Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lee Kang-sheng, Norman Atun, Chen Shiang-chyi, Pearlly Chua
Written by: Tsai Ming-liang
Directed by: Tsai Ming-liang
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Taiwanese, Malay, Mandarin, Bengali, with English subtitles
Running Time: 115
Date: 09/04/2006

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2007)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Nap of the Human Heart

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Tsai Ming-liang's previous movie The Wayward Cloud was quite a bit more disparate and difficult to explain than his other features, and the same goes for his new I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. To start, Tsai's regular leading man Lee Kang-sheng appears in two roles, although it's not clear how or why. The film opens with a man laying in a hospital bed, either sleeping or unconscious, while opera trills on a nearby radio. Next up, we see the same man, or perhaps a different man, getting himself into hot water with a con man on the streets. (Let's assume that it's Hsiao-kang, since Lee Kang-sheng plays roughly the same character with the same name in all of Tsai's films.) We can infer from the dialogue that Hsiao-kang is now in Malaysia instead of Taiwan, and is unaware of the language or the customs. (Though currently based in Taiwan, Tsai was born in Malaysia.)

Next up, a group of young men dig a mattress out of a dumpster and carry it halfway across town. They come across the badly beaten Hsiao-kang and carry him home. A man, Rawang (Norman Atun), cleans the mattress and sets up a bed for Hsiao-kang, washing him, caring for him, bringing him food and even sleeping beside him under a mosquito netting. Meanwhile, a waitress Chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), at a nearby cafe looks after the paralyzed Hsiao-kang doppelganger. Apparently this is part of her job duties, which also includes "pleasuring" the patient. The recuperating Hsiao-kang runs into Chyi, and they begin one of those trademark Tsai relationships, based more on sex and loneliness than actual romantic devotion.

Most of the film takes place in a large, mostly-abandoned concrete-and-steel building, which is partially flooded. Hsiao-kang and others often sit by the indoor lake, either fishing or listening to a generator (perhaps a pump?). All of Tsai's films use water as a motif, both for its life-giving properties and for its destructive properties. Water is usually beating away at man-made structures, or it sits, gathering disease and pollution. The Wayward Cloud took place during a drought. But all that water does little good as this time Tsai focuses on its opposite, fire, filling the city with a rolling, choking smoke that causes most of the inhabitants to don cotton masks. When Hsiao-kang and Chyi try to make love, they wind up coughing and wheezing before they can even make it to second base.

As with The Wayward Cloud, Tsai imparts most of the movie's core information through news broadcasts and radio announcements. But even so, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is highly arbitrary, and most of the above plot and character description is merely guesswork. The pleasure here belongs to Tsai's images, which can be both familiar and baffling, or beautiful and humorously deadpan, or realistic and supernatural. It's best to give up ideas of plot, story and characters and just explore these amazing images, one by one. In one scene, Rawang helps the still-weak Hsiao-kang stand up to pee, then washes away the waste with a scoop full of clean water. As we wait for Hsiao-kang to finish his business, the scene's composition, light and off-screen sound tell volumes about the peaceful mood of the scene, and the water finishes the job, leaving us refreshed. (See also my longer review at

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