PRINT May 2007


Tsai Ming-liang

TSAI MING-LIANG’S previous film, The Wayward Cloud, was almost universally hated; at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival screening there were even walkouts in protest by those who found the work pornographic. It is to be hoped that the hostility and disgust it aroused (which I understand but don’t share) will not deter Tsai’s admirers from seeing I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, arguably the director’s finest achievement to date—and perhaps his most intensely personal as well.

Tsai has from the start of his career shown a predilection for long takes—from afar, with minimal, diegetic sound only—preserving the realities of time and space, rejecting the shopworn Hollywood practice of cutting to close-up for emphasis or for ease of reading facial expressions; of using background music to tell us what we should be feeling; and of using editing to truncate time and space. But rarely before has he pushed his methodology to the extremes encountered in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. (His six-minute take of a woman crying in a desolate park at the end of Vive l’Amour [1994] is an extreme instance and an obvious antecedent.) Prior to the new film’s moment of climactic violence, marked by an abrupt stylistic rupture, virtually every scene is staged within a single shot, camera completely static, no editing. There are, I believe, only three minor exceptions: the film’s seventh shot, in which the camera briefly pans left along a crowded street as it follows four Bangladeshi men carrying a mattress they have retrieved from a Dumpster; a very slight movement right, to reframe, which occurs well past the halfway mark, near the beginning of a sexual encounter in a dark alley, and is barely noticeable (sorry I mentioned it); and, finally, a shot three-quarters of the way through, in which Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) sits on a concrete floor just above the flooded foundations of an unfinished high-rise, with a huge moth on his shoulder (here Tsai cuts when the moth flies out over the water—an edit that may well be attributed to the fact that insects don’t take readily to direction).

Arguably the most significant of the film’s many long takes appears toward the beginning—the ninth shot, to be exact. The image itself is striking, with its near symmetry of uprights (streetlamp, tree), its play of light and shadow—it’s the sort of picture one might frame and hang on one’s wall. The shot, a bleak streetscape on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, is further complicated by complex patterns of movement (traffic, pedestrians), which turn it into “cinema.” It is night. On the far side of the street, which cuts diagonally across the frame, a well-lit building (it could easily be a prison) stands beyond a high wall; in front of that, a low wall runs along the sidewalk, on which we can just make out a huddled figure. The foreground is dominated by a brick-paved median strip, from which a gnarled and largely barren tree grows; a patch of grass has sprung up over a large, irregular area where the bricks are missing. A strikingly pink plastic bag has blown with other detritus against the curb at the bottom of the screen—a flamboyant accent to a drab picture of urban desolation.

When the shot begins, there is movement along the sidewalk far in the distance, at the extreme right: It is the group of young men carrying the mattress that will play such a central role in the film. As they pass behind the tree and approach the mysterious man huddled in their path, he begins to stagger across the road—perhaps the moment we first register his presence. Ignoring him, the group continues along the sidewalk toward the left of the frame, at which point our attention becomes increasingly divided: On the right side of the screen we watch the silent, solitary figure, drunk or seriously injured, stumble across the freeway to the tree; on the left, the boisterous Bangladeshis suddenly decide to cross the highway. The two (group, figure) nearly converge on the median, where the figure collapses on the grassy patch as the group (now in the foreground) passes by and exits screen left. One of them (having seen the man pass out) calls to the others to stop. Cut! End of shot. There is no place, in a Tsai audience, for a passive viewer. At no point during this scene are we given the customary nudges (“Watch this, it’s important!”). But this shot depicts, in fact, the meeting of two of the film’s central characters, on which much of the complex narrative hinges. (It is not until the next shot sequence—in which the Bangladeshi workers carry the mattress upstairs to their decrepit boardinghouse and unfold it on the floor, revealing an unconscious body within it—that we realize, retrospectively, the mysterious figure crumpled up at the side of the road was Hsiao-kang.)

