Days | What We Did On Our Summer Holidays

Credit: Grasshopper Films

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Digby Houghton

Tsai Ming-liang’s latest film Days follows Kang (played by long-time collaborator and muse Lee Kang-sheng), a drifting and presumably grief-stricken man as he deals with muscle pains in his back and neck (supposedly acquired when a shard of porcelain got lodged there during the shooting of 1992’s Rebels of the Neon God). Simultaneous to his movement, we cross-cut between him and Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), a Thai masseur, as he goes about his daily ritual of preparing and cooking food. Kang seeks Non’s expertise by travelling to Thailand to receive a massage. The film has a circular nature as Tsai reintroduces motifs and actions from earlier in the movies’ sets and structures, returning to Non’s fire pits positioned in his living room as well as going back to Kang’s luscious forest home. There are also clear parallels between Kang and Non yet it is uncertain how they will eventually connect within the film. This sense of an obscured relationship between the two characters adds to notions of romance Tsai has developed since his first feature length film Rebels of the Neon God (1992). 

The production of Days came as a surprise. Following Stray Dogs (2013), it appeared Tsai was becoming more focused on gallery-commissioned film pieces. Tsai was operating purely within the confines of the museum, further exploring his underlying impatience with conventions such as dialogue driven narrative, short shot lengths and three-act structure that remain even further obsolete in Days. The director spells out his approach in the opening title card, which declares in Mandarin text that the film is “intentionally without subtitles.” Not only is the film unconventional in contrast to what Hollywood propagates, but, detached through another layer of language, Days accentuates the thirty plus years of Tsai’s slow paced art-cinema style. Tsai’s restrictive movement is highlighted when we follow Kang out of his apartment and onto the urban palaver of the street. Breaking from still shots we follow Kang in handheld motion as he looks visibly distressed. The movement of the camera in the film, or lack thereof, is arresting and causes an entrancing effect on the audience. It also reveals an underlying theme of the film: that the city itself is alive and energised, however Kang and Non appear empty and incomplete inside it. By using romance as the central tension between the main characters, Tsai is able to highlight alienation within urban environments. 

Furthermore, the film touches on colonialism and cultural imperialism, highlighting the precarious situation in contemporary Taiwan. The impact of cultural imperialism is prevalent throughout many aspects of Tsai’s filmmaking career, not least of which can be seen to include his decision, early on in life, to move from Malaysia to Taiwan. Tsai was raised in the small town of Kuching in Malaysian Borneo, which was home to several grand theatres during the 20th century. It was through these theatres that he fostered an adoration for Japanese and Hollywood films that inspired his own creativity. Tsai moved to Taiwan in his 20s in order to study theatre and film. During the 1980s and 1990s Taiwanese cinemas and television showed a disproportionate amount of non-Taiwanese films as there wasn’t a vibrant local film industry. This discrepancy, which is ongoing today and described by Mike Walsh, an Australian academic and writer about film, as “Hollywood films…eating the lunch of the Taiwanese with a market share rising above ninety-five per cent,” shows that Taiwan is engulfed in foreign culture. It’s clear from these statistics that the stories of foreigners imported into theatres in Taiwan had a more striking resonance with audiences than locally produced films due to a lack of support for a national film culture. The uncontrollable effects of globalisation on Tsai and his upbringing are depicted through the transnational romance in Days. Mid-way through the film comes a most sensual scene in which Non massages Kang in a subtle yet suave hotel room. Their very collision is the byproduct of economic and technological developments allowing cheaper travel between countries and connections in ways previously unimaginable to occur. The tension caused by cultural imperialism can arguably be seen to date back to the conception of Taiwan as a nation-state and its turbulent history as being oppressed. 

Taiwan had a largely Indigenous population when people from Mainland China began to colonise it in the 12th century. Several dialects became prevalent on the island during this time, including Hokkien. Eventually the Dutch and other European nations saw the importance of the island nation, seizing power over it before Japan took it over in 1895, wresting control of the country until the end of World War Two. During this time a degree of oppression was enforced over Taiwanese people in order to stop locals practicing  their own cultural norms and values, including preventing them from speaking their own languages. This theme is accentuated again in the scene when Kang leaves his hotel room, wandering around before seeing Non. Whilst there isn’t any dialogue, the emphasis of the soundscape in this scene rests on general city impressions like motorbikes and cars rushing by. This absence detaches the viewer from the film and causes the audience to resonate with Kang’s disillusion towards the city. Tsai’s decision to challenge the conventions of language by incorporating very little dialogue and removing subtitles suggests a degree of exclusion similar to that which his ancestors would have experienced in Taiwan and Asia more broadly under imperial rule. 

After the end of World War Two, Mainland China soon erupted into civil war between Mao Tse-tung’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Chang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC). Eventually, Chang resolved to establish the ROC and his differing politics to that of Mao on the island of Taiwan. Taiwan was considered a beacon of hope for the West during Mao Tse-tung’s leadership until Nixon recognised the PRC in 1972. The country was informally referred to as “the Taiwan miracle,” due to its proliferation of consumer goods which they produced and were able to sell to the West and included cheap plastic items. One of the recurring motifs in Days is the small jukebox Kang gives to Non as a gift. Later in the film, we track between Kang as he returns home, hidden under his doona cover, and Non who is on the streets with the jukebox playing a jittering melody which comes from the music of Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight. It is a gentle reminder that these plastic goods emerged out of the necessity to compete with the West on an economic front hiding a degree of superficiality.

Taiwan has been wedged between Mainland China and the US diplomatically and culturally and this tension hasn’t seemed to have ceased. This factor is explored in a nuanced way throughout Days. In a clever shot, Tsai lays Non on a small mattress on the floor. The cool warmth of the tropical environment is palpable as Non rests uncovered with two different pillows under his head and back. On the long pillow behind his back are the insignia of the American flag while the pillow under his head carries the British Union Jack on it. The shot remains still for a lengthy period of time as we establish that Non’s environment is in contrast with Kang who relaxes in hotel rooms on lofty levels, overlooking grand cityscapes. The symbolism of these two different pillows is able to sink in as the audience realises the impact and influence of the United States and the United Kingdom in shaping Taiwanese culture and history. To some extent, the two countries have contributed to Taiwan’s very own longevity since America acknowledged the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s.  

Days shows the alienation that humans encounter in urban spaces. Tsai’s cinema has revolved around the romanticism of the city in that sprawling and disconnected characters often find themselves interconnected. The shutting of cinemas as a cause of the pandemic heightened this alienation as cities became close to desolated. This dystopian component of society is brought to the full through Tsai’s cinema and Days is testament to that.