Sleepless in Malaysia


Led by a magic flute that not all can hear, avant-pop marches on: I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai Ming-liang’s contribution to the same “New Crowned Hope” Mozart festival that underwrote Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century and Bahman Ghobadi’s Half Moon, is an enigmatic, largely wordless ritual performed over the often comatose body of the filmmaker’s alter ego, Lee Kang-sheng.

An axiomatic presence in Tsai’s cinema ever since Rebels of the Neon God established him as the most perversely minimal of young Taiwanese directors, Lee was last seen as the watermelon-ravishing porn-star protag of The Wayward Cloud. There, he barely seemed a character. Here, his blankness is compounded—he plays two manifestations of the same person, identified in the credits as Paralyzed Guy and Homeless Guy. (Or perhaps it’s the same Guy simultaneously occupying several temporal planes.) As usual, Lee is the universal object of desire and, as always, he’s acting in his own silent-movie universe.

The Paralyzed Guy is introduced, lying in a hospital bed, perhaps listening to Mozart, as the Homeless Guy wanders through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, getting himself beat up when he inexplicably tries to hustle a gang of hustlers and then getting himself rescued from the pavement by a Bangladeshi guest worker. Tsai’s eighth feature is his first to have been shot in his native Malaysia and, stylized as it is, it draws substantial human interest from Kuala Lumpur’s urban locations—most spectacularly, a vast, flooded construction site.

For much of the movie, both Guys are tenderly nursed but, just when it seems as though Lee will sleep—alone and otherwise—through these languorous proceedings, his Homeless incarnation is up and about, hanging around a late-night noodle joint, eyeing the young waitress (Chen Shiang-Chyi, another Tsai regular). As this is a Tsai picture, sex inches ever closer—the PG’s catatonic gaze notwithstanding. So does urban disaster, in the form of a mysterious haze somehow connected (or suspected of being connected) to the city’s multi-ethnic foreign workers. Wearing surgical masks, the HG and the waitress grope and cough as they desperately suck face.

Albeit closer to ballet than drama, this urban nocturne is one of Tsai’s most beautiful and naturalistic films—at least in terms of its rich, humid, almost viscous ambience. The narrative, however, is pure fable—complete with a mysterious ending that leaves the protagonist and his lovers bobbing like a cork on a sea of chaos.