I Don't Want to Sleep Alone
A group of men in Kuala Lumpur clumsily but determinedly carry a discarded mattress through the night streets – eventually rolling up a wounded, homeless stranger from Taiwan (Lee Kang-sheng as Hsiao-kang) inside it, in order to transport him to a temporary resting-place. What better (or, indeed, funnier) way to convey, across a few relentless, statically filmed long takes, that we are to witness a story about the keen longing for home and contentment – both of which, in the modern world, are damnably hard to find?
Tsai Ming-liang’s films increasingly resemble a certain kind of performance art that came to the fore in the 1970s: a sequence of quasi-ritualistic, intensely physical, frequently enigmatic actions played out in almost total silence, with little or no conventional character psychology attached. Only that, in cinema as opposed to theatre, Tsai chooses to locate these odd rituals in real spaces: the usually run-down, unfinished, off-the-tourist-track sites of various metropolitan centres.
After the many visions of his adopted home city of Taipei and his trip to Paris for What Time is It There? (2001), Tsai returns to his birthplace of Malaysia for I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. His long-lived sense of estrangement as a Malaysian in Taiwan here expands, imaginatively, to include an entire cast of displaced immigrant Asians: Indian, Thai, Chinese, Indonesian … They can scarcely speak to each other, but that has never stopped Tsai’s characters from relating in a sometimes brutally primal way: furtive sexual encounters are portrayed in a flat, unromantic manner that inevitably (but discreetly) recalls pornography; violence looms and sometimes erupts in the streets; and, more than ever, people tend, with delicate intimacy, to each other’s obscure physical ailments (the shadow of AIDS is never far away).
Tsai’s champions are keen to herald each new film as a bold breakthrough in his career. His work, however, does not really progress in a linear fashion; rather, it circles back, obsessively, reworking this or that previous element from his filmography in a slightly different context or constellation. In many respects, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone returns us to the period of The River (1997) and The Hole (1998). There’s physical malaise; a vision of urban decay evoking an imminent or recent apocalypse; epidemic disease carried in the misty air; and, of course, water everywhere – as a primal force of nature, as private bodily fluid, and as the prime means whereby society enters and affects its citizens.
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone – an oblique response to the New Crowned Hope arts festival project devised for Mozart’s 250th anniversary in 2006, which funded it as part of an impressive film package – also has (unusually for Tsai) a specific political subtext. Its Chinese title, referring to black circles around the eyes, alludes to the case of Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, brought down by accusations of sodomy in a 1998 trial involving a semen-stained mattress as evidence. Although the conviction resulting from that trial was overturned in 2004, with Anwar released from prison, the persecution of homosexuality dogged him for years to come.
The musical fantasy interludes of The Wayward Cloud (2005) or the glimpses of screen magic in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) are gone, leaving us amidst the dingiest, filthiest locale that Tsai has yet found. The awfulness of the surroundings heightens the rampant, polymorphous desire unleashed by the entrance of Hsiao-kang into the lives of those around him – and, as in Tsai’s cinema since Rebels of the Neon God (1992), such desire is almost always unrequited or unconsummated, certainly unfulfilled at the imaginary level of a longed-for total fusion of bodies, hearts and minds. Indeed, one particular attempt at sexual congress appears to be thwarted by the city itself, its air increasingly filling up with a toxic haze.
But what is new for Tsai – complicating and deepening the Teorema-type fantasy of the rough street-angel wanted by all, male and female, young and old alike – is the dual casting of his adored Lee Kang-sheng as both Hsiao-kang and the unnamed son, paralysed and mute, of Lady Boss (Pearlly Chua). Both these male figures are simultaneously objects of desire and objects of care – and, as for Stephen Dwoskin in Intoxicated by My Illness (2001) or Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), it is impossible to tell, in the gestures of washing, inspection and massage, where charity (as administered by the character of Lady Boss’ submissive maid, played by Chen Shiang-chyi) ends and lust begins. As in The River, the act of masturbating another (a central trope in Tsai) has at least as much to do with kindly stress/pain-relief as with any sexual gratification.
Ultimately, the two men incarnated by Lee seem like the two halves of the same character. Tsai teases us, along this line, into imagining a more convoluted sequence of narrative events (is the story a time-shift between past and present?) or a more baroquely fantastic explanation (does the paralysed man, looking up into the room above, conjure his more active double?) – before deciding that, as always in his cinema, what we see is exactly what we are going to get.
Things may simply happen in Tsai’s world, presented to us in the simple, eloquent geometry of his framing and timing, but they are no less emotionally mysterious for that. Just as Tsai (much to the chagrin of some queer cinema proselytisers) tends to blunt the radical edge of his sexual explorations with an almost teenage dreaminess, he also artfully equivocates, in the superbly haunting final image, between rapture in both its senses: either the two man/one woman trio of Rawang (Norman Atun), Hsiao-kang and Chyi has found its earthly Utopia of togetherness, asleep on Rawang’s mattress, drifting through the watery building site – or it has floated off on a sea of socially-induced death, surrounded by cheap, colourful sparklers.
© Adrian Martin October 2007