I Don't Want To Sleep Alone Review
After his strangeness of his previous film – the porno-musical ecological-disaster movie The Wayward Cloud - Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang returns to a style and themes more closely aligned to his earlier films like The River and The Hole. To do so he returns to his birthplace, Malaysia, where he has never made a film before and visualises a familiar world through the eyes of an outsider. A slow meditation on the issues that affect people on an everyday basis – communication, alienation, immigration, eroticism, compassion for our fellow man, an awareness of the serious ecological problems affecting the planet - I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone confronts these issues in a typically oblique manner, maintaining an elusive quality, a portentous mood and heavy symbolism.
At the centre of the film are a young couple from mainland China, illegal immigrants trying to survive in modern-day Malaysia. The young man (Lee Kang-sheng) falls victim to a group of street thugs carrying out a scam that promises easy money and is beaten up by them. Left on the streets of Kuala Lumpur in a badly injured state, he is discovered by a man (Norman Atun) who takes him to his house and slowly nurses him back to health, sharing with him the second-hand mattress he has just bought and cleaned up. His girlfriend meanwhile (Chen Shiang-chyi) is working during the day in a café and in the evenings helping the owner of the café (Pearlly Chua) nurse her husband who is lying in a coma. (Just to confuse matters in a typically Tsai Ming-Liang way, the man in both cases is played by the same actor, the director’s regular leading man Lee Kang-sheng).
The film explains nothing of the relationship between the characters, their individual histories or their motivations, but invites the viewer to view them purely on humanitarian terms – not as characters with a personality, whether good or bad, but solely as people in the here and now. The Chinese couple cannot speak the bizarre mix of languages and dialects employed in the city, so are unable to communicate their situation or desires to anyone. So busy are they trying to simply survive on the streets of the city that they barely even have time to maintain any kind of relationship either. All they want is a place to lie down and sleep together, but without identity papers they cannot stay in a hotel and even in the improvised setting of a ruined building, the problems of the world outside – in the form of a huge cloud of smoke from burning Indonesian forests that invades the city – prevents them from being together.
The same sense of ecological disaster impinging on the lives of the characters was evident in The Wayward Cloud, the resultant drought leading people to seek satisfaction for their alimentary needs - as well as sexual and emotional communion – through watermelons. Here in I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone there is an abundance of water, but it’s one that fills the lower level of an abandoned ruin of a building that the characters inhabit.
It’s difficult to understand what exactly Tsai Ming-Liang means by all this or work out just why he depicts the situations as he does. Any direct interpretation of the symbolism would in any case be pointless, since it is the mood that is created over the length of the film that really counts here. Almost completely absent of dialogue, the director makes use of music throughout – from Mozart’s The Magic Flute to traditional Chinese opera – to express the issues and emotions that each of the characters feel. The humanitarian sentiments – indicated most evidently in the title I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone - are however inescapable, and the director’s means of expressing them, while slow and difficult to pin down, are nonetheless thoroughly involving and satisfying, exerting a hypnotic force that is likely to haunt you for a long time afterwards.