on silence and the loneliness that one feels when their days seem to go on forever and blur together due to their mundanity. They will argue that his approach to filmmaking draws out the subtlest details, and if you get a little bored when you essentially have to stare at a still image for five minutes straight, you just don’t appreciate the power of cinema. Its detractors will complain that it doesn’t have nearly enough to say and felt like a complete waste of time. If you happen to fall somewhere in between, as I do, you might find yourself admiring the invisible editing, while taking issue with the film’s rigid realism. For a film that asks you to admire the imagery that it presents you with, it doesn’t have a very distinctive look. Every criticism can be met with an equal amount of praise, which makes it difficult to settle into a rhythm with it. You leap from moments of utter boredom to sudden fascination, without ever feeling fully engaged.
It is an example of non-narrative synonym and, in a traditional sense, nothing much happens. Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) is a lonely man who deals with chronic back pain. He spends his days alone in his house and has no close friends to tend to him. One day, he comes in contact with Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), a much younger man who also struggles with feelings of loneliness. Their time together ends up being brief, but they experience human connection, and it serves as a salvation of sorts.
For fans of slow cinema, this will be a real treat. It features far less shots than the vast majority of films do, and it really takes it time when capturing the mundanity of day to day life. Rather than using quick montages to display all of the dull, monotonous actions that King performs as he moves around his house, it forces the audience to watch him sitting down on his veranda and staring off into the distance for several minutes. There are very few quick cuts, and most scenes appear to occur in real time. This brings up an important question, as many, including Alfred Hitchcock, expect cinema to represent “Life with the dull bits cut out of it.” Slow cinema defiantly pushes back against this notion and chooses not to cut out the parts that we would prefer to skip through in our day to day lives. The idea behind depicting somebody chopping up an entire aubergine, without cuts, seems to be that displaying something in full will force the audience to sit with the loneliness that the characters feel. Rather than letting the audience experience King’s isolation from a considerable remove, we are also asked to feel as though time is moving too slowly, and we are trapped in certain locations. It’s certainly one way of giving the audience an understanding of Kang’s perspective, but it’s difficult to argue that people should have to approach cinema in the way that they approach doing their taxes. If Days is an eat your vegetables movie, that won’t be easily digested, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it deserves to be treated with grave seriousness and admiration.
There might be something admirable in Tsai Ming-Liang’s approach, but the content that he applies it to never quite becomes hypnotic. There is something ugly about the extreme blandness of many of the shots, and this takes away from the cumulative effect that they are meant to have. There are ways to capture a sense of realism without making every shot look like something that could have been taken out of your average internet vlog. People expect a greater level of image manipulation when they plonk their money down and go to see something in a cinema. The lighting, staging and cinematography should have felt less like afterthoughts. It often seemed like the filmmakers had done the bare minimum in all of these areas.
Your appreciation of Days might hinge on the way that you choose to appreciate cinema. If you are looking for something dynamic and emotionally moving, this will leave you feeling drained and questioning whether arthouse cinema is for you. It is easy to end up in that position and I found myself dismissing much of Days as a dull filmmaking exercise that makes several points in a way that is inherently undramatic and un-cinematic. I find myself refraining from completely dismissing it because it does feature the occasional moment of genuine inspiration. Tsai’s ability to simply hint at Non’s background, without ever making judgments about the career paths that he might have gone down, give credence to the idea that this film is leaving the story up to our interpretation. When Tsai’s touch feels a bit lighter, the film lets in a bit more air and picks up a certain intensity. One wonders whether Tsai would have been able to build up more goodwill if he had injected a bit of humour into this story. With a couple of tonal shifts, this could have been so much more absorbing.
It is a bizarre little experimental flick, and if you’re a fan of this type of cinema, it will leave you feeling electrified.