Tsai Ming-liang’s Days (Grade: B+), which premiered in Berlin earlier this year and now plays as part of the New York Film Festival, is a romance at heart—a tender and rather heartbreaking portrait of fleeting connection between two lonely strangers. It’s good to have Tsai back. Not that he went anywhere, really. The great Taiwanese director has kept steadily busy over the last few years, churning out short films, a couple of documentaries, and a number of installments in his experimental “Walker” series, which tracked the movements of a monk crossing various landscapes at tortoise speed. But until this new project was announced, it seemed very possible that the long-take master behind such 21st-century classics as What Time Is It There? and Goodbye, Dragon Inn was done with narrative features altogether. His last one, the devastating Stray Dogs, felt like a swan song, in both the apocalyptic ruin of its backdrops and in the way that the filmmaker pushed his signature habit of holding a shot for a small eternity to an unprecedented new extreme.
Days renews his interest in story and characters, though the former is bare bones and, for a while, he defines the latter almost exclusively through mundane activity or moments of meditative reflection. One of his subjects is, of course, Lee Kang-sheng, the actor who’s starred in just about every single one of Tsai’s films, going back to his very first feature, Rebels Of The Neon God. Here Lee plays Kang, a man who lives alone in a glass box of a house, somewhere in the foggy countryside, suffering from a chronic ailment. The film’s other central figure is the younger Non (Anong Houngheuangsy), a Laotian immigrant in Bangkok who we see meticulously prepare meals: washing lettuce and fish, shaving cucumbers, etc. Tsai stages these sequences with his signature observational patience—that tendency he has to stay planted on a single moment well past the point almost any other filmmaker would cut away.
It can take time to adjust to Tsai’s rhythms. (This is another movie that’s done no special favors by the virtual fest experience—its often breathtaking compositions cry out for a larger screen than you’ll find in your living room, and the pacing benefits from the focusing tunnel vision a darkened theater creates.) But like any great filmmaker, Tsai teaches you how to watch his movies. In Days, he does away with dialogue almost entirely (what few words are even spoken he declines to subtitle—a first for his narrative work, if I’m not mistaken) and that may actually help a viewer reorient to the movie’s demands, to how the empathy for its characters grows out of sharing their geographic, temporal, and by extension emotional space. Each static shot is to be studied but also stepped into and occupied, in a sense.
Days builds to the intersection of Kang and Non’s stories: a rendezvous in a Hong Kong hotel that’s among the most erotic, intimate, and vulnerable sequences in this director’s whole body of work. It gusts meaning both backwards and forward through the film, throwing a new light over the challengingly banal material of the early scenes while casting a bittersweet pall over what follows. It’s a film of before and after isolation, implying the ways that unexpected connection can both blessedly break a pattern of routinized loneliness and create a new, perhaps more painful form of longing through its absence. Much of the poignancy rests, as it does in other Tsai movies, on the melancholy of Lee’s presence, especially during a wrenching late long take of his weathered face in close up. By now, Tsai’s filmography is basically a document of his star’s aging process, and every new film gains its own affecting subtext, supplied by the inexorable passage of time.
You could say that Tsai has also reached the moment in his career where he’s offering variations, not necessarily breaking new ground. That’s the paradox of Days: It’s enriched by a viewer’s memories of past collaborations with Lee, even as such familiarity forces one to acknowledge that Tsai has done this kind of thing several times before, to slightly more powerful ends. How one feels about directors artfully but undeniably repeating themselves may be the determining factor of their opinion on South Korea’s most prolific and beloved self- plagiarist, Hong Sang-soo. It has, perhaps, been overstated, the extent to which Hong essentially makes the same movie over and over again. (What’s more tired: his habit of reusing certain storytelling devices or the regular critical insistence that he reuses certain storytelling devices?) Though most of Hong’s films revolve around some combination of social discomfort, lovelorn creatives, and copious amounts of alcohol, he generally finds clever ways to remix his own formula—sometimes, in fact, by creating variations within the variations. That’s what he does again with his new film, The Woman Who Ran (Grade: B-), about a young woman (Kim Minhee, Hong’s romantic partner and now regular leading lady) who travels without her husband for the first time since getting married and has three encounters with different women from her past.