The partnership of Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng is surely among the most remarkable in the history of cinema. Tsai, who was born in Malaysia but has made all his films in Taiwan until now, announced some time ago that he would never make a film without Lee, and he has kept his word; Lee, in turn, appears in few films by other directors. In the pair’s first feature, Rebels of the Neon God (1992), Lee’s character might be seen as crypto-gay: Isolated in his family life, he becomes fascinated by a pair of dropouts who survive by stealing coins from phone booths. In Tsai and Lee’s next two collaborations—Vive l’Amour and The River (1997)—Lee’s characters are explicitly gay (if perhaps hesitant). With their fourth film, The Hole (1998)— which also introduces Tsai’s environmental concerns quite explicitly—the Lee character becomes abruptly heterosexual, moving toward a doomed relationship with a woman who already has “the sneeze,” a symptom of the film’s allegorical virus. In Lee’s subsequent roles he is consistently heterosexual—even, in What Time Is It There? (2001), mildly homophobic.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone gives Lee two roles: He first appears as a man in a coma who is nursed at home by his mother (Pearlly Chua) and her young assistant, Chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), a waitress in the mother’s restaurant; he next appears as Hsiao-kang, the young foreigner (a Chinese among Malaysians) who gets savagely beaten by a gang of street thugs (and thereby reduced to the collapsing figure in the shot analyzed above). The opening shot of the film introduces Lee 1 lying unconscious on his sickbed (and it is entirely possible that the film is nothing more than his coma-dream); a radio is playing Tamino’s “portrait” aria from The Magic Flute, which begins: “This portrait is more enchanting, more lovely, than ever eye beheld; I feel this divine image filling my heart with a new emotion.” This musical quotation is answered, subsequently, by another Magic Flute reference, the Queen of the Night’s furious “vengeance” aria. (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone was funded by the City of Vienna as part of 2006’s New Crowned Hope Festival, which celebrated the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth.)

Lee 1 remains nameless, comatose throughout the film. Hsiao-kang (Lee 2) is, of course, the battered victim taken home in the mattress and lovingly nursed back to health by Bangladeshi immigrant Rawang (Norman Atun), who falls in love with him. But Hsiao-kang fails to reciprocate; instead he falls for Lee 1’s nurse, Chyi. In time, they attempt to make love, but are thwarted by the choking smog that has descended upon Kuala Lumpur, forcing them to cover their mouths in masks (when they aren’t gagging)—and to abandon their lovemaking. Hsiao-kang and Chyi move in together, taking the mattress he hitherto shared with Rawang in the derelict high-rise to Chyi’s room in Lee 1 and his mother’s apartment—provoking the Bangladeshi’s jealous rage. The film moves relentlessly toward the terrifying scene in which Tsai breaks all the cinematic rules he has set himself: Suddenly, for the first time in the film, we are confronted with intercut full-face close-ups as Rawang threatens to cut Hsiao-kang’s throat with the jagged lid of a tin can. Few moments in Tsai’s previous features have such a direct, naked intensity. The film invites us to read Rawang’s wrath as the (delayed) enactment of the Queen of the Night’s “vengeance” aria, displaced from Lee 1 onto Lee 2. But even Rawang’s vengeance cannot be consummated: He is unable to go through with it, and Hsiao-kang tenderly wipes away his would-be lover’s tears.

This leads, however, to what is possibly the film’s most precious moment: Later that night, Chyi climbs into bed with Hsiao-kang, and for the first time the two lovers seem content merely to be together, touching without fully embracing. And then the film ends, with a lingering profile shot of Lee 1 lying in his coma, followed by an indelible image that is, clearly, a “dream” shot, or a glimpse beyond our world, although Tsai is careful to ground it in a relevant “reality.” We see the three central characters, at night, afloat on the mattress in the waters of the flooded high-rise. Hsiao-kang lies between Rawang and Chyi, his arms spread out to embrace them both. What the film seems finally to suggest is the possibility, for our greatly endangered future, of a life beyond domination (personal or national) and beyond global warming, of a “free” sexuality, based purely on attraction and affection, hence not at all on traditional notions of gender, family, monogamy, and sexual difference—a film for our future, if we have one.

For all its careful objectivity, its distancing and poise, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone strikes me as a deeply personal work. Would it be impertinent to suggest that the “I” of the title pertains to Tsai himself—that this “portrait” is, in the end, a self-portrait?

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone opens in theaters in New York on May 9.

Robin Wood joins Aysegul Koc in an interview with Tsai Ming-Liang in the forthcoming issue of Cineaction.