I Don't Want To Sleep Alone

I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (2006)

I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone first published by EyeforFilm, 14 Nov, 2007

Although it is the eighth feature of Tsai Ming-Liang, I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone is the first to be set in Malaysia, the land of his birth – and while all the Taiwan-based director’s films have deployed impassively static camerawork, languid pacing and meandering, near-silent narratives to induce a state of mildly disorienting calm in the viewer that is not unlike the onset of sleep, this latest work also makes sleep its central theme, as characters, whether dreamy or dreamt, doggedly pursue love to stave off the loneliness of night in a foreign land.

Kuala Lumpur. A Chinese coffee shop owner (Pearly Chua) takes turns at nursing her comatose son (Tsiao regular Lee Kang-Sheng) with her young waitress Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi), who sleeps in the attic. Tending to the immobilised patient’s every need, their devotion leads to a kind of jealousy. In the meantime, while out with some friends collecting an abandoned mattress to furnish his rented room, Bangladeshi migrant worker Rawang (Norman Bin Atun) chances upon the unconscious body of Hsiao-Kang (also played by Lee Kang-Sheng), beaten up and left for dead in the street.

Rawang tenderly nurses Hsiao-Kang back to health, sharing his mattress with the Taiwanese stranger – but once back on his feet, Hsiao-Kang also attracts the attention of both the shop owner and Shiang-Chyi. After one masturbatory encounter with the boss, and several aborted attempts at sex with the waitress, Hsiao-Kang finally finds a place where both he and the two people he most loves no longer need sleep alone.

Like the abandoned, half-built towerblock that forms the film’s centrepiece, the comatose man is an empty shell who still has room for others in his interior. Indeed, most of I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone would appear to be unfolding in his subconscious, as his most basic human impulses and appetites are granted free dramatic form. For although Tsai has drawn characters from Malaysia’s ‘invisible’ underclass, and settings in some of the capital’s most squalid accommodation, from such prosaic foundations he has erected a somnolent reverie on alienation, desire and restlessness. In all their social realism, Tsai’s urban environments threaten to absorb and stifle the characters’ erotic ideals, in one memorable scene literally suffocating two would-be lovers in a thick, smoky haze of pollution; yet in the end, space can be found even in this most unforgiving and harsh of cities for peaceful togetherness – even if it is only in a free-floating fancy.

If there is any movement at all in the plot of I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, it can be measured in the conveyance of a mattress to different locations, in Hsiao-Kang’s gradual return to health (contrasted with his alter ego’s stasis), and in the different arias and love songs that play on the comatose patient’s bedside radio (in a film that was originally commissioned as part of Vienna’s New Crowned Hope Festival celebrating the anniversary of Mozart); but really this is a film concerned more with images than narrative, and its final image, revealed in a very long take, is as beautiful, haunting and deeply irrational as anything ever captured on celluloid.

strap: Tsai Ming-liang’s Malaysia-set reverie tracks a comatose man and the frustrated desires of his awake double

Anton Bitel