I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006)

12 April 2010

by Bobby Lowe, idFilm Co-Founder

When all before you is barren, return to what you love...

In some ways it seems odd to begin a film blog in 2010 by reviewing a 2006 production. In other ways it seems quite natural. This blog is after all the face of a new forum, one that grew out of an older community; Ming-liang Tsai's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone might be the last film everyone in that community embraced unanimously.

After the old community became, however, stagnant in its film discussion – though plenty of other discussion still flowed – we wanted to go back to basics, to return to what we loved. Start again: reinvigorate your critical sensibilities. Simply put, revisit one of the masterpieces that changed your life. Etc.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is filmed in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Ming-liang Tsai's native Malaysia. It tells the dual story of two men – credited as 'Homeless Guy' and 'Paralysed Guy' – both played by Kang-sheng Lee. These men are cared for by two different people, itinerant worker Rawang (Norman Atun) and waitress Chyi (Shiang-chyi Chen). The film is set against the telling backdrop of a densely populated city life; its characters are lost souls vying for their own space within Tsai's ever-still frame. There is a quiet optimism in the film, haunted by a lingering despair; this is a film about humans caring for other humans in an otherwise hostile world.

Early scenes evoke this with a minimalist, subdued sincerity. We watch as a group of men negotiate a main road carrying a mattress over their heads; within the same long-shot, we spot another man, struggling to walk along the same pavement. Here we have bumbling comedy bordering at any moment on surreal slapstick, juxtaposed with dormant seriousness. When the man collapses, one of the mattress carriers observes, “Someone fainted.” Another replies, “It's none of our business!” The men, the mattress still over their heads, exit the frame.

Where a great deal of art cinema seems to have lost its humanity of late, with many a filmmaker opting for the 'cold intellectual' route of observing social despair, Tsai's film cuts to the following scene and shows that the mattress-carriers, a bunch of workers living in decrepit living quarters, have indeed brought the injured faint-victim home with them. The elision between the scenes provides a wry smile; the brevity and ease with which the film develops hereafter is warming.
Before revisiting it recently, I'd only seen I Don't Want to Sleep Alone once, in March 2008. That viewing had a significant interruption midway through and I watched the second half vaguely distracted, my mind wandering. And yet when it ended I knew I loved it. In the two years between these viewings, I'd forgotten how much the film had actually impacted me at the time.

Here is a film whose entire dialogue could probably be contained on one side of paper, that runs for just under two hours, whose entire soundtrack is diegetic; a film that contains all of those noticeable formalist elements of not only what David Bordwell termed as art cinema, but, more specifically, what Jonathan Romney recently described as “Slow Cinema”.

And yet the film is neither pretentious nor pompous. It's a quiet, patient work whose overall tone haunts you for time after. Tsai's piece isn't so much a tapestry of preachy symbolism as it is a succession of recurring visual motifs and suggestive ideas, referring back on itself to create a sort of evocative portrait of human needs. Other critics might call it poetic.

All of these are framed through an unassuming static camera, and put together with an unassuming wit; simple transitions invoke a thematic simplicity, a narrative clarity. Early in the film its episodic structure seems fragmented, disparate; while never becoming totally lucid, by the end of the film its linearity seems fierce. Nothing could make more sense, be more coherent.

While it unfolds in near-silence, the 'silent film' description would be reductive. Much of the film's presence is through sound. The urban life beyond the derelict interiors that inhabit Tsai's film is ever-present through the hum of distant traffic and heavy air; the relentless suggestion of an inhibiting and dangerous metropolis provides an almost logical precursor for the poisonous haze that overwhelms the city late in the film.

Interiors are a sanctuary against a bewildering outside world. As the film develops, the literal interior spaces in which the Homeless Guy and Paralysed Guy are cared for seem to manifest themselves in the idea of an even more internal peace, that of sleep. From the off, the bed-ridden patient for whom waitress Chyi cares is comatose; as the film cuts between these scenes and those of the homeless character, there seems to be a suggestion of dreamy self-projection: is one half of this narrative a fantastical product of the other?

But things aren't clear-cut. Tsai's film is healthily ambiguous, where mere suggestiveness becomes an exciting idea in itself. The physical centrepiece of the film is an uninhabited construction site, half-flooded with unmoving water. The hypnotic draw of this body of liquid, in which you see nothing but the reflection of all above it, seems present not only in the way in which Tsai's characters engage with it, but also in how Tsai's own camera engages with it. The fixation on water is telling; there is a subtle fluidity to this narrative and the ideas contained within it. It is a fluidity enhanced by the rigidity of city architecture and an unmoving camera gaze.
Tsai's film shows an ambivalence towards the city. Its focus is on immigrant workers (Rawang, who cares for Homeless Guy, is Bangladeshi), and as such portrays them with an invigorating sense of faith and trust. At the same time, however, as Homeless Guy becomes more and more involved with his surroundings, falling for waitress Chyi – causing a near-fatal jealousy in Rawang and providing the film with its most devastating emotional moment – there seems to be the suggestion of a contamination of sorts, both sexually and socially, manifested by the mysterious fog that envelopes the city.

But this caution is directed towards the environment itself, not the workers found within it. As a work that gives expression to the isolation felt by people in the wake of a global economic meltdown, this film ranks up there with the best of any art. Pressing issues have never been so pleasantly voiced.

In I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, urban life is on the one hand a vibrant, beguiling showcase of wild neon; on the other, it is a brutal, alienating experience, courting internal collapse. It is this charged complexity, grounded by an honest focus, that makes the film a Modernist text in a post-modern world. It's never cynical; it does not adhere to the common artistic notion that the world is driven by a failure in communication. Rather, Tsai's film is accepting of life's multi-culturalism; crucially, too, of the ways in which humans interact, as social beings, when everything around them tells them otherwise.

Dir: Ming-liang Tsai Year: 2006 Country: Malaysia / China / Taiwan / France / Austria Running Time: 115 mins approx | With: Kang-sheng Lee, Shiang-chyi Chen, Norman Atun, Pearlly Chua