originally posted by madhuban
(12/21/06 6:29 am)
I Don't Want To Sleep Alone (2006) - Tsai Ming Liang
I Don't Want To Sleep Alone is structurally more complex than any of Tsai's previous films. Hsiao has had doppelgangers in relation to Tsai's oeuvre - every film is like an episode in Hsiao's life. Here, Hsiao has a doppelganger within the film. He is both a comatose patient cared for by two women, and a homeless stranger who gets beaten up and is rescued and cared for by a Bangladeshi construction worker. At the crux of the film are the intersections and momentary connections between the homeless man, the two women, the Bangladeshi man and the comatose man, complicated further by the fact that the homeless man could well have been dreamt up by the one in a coma. As the borderlines between dream and reality merge and fade into each other, we are witness to a much more multi-ethnic, babel-like city, Kuala Lumpur, where Malay, Mandarin, Bengali, Malayalam, Cantonese and Tamil obfuscate the chances of communion. In a melting pot of languages, cultures and immigrant histories, silence is the only marker of speech and, touch, the sole residue of the sensual. Touch seems to offer to these anonymous, displaced, throbbing bodies the possibility of connection.
Touch, in this film, takes many forms. It is the measure of care as Rawang, the Bangladeshi worker, helps a badly beaten-up Hsiao to get up and urinate. Touch, and more particularly, a hand job, leading to an erection, assures the mother of Hsiao, the comatose man, that he is biologically alive. Touch fulfills Chyi's aching lust for the homeless Hsiao. Hsiao's touch which is sought out, is like a spell of rain in the mother/coffee shop owner's arid sexual life. A particularly violent kind of touch is expressive of Chyi's disgust with the comatose body and her dissatisfaction with the claustrophobic life she is forced to lead. Touch, in this film, constitutes and configures the biological and performative (including sexual performance) bodies of the characters in different ways.
Like touch, the mattress is a densely packed metaphor in the film. Since migration and the lack of a home (both metaphorical and physical) add a further layer of disconnection to the abiding theme of urban alienation, the mattress becomes a surrogate of home, pulling together myriad associations of sleep, rest, care, security, comfort lovemaking, as well as their opposites. A discarded mattress that Rawang picks up from somewhere has bugs that trouble his peaceful sleep, while for a bruised and ailing Hsiao, the same mattress is a sign of care and comfort. Towards the end of the film, when Chyi drags the mattress from Rawang's dwelling to her loft, it is with the hope that she can sleep with Hsiao, who has been evicted by Rawang. For the homeless Hsiao, the mattress in Chyi's loft conjures up a vision (or is it real?) of an angry Rawang with a knife keen on avenging his betrayal.
Recalling the mysterious viral epidemic in The Hole, a thick haze from fires in neighbouring Sumatra, envelops the city towards the end of the film. All the characters put on masks made out of a dizzying range of household objects - plastic bowls, folded plastic sheets and so on. The haze makes seeing and touching difficult, emphasises disconnection, and provides one of the most striking moments of dark humor as well Chyi and Hsiao try to make love on Rawang's mattress with ludicrous gasmasks, struggling in vain to breathe and kiss at the same time. It is a moment that is both tender and grim, not unlike a subtler moment earlier where people of different ethnicities stand outside a store in their gasmasks, watching the television playing Tamil (one of the languages from South India with a vibrant film industry) film songs. The gasmasks add a macabre dimension to a city where language offers no possibilities of communication and making meaning, and it turns more sinister with the televised spectacle of a song-and-dance sequence that none of the spectators can connect with but, nevertheless, spectate.
For Tsai, the space where he films is of central importance. At the centre of I Don't Want To Sleep Alone is an abandoned, half-constructed shell of a building with the courtyard filled in with a stagnant pool of water. The abandoned building is much more than an architectural site whose nooks and crannies determine Tsai's shots, but is living testimony to the history of the migration of labour and real estate development and their dark undersides in Malaysia (like the empty apartment in Vive L'Amour). Much like the building, whose non-completion reflects economic destabilisation, the Bangladeshi immigrants who were brought over to meet the demand for labour, are simply abandoned in a growing city that has no use for them. Trapped like the pool of water, they lead furtive lives on its edges, inhabiting its dark passageways, illegally hawking cheap, garish lamps and squatting in its abandoned buildings. While all his films engage with cities and their political histories in a subterranean way, I Don't Want To Sleep Alone foregrounds it in a manner that challenges the easy global rhetoric of cosmopolitanism and multi-ethnic coexistence.
In such a context, sleep is invested with many meanings. Sleep allows dreams; provides succour and strength. Sleep is also a slowing down and signals delay in establishing connection. Before the mesmerising final image, Hsiao waits for Chyi in her loft, but when she eventually arrives, he is fast asleep. Reminiscent of the swinging bench in the park in The Wayward Cloud, where sleep interrupts the connection between Chyi and Hsiao (first, Hsiao is asleep, and when he wakes up, she is asleep). Sleep is important because it enables dreams, but also nightmares. The comatose Hsiao sleeps too, and is almost dead for the world. But his sleep/dream begets his double, Hsiao. Before I saw the film, I had read somewhere about Tsai introducing I Don't Want To Sleep Alone with an enigmatic story about a Chinese philosopher who dreamt of having become a butterfly. Waking from the dream, the philosopher wondered if there could also be a butterfly dreaming of being the philosopher. That the dream in Tsai's film could work both ways - a dream that begets the real or reality that seems like a dream - is driven home through the tantalising shot of a moth on Hsiao's shoulder. And, when the stunning final image of the mattress with Chyi, Hsiao and Rawang floating out of the reflected, upturned image of the construction site with a lamp trailing behind them, arrives, we cannot distinguish between the real and the imagined anymore, and it ceases to matter.
P.S. The circumstances in which I saw the film were abysmal. Unfortunately, Tsai has acquired a reputation for pornography since The Wayward Cloud and the theatre was full of people who came expecting titillation. When they did not find what they expected, they went bonkers with the pace of the film. Instead of quietly leaving the theatre, they resolutely stayed on, booed and whistled, spoke loudly into their mobile phones, and called the film "intellectual @#%$", making it an ordeal for the interested minority. Sincere pleas did not help and we were condemned to watch I Don't Want To Sleep Alone in what seemed like a Sunday morning fish market. It was heartbreaking to see Tsai (it happened with Hou Hsiao-Hsien as well) attracting this kind of audience, and maddening to have to watch the film in such awful conditions. I feel that I've missed much because a Tsai film is very cerebral and demands a lot from its viewership. I've cobbled together the review inspite of feeling that I haven't quite grasped the film. I desperately want to see it again, soon.
Edited by: madhuban at: 12/21/06 6:45 am