To say that Tsai Ming-Liang‘s Rizi (Days) is a challenging film would be understating the staggering experience of actually watching the film. The Taiwanese auteur has never been one to shy away from ambition or controversy, and his latest feature is evidence that the aging filmmaker has no intention of taming his creative thirst. In fact, Rizi is a film that perhaps questions the very definition of what constitutes as cinema.
The plot for Rizi is relatively simple. We’re introduced to Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng, a long-time collaborator of Tsai’s) and Non (newcomer Anong Houngheuangsy) as they go through a typical day in modern Bangkok. How or whether or not these two characters are actually connected to each other is initially unclear, but becomes more apparent as the film progresses.
Making The Audience W ork
The opening scene of Rizi features a single shot long take of Kang staring out a window on a rainy afternoon. Lasting at least 5 minutes in duration, this opening sequence aught to be a signpost for what one might expect over the next 2 hours. The rest of the film is essentially a series of similarly stagnant long takes, one after the other. Some scenes even run north of 15 minutes, with most of them having limited or no dialogue at all.
There isn’t really a traditional storyline in Rizi, but these sequential moments are somehow expected to form a collective narrative. And what that narrative is really depends on the viewer’s own imagination. This is a film that clearly has a strong sense of narrative focus, which is something that is apparently when you consider the contemplative performances of the film’s two leading actors. The heartfelt focus from Lee and Houngheuangsy beats like a drum during every single scene, but the actual sound and characteristics of that beat seem to be exclusively open for interpretation.
Tsai has created a film where the audience is expected to do a load of heavy lifting. His expectations are that audiences will find a way to add their own narration, and essentially write in between the lines of what is usually much more apparent in even the most obscure of films. Don’t get me wrong, consuming cinema should never be a passive process, but Tsai’s definition of what an ‘active viewer’ should be must follow that of a model film student. Rizi requires you to work, to the point where you question whether you might be doing part of the filmmaker’s work for him.
A Master Class In Shot Composition
In light of the film’s stagnant and singular shot compositions, Tsai has very thoughtfully crafted each scene with obvious attention to mise-en-scène. Working with cinematographer Chang Jhong-Yuan, every single long take could easily be framed as a poster, with portrait-like qualities that are beautifully composed.
The film is also shot with an angle of realism, which at first, evokes a feeling that you’re watching a documentary. But the stagnant nature of each frame maintains a level of uniqueness, that in a way, reminds viewers that this is in fact something different. Tsai’s thinly veiled screenplay with essentially no dialogue (the background dialogue isn’t even subtitled for viewers) also helps foster the creative and contemplative state for audiences. The large void of empty spaces, both visually and figuratively, is a stylistic choice that actually complements the open mindset that one should assume when watching Rizi.
Should This Even Be Considered A Film?
After leaving the theatre for Rizi, I’ll admit that I was quite tired and frustrated with the onerous task that was just asked of me. It felt more like a film school creative assignment, rather than a typical cinematic experience. But as the film sat with me in the coming days (while I waited for the embargo to be lifted), I was struck by how much the film stayed with me. I found my mind lingering on so many of these seemingly meaningless scenes, and continued to construct my own narrative in order to piece everything together.
And reflecting on this gripping impact that the film had on me, I wondered if it in fact speaks to the power and genius of the film itself. It reminded me of Chungking Express, and the way Wong Kar-Wai forces you to find a connection between the film’s two vastly different (yet similar) story arcs. He does this by masterfully utilizing the tools of cinema to draw you into this contemplative process, and perhaps Tsai was able to do the same thing here.
I’m by no means comparing Rizi to Chungking Express, which would likely be outlandishly offensive to many cinephiles, myself included. But I do think that in his own interesting way, Tsai has created a film with a similar degree of self-induced navel gazing through cinema. It’s far from the norm of what one expects from a film, and requires more work than one might be agreeable to. Yet somehow, in a truly remarkable fashion, it still manages to feel like cinema.
Rizi (Days) has screened at the Berlinale Film Festival 2020.
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