An Extended Illustration of “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone”

Ron has written a very interesting, incisive introduction to the last decade or so of an Asian film movement, a significant change of style, termed a Second Wave. One thing is for certain, water is a major element of consideration in Asian films. In advance of anything experimental that American and European films are attempting to do, there is an exciting formal shift at work in films of the East Asian directors, some of whom have arrived at the indie art houses in recent years–Wong Kar-Wai, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and the Korean directors, Lee Chiang-don  of “Poetry” (2010) and Bong Joon-ho  of “Mother” (2009).  I recall doing the facilitation for Wong’s “In the Mood for Love” at Tacoma’s Grand Cinema when it came out. I asked of the few attendees: “Who has seen another film in which so attention had been given to riverlets or sheets of rain water streaming down peeling, dilapidated walls, or the slow motion ambulation of characters, merely coming and going or sitting, smoking, and waiting?” Naturally, the response was something akin to, “Yes, odd! But what did it mean?” No matter the meaning, it was fascinating to observe the artistic concentration on moments resembling the slowness of real time, especially the dwelling of the camera lens on what was essentially an abstract painting of color and motion. As you say, there is in these minimalist films a story being told, but the idea of a film plot and narrative as representative of a traditional literate novel’s plot has been abandoned for something approaching a filmic or cinematographic literacy in which the images, either still or moving in real time, are of focal importance. As a change from the past inquiries, it is not so much “What?” but “How does a film mean?” The idea of returning to the pre-talkie film, to imagistic film of color, mood and movement, with only faint ambient sounds intrinsic to the environment being audible, this is an experiment in creating pure film.

Tsai Ming-liang’s “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone” (2006) was a good example of how images show, and tell, all. Set in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in an outlying slum district, this film shows nameless characters of indistinguishable nationalities in relationships, but no frequent dialogue emerges to help us know their personalities. We comprehend their characters slowly through their behaviors and gestures and through interactions. As with Tsai’s 1992 debut film, set in Taipei, namely “Rebels of the Neon God,” the apartment dwellings of Kuala Lumpur are less than adequate for comfortable living. In the case of the characters in “Sleep Alone”, a young man of some meager employment takes in a homeless immigrant, severely beaten up by a gang of thugs. Living in what appears to be a condemned high-rise, which had been abandoned after initial construction, the poor inhabitant becomes a nursing care-taker of the injured youth, keeping him washed, helping him to the toilet, and giving him his mattress to share within a mosquito net. Another young man shows up as the third lodger, who was an earlier mattress mate of the owner, and now he is nudged to the outside bedding. Although there may have been hints of homoeroticism in the close intimacy of daily existence, there is nothing sexual enacted between the males; the interaction shows us sensitive moments of caring. It appears that Good Samaritan altruism is at work here for the sake of companionship, for someone to feel close to. Not all, but nearly all actions are performed in a mood of apathy and resignation to a life of no possible change towards prosperity.

In this illustration of non-traditional plotting, I will not reveal all the scenes and significant moments of action; I only intend to show the surface because each viewer must interpret the happenings as s/he understands them. A mattress may be considered a central object or symbol, particularly useful as a means of continuity. I believe the intention of the film-maker is precisely to offer minimal explication so that the viewer must engage in a greater degree of thoughtfulness than is usual in movie-watching. The sensual and sensuous are carefully illuminated.

Atmospheric settings are very important in Tsai’s work. In “Sleep Alone,” a dark pool or a still-water lake has collected at the base of the apartment building, and as with the undrainable water seeping into apartments in “Neon God,” this body of water appears to be un-hygienic, even severely polluted. The pool is within the building itself and has risen up, drowning one or two storey levels. Is this the waste water from the apartments above? In one scene, the recovering immigrant sits motionless with a fishing rod by the murky pool; he is joined by the care-giving youth and together they silently smoke a cigarette. The morbid water surface does not move, save with the incidental splash of a droplet falling from upper storeys; it serves as a mirror of light, cordoned by pillars running in colonnades around the floors of the building. The building is something to behold and to imagine. The apartment setting, the toxic water, the location of the building in a large city, the poverty of the squatters—these are images one views and questions.