Hong, if I’m honest, drives me a little batty. It’s less the repetition than his career-long fixation on a certain species of insufferable dude: an over-sharing, heavy-drinking, and romantically pesky artist type that the director, to his credit, pokes fun at more often than he glorifies, even if there’s likely plenty of himself in the characterization. The Woman Who Ran—which, like Days, premiered in Berlin but is showing now at NYFF—largely marginalizes that figure. The latest version of him, a poet persistently hung up on a one night stand, is among a small handful of male characters hovering around the outside of the story who keep butting in, rudely or inconveniently—a perhaps sly, self-implicating joke on Hong’s part about his inability to adopt the lone perspective of women and keep himself (or some directorial surrogate) out of the picture entirely. (Don’t expect this film to pass the Bechdel test or anything.)
Still, it is refreshing to see one of his boozy gabfests focus so much on the shifting tensions of female friendship, and the mixed bag of marriage; like another of this year’s NYFF selections, Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks, this is a film that understands how boring domestic life can be without devolving into a bitter exaggeration of its downsides. The Woman Who Ran is ultimately a minor doodle, even by Hong’s standards; it lacks the games of nonlinear structure, cognitive dissonance, or lightly surrealist Groundhog Day cycles that mark his best work. But the film has its moments, too, most of them concerned with the way social propriety affects communication. The last reunion is the film’s most dramatic, as Kim’s traveler has an emotionally direct chance encounter. And to the Hong catalog of dryly inspired comic set pieces, one can add a passive-aggressive skirmish about feeding stray felines—an extended almost-argument that culminates with a hilarious zoom into the face of one perfectly deadpan alleycat that either wandered or was coaxed into Hong’s long take.
Maybe all great directors are competing against themselves. Is it fair to hold an artist’s new work up to their old triumphs? Is it possible not to? Completing this week’s Berlin-to-New-York trifecta is Undine (Grade: B), from the German writer-director Christian Petzold. To this critic’s eyes, Petzold’s last three movies, Barbara, Phoenix, and Transit, were masterworks or close to it—brilliant and elegant thrillers that conflated the conflicts of the characters (their ruses and denials and feverish scrambles for sanctuary) with those of their nations. There’s an element of that to Undine, whose eponymous heroine (Paula Beer) is a historian who lectures about the architecture of Berlin and how it changed after the war, buildings repurposed but still imprinted by their past. Of course, those who know their European mythology or German romantic literature may suspect that there’s more to this quiet, serious, haunted woman, who has a special attachment to the water. She also takes a breakup, in the film’s intriguing opening scene, less well than one might hope: “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you,” she tells her soon-to-be-ex (Jacob Matschenz)—a casual promise that hangs uncomfortably over the events that follow.
But Undine turns out to be straightforward to a fault. Beer’s jilted lover rebounds with a professional diver (the actor’s Transit costar Franz Rogowski), but even in her newfound happiness, she can’t quite let go of her previous relationship. Which, of course, is reflected in the content of her lectures—a more blatant device than expected from Petzold, who’s usually a little more graceful and subtle about linking the personal to the cultural-political-historical. Maybe the issue is the mythological framework: For all the minor creepiness Undine pulls from its inspiration (including some striking underwater shots), it also inherits a certain simplicity of plotting and one-note characterization.
Yet I still wouldn’t hesitate for a second to recommend the film, because it’s been made with the superb economy of pacing, shot selection, and editing that’s become a Petzold specialty, nay a trademark. Undine gets in and out in 90 minutes, and while this critic will never subscribe to the “no movies should be longer than an hour-and-a-half” school of proudly short attention spans, there are few better cases for that misguided philosophy than Petzold’s streamlined storytelling, pulling you from each vital image to the next, shaving off every unneeded ounce of narrative fat. The man is just a master at putting a movie together. Maybe there’s another metaphor in Undine’s dissertations on brilliant architecture put to less meaningful use.