Pickpocket and Days on MIFF Play highlight the very different talents of two major Asian directors. By Michelle Wang.

MIFF Play: Days and Pickpocket

Lee Kang-sheng as Lee, left, and Anong Houngheuangsy as Anong in Days.
Lee Kang-sheng as Lee, left, and Anong Houngheuangsy as Anong in Days.
Credit: Homegreen Films

This year, the Melbourne International Film Festival’s online program showcases the works of two directors scooped from opposite ends of their careers, placing leading “sixth-generation” Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s first feature film next to the most recent work from veteran Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang.

Tsai’s latest film, Days (2020), also known as Rizi, is a languid meditation told through water, light and bodies. Tsai effortlessly displays his mastery of slow, esoteric cinema as he follows the separate lives of Lee (Lee Kang-sheng) and Anong (Anong Houngheuangsy), who meet in only one scene in a Bangkok hotel room.

In Jia’s 1997 directorial debut Pickpocket (Xiao Wu), we are dropped into the whirlwind of a constantly changing China through the eyes of a young man, the titular pickpocket, Xiao Wu (Wang Hongwei), who feels out of step with his peers as they ascend the capitalist ladder of success in the new and relatively free-market economy. Around the dawdling Xiao Wu, a shabby middle-of-nowhere town rapidly transforms. Nobody is standing still.

The two films are fictional, yet possess a sense of documentary. Both are set in the director’s homes – Taiwan for Tsai and Fenyang for Jia. Days and Pickpocket also home in on the “real world” by using only ambient sound.

In Pickpocket’s first minutes, the orderly modern bureaucracy of a new China and the parochial gossip of Fenyang collide. While the government broadcasts a new campaign against crime over the loudspeakers in smooth Mandarin, the local television station interviews businessman and Xiao Wu’s friend, Jin Xiaoyang, about his upcoming wedding in the Fenyang dialect, relaying the well-wishes and song requests of friends and family.

The soundscape in Pickpocket is a chaotic jungle of construction and demolition. When Xiao Wu visits his love interest Meimei (Zuo Baitao), she tells him about her dreams of becoming a big star, how she left home only to end up working in a karaoke bar. Her story is muffled by the raucous sounds of traffic, drills and hammering beyond the thin walls of the bedroom she shares with two other girls. The layers of clamour that form the backdrop for all the characters’ interactions create a textured and specific reality straight out of a historically charged time and place, from the perspective of the bumbling Xiao Wu and the people he encounters.

In contrast, Days is quiet. There is barely any dialogue and it is intentionally unsubtitled. In the opening scene we listen to rain fall for five minutes. We are not so much watching a film as dwelling in uninterrupted day-to-day sequences, linked by the framework of a daily routine. Tsai continues his long collaboration with Lee, who has performed in all Tsai’s feature films since they first met 30 years ago. Days is also the screen debut of Anong, an illegal Laotian immigrant working in Bangkok and a friend of Tsai’s. With both actors, much of what is depicted is drawn from real life. Anong’s presence is a loving homage to the inspiration Tsai has drawn from his muse Lee.

The camera, guided by the hand of one who intimately knows his subject, hovers painstakingly over Lee’s ageing skin and physical ailments. The human form becomes a sensual canvas that bears witness to the experiences that have been etched into it over time. While Pickpocket catapults the spectator into China on the cusp of the millennium, marching forward, Days lingers in the eaves of time, unfurling from moment to moment.

Tsai repeatedly focuses on Lee’s very real neck ailment, which Tsai first incorporated into the plot of The River (1997). In one extended scene, Lee undergoes a moxibustion treatment, which involves fixing small cones to the top of acupuncture needles and setting them on fire. The treatment ends with a massage-like scraping of the affected area that leaves Lee’s back looking bruised and swollen. It’s unpleasant to witness, and makes time viscerally felt.

In another scene lasting almost half an hour, Lee lies on his stomach while Anong massages him until he orgasms, a state of fleeting pleasure that offers some symmetry to his pain. Tsai’s depiction of the mutual gentleness and shared connection between the two men refuses to define their meeting as a paid for massage with a happy ending. Our closeness to Lee’s skin, the kneading of this surface, embodies a sense of physical time as relief from pain, observed through acts of care and sensuality.

Twice in the film, before and after their encounter in a hotel room, we watch Anong cook. He washes greens and fish cutlets in a plastic tub in the bathroom; he skins, scores and shreds a papaya; he squats before the makeshift kitchen in his dimly lit apartment. Days recounts Lee and Anong’s lives with the barest trace of narrative or fiction: life is lived routinely, a series of repeated actions. The film feels like a culmination of Tsai’s movement away from narrative cinema. Over the years, each film has become slower, less conventional, less fictional.

With a full cast of non-actors, Pickpocket – which was first shown in the United States as it wasn’t approved in China – is as fresh-faced a debut as they come. Xiao Wu and his low-life colleagues skulk around town in ill-fitting boxy suits and oversized aviator glasses, chain-smoking cigarettes – and if those cigarettes are Marlboros, well, that’s called making it. Away from this life, a romance blossoms between Xiao Wu and Meimei that makes Xiao Wu a better person, and also more successful. Yet as his happiness and success increase, and he buys more things for their relationship – a pager to stay in touch, an engagement ring – she disappears without a word. Did better fortune come her way? Was it her choice? Jia hints ironically at the loss of true connection and stability in the new age. Change is the only constant: keep up or get left behind.

Unexpectedly perhaps, change is also the constant in Days. Minuscule changes accumulate in the body, between two people, in the movement of light and water. In Tsai’s observant poetry, stillness and change sit side by side and are often the same. In its 127 minutes, there is plenty of time to pay attention to how time feels. A rutilant afternoon glow comes through the papery curtains; the exterior of a damaged glass building is shot through with daylight; a young man lights incense in the grey morning. The day begins.

MIFF Play continues until August 22.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 21, 2021 as "Changing times".

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