Sunday, May 04, 2008

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

It’s a mistake to view Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone as a representation of isolation.

It’s instead an essay on what keeps people together in the face of the relentless forces that keep us apart. Desires, duty, affection, loneliness, chance encounters, curiosity, and less articulated and labeled feelings and processes suffuse every frame of the film. The environment of Kuala Lumpur is man-made, sublime, paved, alternately brightly lit be fluorescents and halogen lights and filled with darkened warren-like alleyways: a major character in itself. One extended public space. From the alley where the fortune-teller works his grift, and where the homeless man is beaten, the street where the homeless man is found stumbling along by the Bangladeshi workers, to the workers apartments with ebbing and flowing residents and visitors, the coffee stall tables without social boundaries, the alley where the brief anti-intimate sex occurs. All of the spaces are where the characters conduct their lives, but none of them are private, bounded, or permanent. They are all spaces to be passed through on the way to elsewhere. And yet, by necessity, the characters use these spaces for their lives.

The scenes during the time of the oppressive haze catches that sense of unchecked development blowing back and choking the illegal and poorly paid workers and the homeless and near faceless.

I was struck most by this focus on people living in spaces that don’t belong to them. And in that sense, the film contemplates the future. The first bed-ridden character could be assumed to be the homeowner, but in a later scene it’s clear that some other, absentee family member owns the place and the sick man is like unfortunate furniture to be covered up during a showing of the apartment.

The romance between the homeless man and the coffee stall girl is conducted in brief encounters in stairways, during breaks during her work, under bridges, and in abandoned construction sites. They persist in their attraction in the face of obstacles they encounter, and when they finally come together on the futon, under the mosquito netting, in the empty concrete space of the unfinished building, they see each other over their makeshift masks. They seem to risk suffocation in kissing each other in the smoke and pollution that blankets the city, and they persist in trying to consummate until their wracking coughs stop them. Frustrated by another environmental obstacle, but closer to each other despite this.

Rawang’s, the Bangladeshi worker, tender care of the homeless man, his patience and diligence and ingenuity he brings to confront each of the small problems of cleaning the mattress, cleaning and dressing the homeless man, arranging ice on his forehead, dealing with the insect infestation and so on demonstrates a zen spirit in the face of suffering. Making his later homicidal frustration with the homeless man all the more remarkable, conqured though it is by a direct affectionate touch.

The long observational takes, very few cuts, very little dialogue, the use of music and the ambient radio as a narrator both resembles and diverges from ethnographic film. The long takes, the observational distance of the shots, the sense of realism captured in the settings and of behavior resemble the tropes of visual anthropology. The non-judgmental stance of the camera especially echoes that field. The lack of a narratorial voice explaining what we are seeing is unlike most documentary film, but the lack of that voice here I think increases our sympathy with the characters by feeding our curiosity in their simple actions.