I Don't Want to Sleep Alone
2006, NR, 115 min. Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang. Starring Norman Atun, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Pearlly Chua, Lee Kang-Sheng.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 20, 2007
For his most recent feature, director Tsai returns to his homeland of Malaysia after years of making internationally acclaimed films in Taiwan. The minimalist poetry of Tsai’s narrative style remains fully evident in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, and also present are a couple of members of his recurring cast of players (Lee and Chen) and dominant visual motifs (most notably, long takes and human inundation by water). Although I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is nearly wordless and slow moving, the film’s characters are compelling and its pace hypnotic. The Kuala Lumpur in which the story is set is a vast urban jungle of immigrant workers, most of whom are getting by on subsistence jobs in the wake of the Asian economic crisis of the Nineties, which left many of Malaysia’s foreign workers instantly unemployed. Heat, grime, and humidity rise up from the streets in a welter that will test the psychological benefits of any projecting theatre’s air-conditioning system. Workers speaking a babel of Mandarin, Malay, and Bengali languages inhabit the warrens of half-built buildings that have been abandoned midway through construction. A pool of stagnant rainwater collects in the ground level of the one building we observe. Yet even amid this living decay, Tsai manages to compose shots of beauty as angular reflections of architectural girders criss-crossing the shimmering surface of the squalid water. The lives of three intersecting characters provide the film’s crux, although their tales are told through two parallel storylines. In one, a character listed in the credits as Homeless Guy (Lee) is beaten up and left for dead by a gang of con artists. He is discovered on the sidewalk and taken home by Rawang (Atun), a worker who is struggling to transport an unwieldy but prized possession: a found futon. Rawang tenderly ministers to the guy, bathing him and holding him upright to urinate in a manner which, despite its kindness, does not seem wholly platonic. In the parallel story, cafe worker Chyi (Chen) is also forced by the shop’s boss (Chua) to minister to her paralyzed son (also played by Lee), whom she bathes and rubs with various salves. Once the homeless guy becomes ambulatory and frequents the coffee shop where Chyi works, he becomes the object of her sexual desires, as well. Yet the quenching of desire falls prey to a smog that overtakes the city and forces everyone to don surgical masks in order to breathe. Kisses start well but end in suffocating gasps and paroxysms of choking. Tsai’s drama is something like a mixture of Robert Bresson and R.W. Fassbinder, as God’s bedraggled souls struggle with the desires of the damned, and nobody wants to go into that good night alone. (AFS@Dobie)