Tsai Ming-liang’s latest film Days opens with a prolonged shot of Lee Kang-sheng. The actor sits in a chair staring out of a window in an elegantly spare room, the reflection of the wind-blown trees outside superimposed over his stoic face. If the cinematic frame is a window into another world, this opening shot is more of a mirror.

Days Are Gone:

Watching Tsai Ming-liang’s Films In 2020

by Trevor McCulloch

Movie still from Days. A woman stands on a corner with an umbrella in the rain, lit by neon signs at night.

I did not see Days in a movie theater, but on a television in my living room through the Chicago International Film Festival’s streaming Virtual Cinema. By mid-October, I had been in relative lockdown for seven months, and the threat of a harsh Chicago winter loomed large.

In Days and Tsai’s other work, I found a corpus of films that presciently evoked the same structures of feeling that marked this New Normal. Since his 1992 debut Rebels of the Neon God, the Taiwanese filmmaker has created a body of work with remarkable aesthetic and thematic coherence. Besides the perennial appearance of Lee and the recurring urban setting, the films are characterized by long static takes, precise visual compositions that emphasize negative space, long shots that frame action far from the camera, and minimal dialogue. Although he has drawn critical comparisons to Mr. Ennui himself, Michelangelo Antonioni, I’ve always found his films more sensual and compassionate. The films’ staging of urban alienation is offset by the possibility of fleeting, quietly transformative connections.

“In Days and Tsai’s other work, I found a corpus of films that presciently evoked the same structures of feeling that marked this New Normal.” 

In Days, the two main characters are seen in isolation until they meet about halfway through the film and then separate. The other, younger man (Anong Houngheuangsy) lives alone and is seen scrupulously preparing food in his similarly bare, though visibly more working-class, apartment. The two eventually meet in the film’s centerpiece, in which Lee receives a massage and handjob from the young man in a hotel room. I was deeply struck by the tactile intensity of the scene, as well as the charge of seeing these otherwise disconnected people share a moment of pleasure beyond their daily routines. Afterwards, Lee gifts the young man a music box and they share a meal before they go their separate ways. The reverberations of this encounter are felt for the rest of the film, as their separate scenes are now imbued with the lingering sensations of their meeting. Despite my undersexed and undersocialized state when I first saw Days, the film’s intense focus and startling eroticism allowed me to live and feel vicariously and keep the promise of human connection alive.

Movie still from Days. A man sits on the floor of a dingy apartment at night, pots and buckets around him.

If Days shows something analogous to life in 2020, Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) memorializes what has now become inaccessible in, as the commercials say, these unprecedented times. As a movie theater screens King Hu’s wuxia classic, Dragon Inn (1967) during  one of its lugubrious final days, a myriad of patrons and employees drift in and out of the building’s gloomy spaces. The thorough articulation of a space outside of my apartment was more than enough to inspire pangs of longing, though what I felt was truly commemorated was the sensorium of filmgoing and the possibilities of that unreachable space. The patrons’ cruising for sex served as a contrast to my digital flirtations that stopped just short of physical consummation. While the film’s scenes of anonymous lust are restricted to verbal foreplay and charged glances, they’re nonetheless infused with the sexual promise of a setting that cultivates the random encounters and spatial proximity that social distancing cautions against. And some patrons actually come to see the film! One particularly emotional viewer is revealed to be an actor from Hu’s film and has an encounter with another performer who has come to revisit the film decades later. In Tsai’s elegiac vision, the movie theater is at once a memory palace, a bathhouse, and a haunted house. 

Watching Goodbye, Dragon Inn on a smudgy DVD, I couldn’t help but crave not only the aesthetic experience of the movie theater, but also the social ritual. In the early months of 2020 before the coronavirus spread to catastrophic levels and Chicago’s first Stay-At-Home order was issued, I saw two films in theaters: Tom Hooper’s gonzo musical disaster Cats (2019) and Celine Sciamma’s period romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). Beyond the pleasures of the films themselves, what made these experiences memorable was the unique collective energies in the theater. Hooper’s film was greeted by my drunk friends and me with giddy bafflement, while Sciamma’s film carried me out of the theatre in a dreamy haze with the rest of the crowd stunned into silence. 

At the time, of course, I couldn’t have predicted that these would be my last theatrical experiences for over a year, and these memories inevitably floated into my head while watching Tsai’s film. The Regal multiplex that hosted Cats is now shuttered and permanently closed, while the Music Box Theatre that showed Portrait of a Lady on Fire currently hosts only virtual screenings. I still watch films at home but the collective affective energy and social unpredictability that color Tsai’s films are on hold. For all the murmurings amongst the patrons about the ghosts haunting the theater, the eeriest image in Goodbye, Dragon Inn is a shot that lingers on the emptied-out auditorium in between screenings. Gone, for now, is the magic of the theater, where individual desires and memories are not only reflected back at us, but dispersed and felt communally. 

Movie still from The Hole. A woman looks up to an arm reaching out to her from a hole in the ceiling.

While all of Tsai’s films have potent resonances with the contemporary moment, no film is more explicitly prescient than The Hole (1998). Lee and another frequent Tsai collaborator Yang Kuei-mei play neighboring tenants living in quarantine from a virus spread by cockroaches. Familiar scenes abound: Yang hoards toilet paper that accumulates in her living room, blaring newscasts warn about symptoms, and Lee sullenly slurps food in his underwear. Tsai’s aesthetic here is uniquely suited to images of quarantine and isolation; his long takes that emphasize the monotony of idly filling time and his precise visual compositions that emphasize the claustrophobia of apartments and empty spaces.

Like in The Wayward Cloud (2005), these goings-on are occasionally broken up by lip-synced musical numbers. The songs’ lyrics are suggestive of the peculiar relationship that develops between the two neighbors, encompassing antagonism, annoyance, flirtation, and erotic longing. Whereas the wild colors and Busby Berkely-esque camp of Wayward’s musical numbers provide a more distinct formal rupture, the songs here are still staged within the confines of the shabby apartment complex so the escapist potential is limited. Just as I can watch, read, listen, jerk off, drink, smoke, cry, and scream only in my apartment, so too are the imaginations of Tsai’s characters limited to their spatial and social confinement. 

“Just as I can watch, read, listen, jerk off, drink, smoke, cry, and scream only in my apartment, so too are the imaginations of Tsai’s characters limited to their spatial and social confinement.”

Despite the bleak conditions, Tsai affords The Hole’s characters moments of strange connection through the eponymous cavity in Lee’s floor that connects to Yang’s ceiling. First, they take out their frustrations by pouring water and spraying chemicals at each other. But gradually, they begin to acknowledge each other more tenderly through the hole as Yang performs imaginary phone sex with her neighbor as she gazes up through the ceiling and, in one of the film’s most memorable images, Lee inserts his leg through the hole and lets it dangle through. Here, the hole provides a material outlet and visual metaphor for the ethos of Tsai’s films as a whole. Despite the pervasive alienation of the contemporary world, there is always a gap in which two people can find a connection. Watching Tsai’s films in 2020 during my own quarantine, this resonated with more hope and optimism than ever before. At a time in which the spaces of our lives have been forced to shrink and our social lives have become even more estranged, a leg through the ceiling is something like a miracle.

Trevor McCulloch is a Chicago-based cinephile, sometimes writer, and Kate Bush stan.