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Decapitated Loneliness in Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (2006) September 9, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films.

Taiwanese Title: Hei Yan Quan
Written and directed by Tsai Ming-liang
Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Norman Atun

Bring Tsai to the Philippines and he’d still do the same – – maybe Manila in complete silence despite the heavy traffic, the city soaked in deafening political paranoia, social strands of poverty and faces of street urchins devoured in smoke, abortionists on the side, lingering cries of hunger, violence, and prostitution, headlights of cars at night, and the thieves of nostalgia brought into a small alley of families who eat pagpag and luncheon rats for dinner. It ends in a uniquely urban tone – – a sudden rainfall which eventually signals a typhoon – – its characters crossing a flood reaching up to their necks, until they disappear in sight. Great pitch, isn’t it?

Tsai Ming-liang’s reputation as contemporary cinema’s architect of unspoken sadness and urban alienation grows remarkably well through the years. Since his debut in 1992 with Rebels of the Neon God, he has attracted numerous followers not only from Western audience but also from his Asian peers. And with his contribution to New Crowned Hope Festival to commemorate Mozart’s 250th birth anniversary, Tsai is still consistent – – consistently absurd and affecting at the same time, making fun of life’s strange misfits, his static vision witnessing the most unlikely but the most profound circumstances in present-day living.

I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone is not anything different from his previous works – – what else to expect. Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi reprise their roles which made them famous, the long takes, the deadpan humor, the disconnected lives of the characters, the sexual tension, the blank spaces, the sparse dialogue, the heavy emptiness, except now everything is set in Malaysia, where Tsai grew up, in the squalid streets of Kuala Lumpur inhabited by Bangladeshi workers and hoodlums. It becomes political, considering its setting, like any of his film is – – the allusion to Kieslowski’s Red in What Time Is It There? and the excruciating stiff neck in The River as statements on Taiwan’s economic recovery yet dissociated and depersonalized urban culture are subtle hints that make them nonetheless powerful, not to mention thought-provoking. The way he uses motifs, Tsai apparently wants them to be nothing less than mere devices but strong characters – – the watermelons in The Wayward Cloud, the clocks in What Time Is It There?, the escalators in The River, the moviehouse in Goodbye Dragon Inn, and the mattress in I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone are silent metaphors, enabling the narrative to push further without the characters doing anything themselves, because their presence from start to end is enough to develop a sense of inexplicable understanding, perhaps something even Tsai himself has discovered during the process. Water remains his unmistakable trademark, it is omnipresent in each of his works, and more likely you will look for it even if it’s not there.

Contrary to the usual misgivings about films depicting modern life, the possibilities are endless. Without any build-up, Tsai would inject elements of magical realism in his stories, in such ease one might even wonder why some filmmakers are hesitant of doing it in the first place. That element of magic is always present – – that’s what makes the dreadful long takes bearable and the cumbersome ennui reassuring and delightful – – but here, it seems that the hat where the rabbit must appear is giving its magician away, losing its tricks on its most faithful audience.

Discussing the narrative through simple retelling of its plot is sure to diminish its merits. After all Tsai’s films never work that way – – every one of them requires experience, something that a particular viewer subjects himself rather willingly, never forced and always in his own right, because leaving the theater halfway through the film or turning the DVD player off has always been an option. Hsiao-kang looking at his double from a small opening in the wooden ceiling, Chyi wanting to release her libido but unable to present her passport in the hotel, Chyi’s boss skewered by Hsiao-kang’s fingers in an attempt to reach orgasm, enamored by his resemblance to her son in coma who in turn showcases an erection consoled by his mother’s hands – – these wordless sequences prove Tsai’s mastery of form, the completeness of his incomplete tales. These things, however, fail to swim the entire course of the relay – – the Michael Phelps in this tribute is probably Weerasethakul’s jawdropping Syndromes and a Century, such eeriness that staple one’s senses – – because before reaching the final lap it gets drowned in its own virtues, it forces its arms to flap and catch up but to no avail. Perhaps the film has not sunk in yet – – usually it takes days for a film by Tsai to overcome my self before I can tell if I like it or not – – but somehow it is clear after the credits roll that I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone has neither reinforced his oeuvre nor attracted more followers to see his films. On a positive note, however, I suppose these varying levels of maturity in his latter works bring renewed complexities and nuances to his scenarios, a welcoming addition to understand the decreasing life satisfaction in modern-day cities, as well as the irrelevance of happiness among urban dwellers whose priorities have radically changed in the last few years.



1. Oggs Cruz - September 10, 2008

Great stuff, Chard. I haven’t seen this yet. Don’t know exactly where to steal a copy from, hehe. Have you seen Hole, which I think is Tsai’s loveliest movie. I read somewhere that this one goes very well with Lee Kang-sheng’s Help Me Eros. Lee’s The Missing is also wonderful. I’m glad you got rid of the star system, hehe.

2. Richard Bolisay - September 10, 2008

Thanks, Oggs. There’s a lot flying around in bootleg stands if you have time to visit. Haven’t seen The Hole yet, would love to, but The River is my favorite among those I’ve seen. I don’t know if you would agree but I think after What Time is it There, despite using the same style and motifs, Tsai’s films have behaved quite differently, there is something in them that reeks of social maturity. Of course they are present before in his previous works but now, they become more obvious to my sensibility.

The Missing – – i like it too, very deceptive and simple – – could it be that Lee Kang-sheng is his alter ego? Have you seen Help Me Eros? The stills are very provocative.

Haha, after one year, I decided to let them go, but anyway the stars are still there – – over my head.

3. Oggs Cruz - September 10, 2008

What do you mean by social maturity, and is it a good or a bad thing? The River is great. Actually, all of Tsai’s movies are brilliant. I favor The Hole because of the humor and the thematic simplicity. Actually, all of Tsai’s films are funny (I’m not sure about this one though, since I’ve read its pretty morose).

I have Help Me Eros but it lacks subtitles. Yeah, I noticed that Lee and Tsai’s works are very similar in both style and theme. He’s a talent to watch, and I’ll wait for the day that he separates from Tsai’s aesthetics.

4. Richard Bolisay - September 10, 2008

It’s a good thing for sure, his films have aged quite a bit, he has explored ways to present his ideas, like the use of musical theatre in Wayward Cloud, no matter how absurd, or traversing cultural alienation in I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone. The “social maturity” thing is plain nitpicking on my part, I must admit, subtlety is still his best quality as a filmmaker – – but you’ve mentioned the word, right, the latter ones are a bit morose compared to his early works. Perhaps that’s what made me said that.

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