Tuesday, 3 April 2007

I don't want to sleep alone 黑眼圈 (2006)

Love in the time of haze

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is Tsai Ming-liang's latest film. We know the director as the strange Malaysian emigre who's made a career out of making incomprehensible but very beautiful, erotic, moving, and very slow-moving Mandarin films, all of which tend to feature Taiwanese daytime drama actor Li Kangsheng in various states of undress. This time round, Li Kangsheng gets to play two roles in the movie, which means that there's double the exposure here. I'll try to top Li's act by splitting myself into 3 imaginary roles to give a rambling, but beautiful meditation on the movie.

1. The lascivious auntie views Li Kang-sheng's exposed butts

Tsai Ming-liang makes art films that critics at Cannes rave about, but normally close within a week of their commercial release. Way too arty, except for the fact that you can always count on the obligatory scene(s) where Li Kangsheng bares his bottom (and more). The actor may be a mainstay on Taiwanese daytime soaps (Fiery Thunderbolt, Taiwan Ah Seng, just to mention a few), but aunties who have grown to know and love the boyish-faced actor will be hard-pressed to see any revealing footage of him in these family fare. Instead, they'll have to enter the cinematic clutches of Tsai Ming-liang in order to get their fix.

The auntie will get more than what she's bargained for as the director casts the actor in two roles that drive the plot of the movie - or are driven by the plot of the movie: Li is a bed-ridden quadriplegic man who is almost a living dead. He's lovingly fed, clothed, bathed, powdered, and fanned by his elder sister, who turns on the radio to Cantonese opera, Mandarin evergreens, and the occasional Italian opera to lessen the hell he is suffering. But even then, paralysed bed-ridden men have feelings and urges, as do their selfless caregivers... Li also plays an itinerant beggar who is so badly beaten up by the hoodlums of Kuala Lumpur that he is now slowly recovering in a long convalescence in the loving care of a Bangladeshi labourer who found his broken body on the streets. The feverished man is lovingly fed, clothed, bathed, powdered and nursed by the complete stranger, but in the long companionship of social outcasts, even feverished beggars have feelings and urges, as do their selfless caregivers. Everyone's feelings and urges, and fears of having to sleep alone, will end up enmeshing both stories.

To an auntie, this movie could well be a triple-hanky weepie teledrama, with its theme of unrequited love, helpless heroes, and melancholic, even futile longing that screams to be fulfilled.

2. The Malaysian censor contemplates the represention of life in KL

The Malaysian censor wishes Tsai Ming-liang would make a much more arty film out of I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. Even hopes that perhaps the director will restore the missing 1 hour of exposed Li Kang-sheng goodness to the theatrical cut. But no, the problem is there's way too honest-to-goodness eroticism in this film. The problem is that the movie is set in Kuala Lumpur, one dominated by scores of abandoned building projects home to illegal Bangladeshi labourers, where a Chinese beggar is beaten up by a gang of Malay bomoh conmen, and where the provincial government is unable to combat the haze problem (PSI reading: over 600).

It's not just about KL's haze problem, poverty problem, or even race relations that must surely be under attack by Tsai's movie, but that the director manages to find really humorous ways of highlighting the absurd in each situation. How else can one view a recurring joke about a makeshift mattress that is discarded, reused, washed, and moved from construction site to constuction site, shophouse to shophouse? I can think of at least 5 politicians (a former PM, a former DPM, the leader of an opposition party, and the current PM) who would be uneasy with the irreverence Tsai shows to the most sacred of courtroom witnesses in the country... or at least would be very uncomfortable with a film set in KL, but only featuring the poor - and only telling the stories of poor minorities.

It is with great regret that the Malaysian censor had to ban Tsai's movie. Aside from last year's After This, Our Exile, there hasn't been a local film that basically showcases popular music sung in the streets, aired on radio, or screened on roadside VCD/CD shops. Tsai is at his best when he crafts entire scenes to the rhythm and lyrics of local music - whether it be Mandarin evergreens, Cantonese opera, Bollywood musicals, or even Malay folksongs. It's a loving tribute to multiculturalism that sadly will be unknown in Malaysia because this movie is apparently banned because it offends racial and political sensitivities.

3. A musuem visitor on time and thought

At some points during the screening, I felt like a watching one of those installation art films that seem to be in the rage all over museums. You know, the glacial pace, the lack of dialogue, the scenes that seem to drag on and on. But whereas one might (and quite justly so) label these museum pieces as largely self-indulgent, one cannot escape the sensational epiphany that Tsai is so far beyond that. Every scene doesn't feel self-indulgent, they feel just about the right length. Take for example the scene where the paralysed Li is getting his morning ablutions performed by a caregiver. A cursory, 10-second shot is the conventional choice of all filmmakers; it establishes what is happening and moves on to other scenes where Things Happen. Stretch it 10 seconds further - it becomes an angsty scene where Li is subject to ablutions. Stretch it 10 seconds more, and you'll have the stereotypical self-indulgent "art piece" that museums show, but unfortunately is too grating on your patience because unlike a museum visitor, you can't get up and walk to the next film installation. Stretch that 10 seconds more, and you're in Tsai Ming-liang territory. You pass through the cursory understanding of the scene, to feel the angst, and yet when all that is done (and because the scene is still playing) you begin to ask: how does that feel for the character, really? Why this certain camera angle, that both obscures and highlights his face? How would it feel, if done in your stead?

Because Tsai Ming-liang gives full measure to time and rhythm, his film escapes the realm of pure entertainment, and enters the domain of pure contemplation. You won't enjoy watching this movie (aside from admiring Li's exposed body parts), but you will remember it days later, and you will continue to ask questions about the film, even then.

First published at incinemas on 5 April 2007

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