There's more genuine tenderness in "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" than in perhaps any of Tsai Ming-Liang's previous films, though those unconvinced by his minimalist approach and animalistic, often passionless take on desire won't be won over by the altruistic care-giving at its core.
There’s more genuine tenderness in “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone” than in perhaps any of Tsai Ming-Liang’s previous films, though those unconvinced by his minimalist approach and animalistic, often passionless take on desire won’t be won over by the altruistic care-giving at its core. With a pronounced Baroque palette and his usual astonishing use of light, pic looks ravishing — individual scenes make a deeper impact than the characters themselves. Far less provocative than “The Wayward Cloud,” Tsai’s latest will likely travel along the same limited path as his earlier titles, neither winning new converts nor dampening fans’ fervor.
Pic is Tsai’s first set in his native Malaysia, shot mostly in an incomplete and abandoned factory in Kuala Lumpur with cavernous spaces — and a pool of water — reminiscent of early versions of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Usual muse Lee Kang-Sheng plays dual roles: one paralyzed and the other practically catatonic. The latter, Hsiao Kang, wanders into a con game and ends up beaten to a pulp.
Rescue comes from a group of illegal foreign workers, part of the thousands of laborers stuck in the country after the Asian boom went bust. The men carry Hsiao’s broken body home at the urging of Rawang (Norman Atun), who apparently has done this sort of thing before. Rawang nurses the stranger, laying him on the old mattress– now newly scrubbed — the group had been carrying, and chastely sleeps by his side, content to have someone to look after.
Nearby, the paralyzed son of a cafe owner is tended to by waitress Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi). Unlike Rawang, she’s far from satisfied, routinely washing the body and humiliatingly forced by her boss (Pearly Chua) to manually pleasure him (this is a Tsai pic after all).
Once back on his feet, Hsiao encounters Chyi, whose needs are a lot more sexually driven than Rawang’s sensual though virginal ministrations. As the city fills with haze, a desperate carnal urge takes hold.
Perhaps it’s the new locale, but there’s more of a sense of solidarity here than in Tsai’s past films. For years the foreigner in Taiwan, now he’s filming foreigners in Malaysia, capturing their sense of being cut off from the society around them and making the intense sexual drive — never love, but a need for companionship — more meaningful.
As always, Tsai manages to create knockout images from the most unlikely subjects: a scene of Rawang holding up Hsiao so that the beaten man can relieve himself looks like a painting, the light coming through the window enhancing the saturated colors’ glow. There’s a Caravaggio-like element here in his use of shadows and highlights, always aware of where the light comes from. The final image, of three figures slowly floating on the mattress, reps a gentler Tsai, distant but perhaps less distancing than in the past.
The production designers didn’t have to do much to the vast spaces of the cavernous abandoned factory where the workers live, reminiscent of the backstage areas in “Goodbye Dragon Inn” and obviously a source of inspiration.