Otherwise, there are other characters who appear in vignettes, sketches of life in another apartment of the building and in cafés and back alleys. One is an older, passive woman, a café owner, who, when home, meticulously cares for a comatose young man, a hopeless case. Therefore, again, there is selfless altruism at work, the woman perhaps being the mother or relative of the invalid. Also a young girl, another employee in the café, an underling who lives in a loft above the older woman, takes turns watching and caring for the bedridden youth. Our protagonist, the immigrant, now recovered, has found his way to the city café where the women work, and without words the old, sad woman and the youth meet in the back alley for a languid, erotic liaison. Before long, however, the protagonist has teamed up with the younger girl and they have fallen in love. Mysteriously, an oppressive fog or smoke-stream blows through and slowly encompasses the city, and we soon understand that it is composed of toxic gas, necessitating that people don face masks for protection. Inadequate as the improvised masks are, the young couple make love, even though they are encumbered by coughing and respiratory difficulty. All of the action is performed wordlessly.

Throughout the film, scenes unfold when a character is casually passing by other apartments, perhaps up or down a flight of stairs; East Indian lyrical music with a spiritual longing is playing from recording machines or perhaps being sung live in rooms the camera does not enter. Small groups have gathered to smoke and listen. Surprising as the film has been in its absence of dialogue, with little need for subtitling, there is subtitled translation of the songs we hear. Unusual lyrics, they are songs of love, of the need for connection, and for divine aid, allowing us to understand the sensitive nature of the music the ordinary people are attracted to. Often when watching foreign films, one craves subtitling to know what a song’s lyric means in the context of a scene, but none appears. Here in an almost non-talking film, Tsai does allow the viewer to know the song’s message. As I have intimated, atmospherics and dynamic sounds are vitally important in Tsai’s film: air and water, so important to human wellbeing, are polluted; everything and everyone seems on the brink of survival. In spite of an entropic, dystopian world, people are still capable of caring for others, tenuous as life is, and human needs are sustained. Tsai’s vision of the struggle of humanity is a simple and broad expression of people’s coping in an ailing world.

David Gilmour


3 thoughts on “An Extended Illustration of “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone”

  1. My own feelings about I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) resonate with the thoughts you express in your posting. I would like to add a few additional impressions.

    The very sensuous (but not erotic) images (sight and sound) of skin being washed, lotioned, scratched, touched, and otherwise manipulated evoked memories of one of your film selections for the Tacoma Film Club a few years ago, Woman In The Dunes (1964).
    Both films share a similar sensibility, achieved by using long, lingering camera shots of skin and surrounding physical elements such as drifting sand and flowing or dripping water, creating textures from reflections off sand dunes and pooled water.

    I was also struck by the powerful images of human empathy and sympathy created in this film. The story of A Good Samaritan has never been expressed more powerfully than the images in this film. There is a poster on the wall over the mattress where the homeless young man has been taken by strangers to be cared for after having been beaten senseless by a group of grifters; The poster says “I love you” in English, and what is depicted happening in that room where the poster hangs is a pure form of what Humanists would call ‘pure love’ and Christians ‘agape’.

    Tsai Ming-liang’s films often create two or more parallel narratives. In Rebels of a Neon God (1992) one storyline involves a young man who is rebelling against his family and a second involves a pair of minor hoodlums and their girlfriend. These two stories run in parallel, but intersect at certain points. And there are various symmetries in the structure of the film in terms of who knows who the other is during each encounter. Tsai Ming-liang’s distinct editing style takes some getting used to before one can follow these plotlines. I have had to watch each of his films a second time before I could follow the intertwined plots, although I find that it is now coming easier to me than the first time I watched one of his films. I find the cognitive task of watching his films to be similar to what I sometimes do when sitting in a coffee shop or restaurant where several conversations are taking place at surrounding tables. While hearing snippets of conversations, intermixed in semi-random order, my mind somehow constructs individual narrative stories of what is being described at each table. Something similar happens while watching a Tsai Ming-liang film, except now sometimes the individual stories intersect with one another.

