Thai Garden

Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 89, No 4

I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE = HĒI YĂN QUĀN. A film by Tsai Ming-Liang; a FortissimoFilms presentation; Homegreen Films, Soudaine Compagnie present; director, screenplay, Tsai Ming-Liang; producers, Bruno Pesery, Vincent Wang; director of photography, Liao Pen-Jung; editor, Chen, Sheng-Chang. Culver City, CA: Strand Releasing Home Entertainment, 2007. 1 DVD (118 min.) US$175.00, Institutions and Schools; US$18.75, Home use. In Malaysian-Chinese with English subtitles.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is a 2006 film by Malaysia-born, Taiwan-based filmmaker, Tsai Ming-liang. The film poignantly captures the ways in which intimate space and life circumstances shape human desire, dreams, and love; it also explores the themes of emotional abuse and interdependency. Architectural space functions as both a stage and a metaphor to convey these human interactions: specifically desire, intimacy, and erotic dreamscapes.

The complex narrative of the film revolves around two invalids and their caretakers. One is the son of a shopkeeper who has been lying in a coma and is cared for by his mother’s maid. Another character is a homeless day laborer who was lured into a scam by a group of local men; when they find out that he has no money, the group beats him up and leaves him lying severely injured on the sidewalk. A group of South Asian migrant construction workers finds a used mattress in an alley which they are carrying home; along the way they discover the brutally beaten homeless laborer, and one of these South Asian characters, named Rawang, nurses him back to health.

The intertwined stories in Tsai’s film focus on the daily social and economic struggles, desires, and sexual intimacies of migrant workers, day laborers, and shop owners. Tsai employs close, cramped settings in specific architectural spaces to magnify human intimacy and expressions of sexual desire on screen. For example, the mother of the comatose character lives in an old Chinese shop house that occupies multiple stories. The maid sleeps in a loft located directly above the invalid; she occasionally peeps at him through the cracks between the wooden floorboards. The daily routine of cleaning his body creates an intimacy and sexual arousal on the patient’s part that only the caretaker knows. The scene involves the maid applying lotion to the mother’s back; the mother grabs her maid’s hand, adds more lubricant to it, and places her maid’s hand on her comatose son’s penis. The mother holds her maid’s hand as they stroke his penis. The act is not directly incestuous because the mother does not touch her son’s erect penis inside his diaper. She uses her maid’s hand to provide sexual relief for her son, and yet the mother’s involvement is questionable. The pair finished the man off with an orgasm. The viewer sees this scene of complicit incest as reflected in the mirror of a vanity table, making it extremely voyeuristic.

The viewer is likewise privy to scenes of homoerotic intimacy that take place between Rawang and the homeless day laborer. We see the two men share the used mattress covered with a mosquito net. Although no explicit sexual scenes take place between these two men on screen, there is clear evidence informing us that they are lovers. As the film unfolds, we see an affectionate scene that involved the two men sleeping, facing each other inside a mosquito net. They each take turns pretending to be asleep while the other ganders at his sleeping object of desire. The filmic magnifications of these intimacies and subtle expressions of physical desire is the tour de force in Tsai’s film.

Tsai uses architecture in unexpected ways to set his theater of desire. Later in the film, Rawang and his male lover move their mattress to a roofless, unfinished and abandoned skyscraper. Rainwater forms a reservoir in the center of the building that becomes a pond where the two men fish. A dreamlike scene shows a butterfly perched on the homeless laborer’s shoulder while he is fishing, and the sound of wildlife can be heard echoing through the edifice.  The building is clearly an oasis of love for these two men. In Chinese literature and arts, butterflies usually come in pairs to symbolize a pair of lovers; the single butterfly here might allude to and foreshadow the promiscuity of this character later in the film.

Indeed, we find out that like a butterfly, the laborer flutters from one flower to another. The two men continue their intimate relationship in the abandoned skyscraper, but the homeless day laborer pursues other partners on the street. Rawang discovers that his lover has been sleeping with the shop owner as well as with her maid. Rawang is enraged by jealousy that his lover is sleeping with the maid. One night Rawang goes out in disguise to find his lover and threatens to cut his throat with the lid of a can. He breaks down in tears before he can carry out his act. Rawang’s lover affectionately touches his agonized face and wipes away his tears of pain: these are the most touching moments in the film.

The ending of Tsai’s film is both comical and dreamy. Once again, the architectural space of the city and its cramped spaces lent itself to representing human intimacy and the eroticism of everyday life. The film ends with Rawang, the homeless laborer, and the maid moving the used mattress that they shared to the loft at the shop owner’s house. The used mattress is found at the loft located directly above the shop owner’s invalid son. The film ends with the three of them sleeping together on this mattress. Through digital effect, the mattress appears to float weightlessly on a body of water, evoking the pond found in the unfinished building: the oasis for lovers. The digital effect gives us the impression that the mattress is drifting slowly toward us, the viewers. Lee Xiang Lan’s 1957 Heart Song starts to play. This sweet and haunting song, sung in Mandarin Chinese, evokes the sensuality of spring and sums up the characters’ desire and sentiments for one another:

I want to stay in your arms because you are the only one for me.

Winter has gone and spring is here,

Bridges are filled with flowers again.

Can’t you see the pairs of butterflies?

A close-up shot of the paralyzed son’s face showing him breathing heavily while staring lugubriously at the ceiling, indicating to the viewers that he is excited and aroused by the ménage-à-trois taking place above him. Moreover, it is hinted at that their bedfellows also include the shop owner; after all, they all moved into her home. The pairs of butterflies evoked in the lyrics of the Chinese song reminds viewers of the single butterfly that we saw fluttering in the fishing scene that I discussed earlier. This comical and licentious ending is befitting of the English title of the film, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone—now they sleep together, perhaps not in the same mattress and at the same time, but they sleep with one another and with each other. The viewer walks away from Tsai’s film in a state of slumber, between awakening and dreaming, caught in an erotic dream. Tsai has evoked an out-of-the-ordinary desire that is sexually transgressive: it goes beyond the heteronormative binary. Stability is fleeting for migrant workers; they sleep on makeshift beds, but one thing no one can take away from them is the freedom to dream.

Boreth Ly, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA


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