Friday, May 11, 2007

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone

Tsai Ming-Liang's latest film I Don't Want to Sleep Alone introduces some changes to the director's well-established cinematic universe. For starters, Tsai sets the film in the urban squalor of down-and-out Kuala Lumpur in his native Malaysia, rather than his usual Taipei, trading his customary lower-middle class anomie for a more rough and tumble existence. Tsai also splits his main character (played as always by Lee Kang-Sheng) in two and intercuts two competing realities. In one reality, a beat up (and long-haired) Lee (identified as Homeless Man) recovers under the care of a Bangladeshi construction worker, while in an alternate reality a bald Lee (identified as Paralyzed Man) remains in a catatonic stupor and is cared for by a young waitress (Chen Shiang-Chyi) and her lascivious mother. The waitress also appears in the other reality which, given the fact of Lee's consciousness, is granted the majority of screen time. All this is not to say that Tsai has abandoned his cinematic grounding altogether, simply that his fascinating new film adds some intriguing new wrinkles to an already well-established milieu.

In Tsai's films, Lee Kang-Sheng's character (usually identified as Hsiao-Kang) is notably non-communicative, drifting through his world with little verbal comment and reaction. Here he is reduced to complete silence in both his incarnations. As Homeless Man, his silence may be because he, a Taiwanese man, cannot speak Malay (his whole presence in Malaysia is unexplained) or he may in fact be mute. Perhaps to make up for his verbal deficiency, his actions seem more aggressive. His aim is as driftless as before, but he pursues romantic interest (both with the waitress and her mother) with more vigor. Eventually, a dusty haze (an environmental event similar to those that afflict Taipei in Tsai's other works) overtakes the city and people are reduced to walking around with dust masks. When Lee and Chen finally attempt to consummate their budding attraction, they cannot kiss without breaking into coughing fits. The pseudo-apocalyptic touch, in this case a bi-product of urban life (and blamed by the government on immigrant construction workers) prevents genuine human interaction.

As important as the relationship between Lee and Chen is the third part of what becomes a triangle (if we include Chen's mother, the geometry gets more complicated), the Bangladeshi construction worker, played by Norman Atun. As he slowly nurses Lee back to health, they began to share the same mattress and, although they never embrace and no words are spoken between them, the extent of the attraction (at least for the Bangladeshi) soon becomes clear. Atun turns in an especially fine performance, limited to acting, like the others, almost exclusively with his face. In his strongest moment in the film, when he confronts Lee with his perceived betrayal, he begins the scene with a yellow plastic bag over his face (to prevent dust inhalation). Forced to communicate with only his eyes, he manages to convey genuine anguish even before tears start to form. Finally, the bag is pulled away and Atun is allowed the full range of facial expression. If one of the primary advantages of the cinematic medium over arts such as theater is the ability to focus on the human face, the forcing of the actor to express himself visually and not verbally, then Tsai and his actors use this advantage to full effect, even as the director's inarticulate characters remain mostly mute.

Tsai's visual style is noted for its brilliance of composition within long, static takes. Here, with the exception of one hand-held shot that wavers slightly, the camera remains stationary during the entire film. The sureness of the director's eye allows each scene to hold the audience's attention throughout their rather lengthy durations, the perfection of the composition and the wealth of visual details generating continual interest, whether Tsai is filming a group of men carrying a mattress down the sidewalk from the other side of a busy highway or lensing more intimate shots of Chen or Atun washing a comatose Lee. Some of the film's most striking shots take place in an abandoned construction site that has become flooded with water. In one shot, the camera focuses in close-up on a moth as it comes to rest on Lee's arm. The next shot, a medium shot, reveals Lee fishing in the flooded area with a makeshift pole, while the moth leaves his arm and flits around behind him. The moth flies wildly, seemingly without purpose, but as it comes to a rest, Tsai's camera fixes the frozen moment, one of the many moments of beauty that intrude in a directionless world. Tsai's achievement, here as elsewhere, is to capture both the lack of direction and the beauty.

1 comment:

SoMars: Literary Journal of Mayhem and Hysterics said...

this review makes me want to see the picture especially for the creative additions that Lang includes to his cinematic oevre mentioned in your article...Also, the locale is intriguing because I was in Kuala Lumpur many years ago when my father got a Fullbright scholarship, and I'd like to see what the cinematography concentrates on within the framework of Lang's classic shots and the split screen identities and realities and the main characters.