One does not expect, in the 2020s, to just up and get a new feature film directed by Tsai Ming-liang. His tenth and most recent, Stray Dogs came out in 2013, itself after a four-year delay following 2009's Face, and it seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose that the strain of life and cinema had just gotten to the point where Tsai didn't want to do this any more, especially since he seems to have been very happy to prolifically fill the intervening seven years with anthology pieces and installations, many of them in his "Walker" series about the beauty of slow movement. And yet there it was, at the 70th Berlinale in the winter of 2020, the last big event of global cinema before things started shutting down: Days, a 127-minute minimalist epic about the lives of two men drowning in their own loneliness. And who knows, maybe this will be the last one, maybe not; either way, it is a beautiful thing to have been given by one of the best living filmmakers, working here in an unusually sentimental mood.

"Sentimental" by the standards of one of the most punishingly austere filmographies of the last thirty years, anyways. Tsai, for the benefit of those who don't know his work, is one of the most important of all "slow cinema" directors, prone to making movies in which scenes play out as long, barely-changing tableaux, with very little in the way of story; they are about environments and how people situate themselves in those environments, and about the emotions dredged up in silent interiority and reflection. Reflection on the part of the audience as much as the characters, for this is in a sense the point of slow cinema. Days isn't looking to change things; the opening title card announces that the film has intentionally been left unsubtitled, which is surely some kind of deadpan joke, given that there probably aren't a dozen lines spoken by any onscreen person in any language across those 127 minutes, and the ones that are spoken (in at least Mandarin and English) carry no meaning that we the viewers need to pay attention to. And yet, out of all Tsai's features, this somehow feels like the most agreeable and easy-to-watch, or at least it's a close second to 2003's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, a short (82 minutes) and relatively incident-packed love letter to the act of watching movies in stately old theaters. This is mostly because Days is uncharacteristically forthcoming about the emotional lives of its characters: you don't have to fight your way into the scenario, which is presented with limited ambiguity and obfuscation, even despite the whole "nobody talks or really does anything" situation.

Anyway, the film: Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai's most persistent collaborator (all eleven features, and a few of the shorts), place a man who lives in a nice house - his name is allegedly "Kang", and we might as well use that, but it's never clarified in the movie itself - and is sad. How sad? Enough that he spends his time staring vacantly out at the rain, as we see in the film's knockout opening shot: Lee framed just off-center to the right in a medium-long shot, the camera staring at him through a picture window that reflects a strip of light across his forehead, with out-of-focus raindrops falling occasionally in the foreground. And inside the house, everything is white and spartan. And this goes on for four minutes and 29 seconds, during which time there is no movement other than Lee's deep, steady breathing and those fuzzy raindrops, and there is no sound other than the rain. It is, one the one hand, a bit of a trial-by-fire, Days making sure that we're up for the task of watching it by throwing the most extreme version of its extreme aesthetic at us right from the start. On the other hand, it actually does serve its purpose: forcing us to sit with the character's empty, detached feeling, letting the tedious duration of the shot serve as an embodiment of his mental state.

Days will never do anything exactly like this ever again, but every subsequent shot - all of them very long takes, I think all of them with a static camera - similarly functions as a very precise composition that comes laden with emotional meaning. But they are also simply about capturing a slice of the world, which always seems to exist outside of the frame, visually and sonically, and letting us absorb whatever we can from looking at that slice for a long time. This combination of carefully-constructed artfulness and an almost documentarylike "plop the camera down and watch people and other things move around in front of it, or not move" aesthetic is nothing new for Tsai, to be sure, but something about the way he deploys this in Days feels fuller than usual, more attuned the hum of the city. Sound design is a crucial element of this film, particular the jarring contrast between loud traffic and urban noise, and the still, quiet buzz of interior spaces. For that matter, the picture editing is pretty thoughtful as well: the very first cut takes us from Kang looking at the rain (we hear, but barely see, water) to floating silently in a tub (we see, but barely hear, water), and those kinds of visual contrasts and comparisons across the cuts, often very overtly in the shift from busy streets the empty rooms, drives much of the film through its ghost of a story.

Ah yes, the story. So there's another man, "Non", played by non-actor Anong Houngheuangsy, and he's Kang's opposite: poor, living in a cramped apartment, constantly busy with chores and odd jobs. The titular days are, I gather, in reference to how each man's life clicks by as the same thing over and over again with little distinction or human connection; eventually this changes when Kang, suffering from a neck ailment, books a full body massage that Non performs, a barnburner of a centerpiece sequence, several minutes of melancholy eroticism. Melancholy in that it is clearly not going to do anything other than create a slight bump in that long chain of days, though it will at least provide the two men with a pleasant memory, symbolically visualised as a music box that Kang gives Non (the first time we hear it play, and thus the first time that Days indulges in overt sentimentalism, is almost unbearably moving, particularly in the context of Tsai's typical austerity).

Putting all of the human warmth in the middle of the film, and letting it trail off so inevitably at great length, is in a sense the most cold and punishing thing the film could have done, and I would not tell you the lie that this is an upbeat film. It is lonely and quiet. But it is also powerfully humane. Stripping away the actors' ability to speak means that we have nothing to go on, really, but their faces (including a close-up in shallow focus, an outrageously rare gesture from Tsai that hits with unbelievable force because of it, and because of how its worked into the film's aggressive sound editing). And those faces tell us a great deal about isolation and desire and the importance of whatever little bits we get of connecting to other people in the midst of being trapped with our own private miseries. It is a challenging film - this director doesn't make any other kind - but it is so preposterously beautiful in its challenges, and in the human truths it stops to look at along the way, that I found it unusually easy to love, for something that seems like it should be intellectually and emotionally remote.