Tsai Ming-Liang’s cinema, over the entire course of his career, has always gradually swung between marginalized lives and repressed desires. His latest feature Rizi (Days), a dialogue-free meditation spanning a little over 2 hours, places greater emphasis on the latter while traversing familiar avenues of solitude and longing. As always, it is the blank spaces within Tsai’s canvas that foretell the greatest (and frailest) emotional eruptions. The conflict at the heart of Rizi is between man and the Self’s ceaseless innate quest for acknowledgement and acceptance from the Other, realized through a primal pursuit of the amorous to supplant everyday mundanity.
Rizi outlines the meandering existence of two men, Kang and Non, in different cities and following differing routines, yet leading similarly lonely lives.
Kang (, a Taiwanese, resides in a sprawling lavish house upon a mountaintop―the location an indicator of his state of seclusion―covered by a glass façade that allows glimpses of the interior, much like his own lined and wrinkled face. Non ( , a Laotian, lives in a small unkempt apartment in Bangkok, spending his days cooking traditional dishes, and his nights cruising the streets looking for company. Both men feel evidently trapped by their respective conditions, their yearning for release never quite materializing until that fateful night when the two will meet in a hotel room. In fact, in the first two shots that he occupies, Non is literally framed behind bars. Meanwhile, Kang undergoes a visibly-painful form of muscle therapy, to recover from an illness that is no longer limited to his physical being, without much use.
Kang’s pain is made all the more palpable when, around the 45-minute mark, Tsai suddenly switches to handheld tracking shots and more rapid cuts that contrast the preceding stillness, and inject a startling documentary-like quality to the suffering. The extended therapy sequence is mirrored by another much later on when Kang receives a massage from Non upon their first encounter, the former now groaning and grunting from pleasure as the massage gradually transforms into something more passionate. Their relationship may be one founded by monetary transaction, yet it grows as the men share each other’s loneliness more than they share love. They begin to heal, knowing full well the fleeting nature of their bond.
And soon the carnal connection transcends into the domain of the metaphysical, as Kang gifts Non a little music box that plays the theme from Chaplin’s Limelight (1952). Goodbyes are always difficult, but especially so when they sever attachments bridging age, class, nationality, lifestyles and demolishing gender stereotypes. Long sullen silences replace conversation in Rizi, communicating emotions that language never could, pierced by Tsai’s carefully-curated sound design. The bustling urban cacophony serves as an apt counterpoint to his placid long takes filming the emotional stagnancy in the two men’s lives, their patient and sterile routines masking the desperation of spiritual crisis that grips every limb and sinew.
Perhaps that is why it feel apt when Rizi concludes with the image of Non disappearing into the night―after waiting an eternity for someone who never shows up―even as the rest of the city speeds past him, unmindful and indifferent to his plight.
Cinema that transfixes the senses, arrests the soul and shatters the heart.