Wednesday, January 14, 2009
I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Hei Yan Quan) A Film by Tsai Ming-Liang (2006)
A celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday in 2007, marked as the New Crowned Hope Film Festival, comprised of some challenging films including Apichatpong Weerasethakul's two-part Syndromes and a Century, Bahman Ghobadi's Half Moon, and Tsai Ming-Liang's ninth feature, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. Strand Releasing issued the film in 2007 with gaudy design, but Ming-Liang is a brilliant auteur, so his dreamy film naturally makes up for it. Lee Kang-Sheng plays both a lethargic vagabond rescued from the streets by a group of immigrant construction workers and a bald comatose son being nurtured by a waitress (another Ming-Liang regular, Chen Shiang-chyi) that is bossed around by the mother. It's difficult to tell at first that both characters are Kang-Sheng - given that the homeless man's hair is like a mop as opposed to the paralyzed man - but their situations and demeanors are suspiciously congruent as to perhaps suggest a dual personality or "two sides of the same person", or perhaps something different altogether: both the men are being cared for by another, and both are emotionally repressed. Kang-Sheng's performance is typically silent and pensive, with his wandering mannerisms on constant cruise control as he drifts through the hazy Malaysian streets (the backdrop of the film being Tsai's native country).
Much of the film ebbs and flows almost randomly, deeply establishing its destitute characters before finally advancing its laconic narrative about an hour and a half through. Therefore, much of the film is viewed as a moment-to-moment appreciation that eventually gets tiresome, but this slow fizzle is reciprocated in the engrossing final act. A toxic smoke, the result of a fire, begins to capsize the city streets and acts as a powerful counterpoint to the character's suffocating longing for one another; gas-masks and all, Kang-Sheng's homeless man gropes at the passionate Shiang-Chyi as Rawang, the homosexual construction worker forging a connection with him, accumulates humid jealousy. Ming-Liang uncharacteristically reveals himself as an adept, if still faint, dramatist here, even imparting a brief scene of reverse close-ups.
Aside from this interjection, Tsai's visual style is still his miraculous formalism. The compositions are immaculate in I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, capturing the creaky dwellings of claustrophobic Malaysian alleyways, the impersonal immediacy of the Kuala Lumpur's urban culture (restaurants, apartment complexes, and a football stadium), and most ravishingly, a flooded construction site with sunlight seeping in. Tsai works mindfully with the frame, filling it up tastefully with dead space or entrancing appliances (such as a fan or radio), and often splits it into two scenes: one a smooth vanishing point and the other a tight point of stasis which often comprises an odd human behavior. Although almost all of the words in I Don't Want to Sleep Alone come from either radio broadcasts, music, or off-screen comments, the film speaks poignantly about love and alienation (two common Ming-Liang themes), and like most of his films, leaves a viewer swarmed by thoughts for days.