I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006)
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai Ming-liang. Set in Kuala Lumpur during the summer, while smoke from Sumatra wafts over the hot sticky city, the film portrays a love triangle while breaking all the rules of audience satisfaction. The camera lingers on long extended shots of narrow hallways in dilapidated buildings; of rheumy back alleys; of narrow rooms stuffed with old boxes, dirty plastic fans. There is no external soundtrack, thus the emotional cueing usually provided by mood music is missing. There is hardly any dialogue: much like a Jacques Tati film, almost all the sound in IDWTSA comes from the ambient soundscape, dripping faucets, crinkling plastic, Chinese opera on the radio. No characters are defined; they are not assigned names and their relationships are left vague. There is no definitive ending. One actor plays two characters, one of whom is paralyzed—that actor happens to also be the director. In other words, it’s a foreign art house film. And yet it is also the best dramatic depiction of the life of the working, migrant class of Southeast Asia I’ve seen. This is the urban landscape, the urban people, which tourists—and wealthy locals—don’t see. Tsai’s techniques of aesthetic frustration force the viewer into the frustration of the characters. We experience their kindness and emotional needs, their confused desires and attempts at inner satisfaction in a night-time cityscape of crumbling concrete, half-built structures, graffiti covered walls, grime and isolation. The film technique borders on documentary without commentary (the only obvious moment of “movie magic” involves an oversized butterfly in what may or may not be a dream sequence—how did they get that thing out of shot, anyway? A butterfly wrangler?). While this is arguably Tsai’s most difficult film since his feature length debut Rebels of the Neon God (1992), with which it shares a fierce determination to avoid aversion when filming in squalid conditions, it is also his most rewarding.