What does "slow cinema" — a term often associated with Tsai Ming-Liang — give you that a 3x speeded-up version doesn't? Take the opening scene of Days. It lasts about five minutes. At first, we just hear the rain and see a man staring at it from inside his house. But as the unmoving camera continues to observe him, our observation of the scene deepens. There's a glass of water on the table beside him. His chair is brown. The wall behind him is painted in a pale shade — maybe a light blue, or even white. In the reflection on the glass window he stares at, we see branches waving in the wind. The man is wearing a V-neck vest. With each breath, his chest gently rises and falls. The effect is meditative, sure. It's also melancholic.
The audience tittered as the curtain rose at the Berlinale Palast theatre to reveal this announcement: "This film is intentionally unsubtitled." Hah! As though words are the point in a Tsai Ming-Liang movie! If you want to know what this is all about, just peek at the synopsis: Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) lives alone in a big house… He feels a strange pain of unknown origin which he can hardly bear and which grips his whole body… Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) lives in a small apartment in Bangkok where he methodically prepares traditional dishes from his native village… When Kang meets Non in a hotel room, the two men share each other's loneliness.
If that opening shot showed us Kang's loneliness, this is how we learn Non is lonely, too. In his home, he prepares a meal in utter silence. We hear the water being turned on and off to wash vegetables and leaves and fish with such care and concentration that the process begins to appear like a religious ritual. We hear the gentle clang of vessels. This scene goes on even longer, and though it is packed with activity — Non is always doing something — the camera's stillness allows us to gaze at the space around him, and we sense the emptiness. Maybe I'm just projecting, but that's something you do a lot in this Taiwanese auteur's works.
Days is entrancing — it gently draws you into its world. It's Tsai's first feature since Stray Dogs (2013), which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. (In between, he made short films and virtual reality projects.) The press notes say that this film "concludes the exploration [the director] began in Journey to the West", which showed a Buddhist monk walking (slowly) through public spaces in Marseilles, France. I'm not sure that — the slowness apart — I see the connection between these films. But you definitely feel the connection between Kang and Non, especially in a very long erotic-massage session that's possibly among the least "sexy" sequences ever committed to film. Despite the "happy ending", this is less about passion than the proverbial two ships passing in the night. And then, each man is back to his lonely… days.
The press screenings of queer-themed films have been so stacked up during the last few days of the festival that it's begun to feel like a mini-PRIDE celebration. Apart from the awards in the categories these films are slotted in, they are also competing for the TEDDY, the official queer award at the Berlinale. On my last day at the festival, I watched Daniel Nolasco's Dry Wind, which revolves around Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo), a worker in a fertiliser factory. He has a fuck buddy in colleague Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), who wants something more. When a new guy, Maicon (Rafael Theophilo), joins the company and begins to flirt with Ricardo, Sandro becomes jealous. "Of him or me?" Ricardo asks, sadly, but he seems to know the answer.
Set in the Catalan region of Brazil, this provocative drama contrasts the numbing ordinariness of Sandro's life with his neon-vivid sexual encounters, some of which may be dreams. The visuals are ultra-graphic, and the first half-hour, especially, is filled with the fully unclothed objects of Sandro's gaze. Many audience members left, perhaps unprepared for this deep-dive into gay sexuality. But then, consider what Andrew Haigh, director of Weekend, said in the Guardian: "[The queer films at festivals] were showing a world I knew nothing about — a superficial, frothy romcom look at gay life. You want to be able to describe the gay experience in all its complexity without worrying that your film has to represent a community."
My last film at the Berlinale was Mohammad Rasoulof's rock-solid Competition entry There Is No Evil, which is a collection of four episodes — four different stories — themed on capital punishment. The Iranian director, who has often gotten into trouble with his country's censors, is not in Berlin because of a travel ban imposed on him. It doesn't matter. The film asks what he wants to: Do responsible citizens have a choice when enforcing the inhumane orders of despots? I was instantly reminded of Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Nizhalkuthu, which probed the consciousness of a hangman in the 1940s. What if the person to be executed is innocent? And even if he isn't, can one live with the burden of taking away people's lives?
The film humanises these men who commit inhuman acts. It is narrated with the simplicity that's the hallmark of Iranian cinema, but with the expansiveness of a Doestoevsky novel. One of the protagonists seems to lead such an unremarkable — borderline boring, even — life that it comes as a shock to see he's an executioner. He may just be pressing a button from an inside room without a view, but we are not spared the visuals of bodies suspended by a noose, twitching until they can twitch no more. In another episode, an executioner realises he may have "killed" someone he shouldn't have. The theme apart, there's no other link between these stories, but you can easily imagine characters from one episode becoming characters from another. With each kill, a little piece of soul disappears, until all that's left is a haunted shell.