    The first time I watched Sleep Alone I had no idea that the actor playing the comatose man laying in the bed was the same person who played the homeless man who was befriended. It was only during the closing credits that I discovered that the same actor played both parts. With that information, my second viewing of the film was a quite different experience from my first. Two parallel stories emerged, one reflecting an external reality and the other an internal fantasy world of the same character. This is of course not the only interpretation of the narrative story(s) depicted in this film, but once one approaches the film from this perspective, many specific details that “don’t seem to quite make sense” on first viewing, fall into place beautifully; at least they did for me!

    I give this film a rating of 5 out of 5 stars, worth watching more than once.
    Ron Boothe

  2. Addendum to “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone”

    One of the benefits of DVD viewing is the opportunity to watch again a film just enjoyed, or to reconsider a scene that caught one’s fancy. I mentioned above the inclusion of subtitled lyrics that director Tsai chose to show because they resonate with the action in the film, allowing the foreign viewer to see what the social gathering of listeners were attracted to musically. I often take notes on dialogue from subtitles to remember the discourse between characters. However, with “Sleep Alone,” my wife took some photographs of the closing scene with the subtitles displayed. It is a most apt conclusion to the film.

    The parting scene depicts three characters—the young girl, the Samaritan and the immigrant, a trio of lovers–cuddling, sleeping together on the mattress afloat in dark space which seems to be upon the lake of water. The immigrant lies between the girlfriend and his benefactor, for both friends had made intimate connections with him. They sleep peacefully as the mattress floats from a distance toward the viewer. A song of hope and renewal plays over their floating, sleeping bodies:
    Winter has gone and spring is here,
    Bridges are filled with flowers again.
    I want to stay in your arms
    Because you are the only one for me.
    Winter has gone and spring is here,
    Bridges are filled with flowers again.
    Can’t you see the pairs of butterflies?
    I want to tell you that I love you.
    You have filled the space in my heart.
    Spring in Jiang Nan is lovely in March.
    Can you hear the canaries sing of love?

    [The reference to the city of “Jiang Nan” implies this is a Chinese song.]

  3. Nice of you, Ron, to bring up that quite unusual, if not unique, Japanese film. Regarding Hiroshi Teshigahara’s “Woman in the Dunes” from 1964, I think its artistically refined cinematographic work was, because of its time, more in the vein of Bergman’s intellectual filmwork. There is a profound allegorical meaning to its story, but the narrative element is secondary to the cinematography with its close-ups of body parts, microscopically depicting skin pores and sand grains. For many seconds one doesn’t quite know what an image depicts because of its abstract texture and composition. The connection is made between microscopic images of insects (the man was an entomologist and photographer) and high-resolution shots of small areas of the human body, often depicting bristling hair and sweat beads coated in sand. The man and woman live at the mercy of the elements. The human beings were like insects caught in an ant-lion’s trap, out of which they couldn’t climb, with no way to get purchase by hand or foot. Eventually there is resignation that the condition of man and woman trapped together is their fate. They must make the best of it in shared labor of existence they did not willingly choose..It was a cruel, inescapable situation presented in “Dunes.”

    Though the cinematophotography of the much later Asian films we have been commenting on is important in dwelling long shots,of a city-scape or a building, an allegorical meaning is not so imposing. Social interaction has some freedoms. The people, the characters, in the Tsai’s films do appear to be trapped in a grim world, but they are constantly wishing and struggling to escape the doldrums of their underclass existence. They find human connections by choice. In “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone,” there is the body of the comatose youth who is helplessly trapped by his condition, which could be a symbol of the gross limitations of escaping a type of incarcerated existence. Nevertheless, he has nurses and care. The mother has some freedom–she works and has resources–but she is trapped as care-giver to the youth. Resignation is written in her apathetic face. For the other youths, there is through charity a solidarity of togetherness that brings comfort through shared needs. Layers of fate are shown. .

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