'Days' Review: Lost in the Mix
Tsai Ming-liang offers an elegant solution to what Bong Joon-ho described as “the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles.” His answer: remove the dialogue altogether. A largely wordless two-hour film may give the impression of a cold experimental piece, but Tsai crafts a moving and vibrant narrative with his cinematic toolbox that miraculously makes dialogue feel not just excessive, but wholly unnecessary. Even to stress this aspect of the film feels garish since when you’re watching Days the wordlessness feels incidental rather than dogmatic. There are even a few conversations throughout, however, they are diminished in the mix, and easily blend with the ambient sounds that fill the film.
Days tell the story of two men, one in the city, the other in the suburbs, both languishing in their loneliness, and the way in which their lives briefly intersect. We open on long static shots of the two men going about their daily routine, Tsai lingers on each and every mundane second allowing the smallest moments to quietly inflate to the bounds the screen. The frame itself disempowers the men and serves as a reflection of their inner state and relation to the world. A powerful example of this comes early, as we watch the young man in the city prepare a meal in slow and complete detail (a la Jeanne Dielman) When he leaves the room, the camera doesn’t follow but instead lingers on the flame he’s building, until he must return to it nearly minutes later. Further in the film, when the older man leaves the hotel room, the camera doesn’t follow him either and instead lingers in the space long enough for the automatic lights to shut off. The world feels indifferent to their existence, and at times outright hostile.
While the indifference is often expressed by the camerawork, this hostility draws from an overwhelming sound design where the ambient sounds of the street and nature appear to invade their space and perpetually drown out these men’s lives. Loneliness in Days is presented as succumbing to the din of the world around you and being smothered in its gravity. This builds a tension that finally ruptures once the two men collide and for a brief moment shift the scales. When the two are together, everything seems to hush, and subsequently, the piercing, almost judgmental, gaze of the frame becomes tender. It is only here, that the men are given a voice, and even though their words are treated just as inconsequential as everything else, there is such power in their union that it serves as a bulwark to the menace of the outside world.
My apartment overlooks a busy avenue and as I write this a truck stalls outside letting out a rumble that zig-zags over the white-noise of my two fans. Fragments of words and sentences make it through this cacophony, while, musical phrases from passing cars puncture the ambient noise wall. Tsai’s mastery is not simply capturing the sound of spaces like this, but rather his bold assertion that love exists in the world as just another element alongside thunderous engines and stifling thunderstorms. Towards the end of the film, we see this love depicted through music written by Charlie Chaplin, a master of the wordless world. As its timid melody floats through the noise of the street, we realize that it doesn’t have the power to snuff out the clatter around it, but it is there for us to hear if we so choose.
Check out the rest of my NYFF coverage in full reviews for the festival’s heavy hitters: Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall, Hong Sang-soo’s The Woman Who Ran, Christian Petzold’s Undine, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock and the festival centerpiece: Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland.
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