Cinema without dialogue seems like a strange thing, especially outside the realm of silent film, and even more so when set in a bustling city. The new feature from Taiwanese-Malaysian director Tsai Ming-liang is a slow meditation on loneliness and eroticism. Days opens with a title card that reads “intentionally unsubtitled.” This is not a statement on the singularity of language, but a warning, or perhaps a promise, of wordlessness to come. There are actually five lines, but they are insignificant, even more so without translation. Speech is a peripheral sound when it appears thirty minutes in, the sonic specifics no more important than the sound of a gushing faucet.
Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) lives alone in a large house, while Non (Anong Hounghuean) lives in an apartment in town. The film is an embrace between these two men, and their wordless shared experience. The actors say the lives of their characters are much like their own, so it is a work of docufiction in this regard. The love story between these men is so simple that when a music box is taken out at the end, it is such a rare magic that the smallest moment feels like the world has opened up. The deep loneliness parts, and it is not only two souls coming together at the right time, but a look into all those lives we walk past and wonder about, but never learn more as we are trapped within our own mundanities.
Rippling cool blue waters have the same light as the hazey blue light of city streets at night. It’s a rare use of hand-held camerawork for Tsai Ming-liang, a further step into modernity possibly. Shadow is just as much a part of the story as any interaction is. It isn’t about what our characters are trying to get to, it’s more of a meditation on circumstance. These compositions are often fixed, with little camera movement. It’s like watching a series of live photos set as a scrapbook of an ordinary day. The urban landscape is conceptualized in a way that feels universal. This city could be Bangkok, Taipei, or any other, but since it only focuses on what these cities have in common, we never need to know.
It’s not quite an experiment in silence, but close to it. The wordless bond is compelling, but if not immediately hooked it can grow stagnant. Instead of dialogue, we focus on a nude man washing and preparing lettuce that’s a shade of green brighter than anything else in the film. Instead of dialogue, we see a wordless exchange at a restaurant table made up of hesitant glances contrasting confident motions. It’s about reading body language as a story, and maybe the film. wouldn’t be all that different with no sound at all. The reason it isn’t a true silent is because the sound of the world takes over from dialogue. We still hear city streets and sloshing of bath water, because these are the sounds that are so often ignored to focus only on words. It’s a temple dedicated to the night, and the audience is here to worship.
This work of slow, erotic cinema is almost too slow, a bit too gentle for its own good. For a viewer not used to the meditative manner of the film, it is easy to lose focus on the non-action and give up on following the film to drift off instead. Some may call it boring, but the series of compositions is peaceful, more a love story with an unknown city and the passage of time in the night than anything else. For those new to Tsai Ming-liang’s style, it may become a powerful experience once the slowness sets in, if they are willing to go along for the ride.