Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Norman Atun, Pearlly Chua.
Watching Tsai Ming-liang's "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" you feel like a visitor in a strange city who's been separated from his tour group and become lost in a part of town that's not on the itinerary. It's not just that you don't know the language, you don't recognize the behavior -- or the filmmaking approach.
Viewers who know only standard film language will find Tsai's technique foreign indeed. Establishing shots leading to medium shots and an alternating of close-ups between protagonists? Not in Tsai's world. Artfully revealing dialogue and nuanced line deliveries? Nope. A linear plot. Hardly. Background music to spur emotional responses in the audience? Come on. Tsai is a charter member of the so-called Sixth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, those directors who arrived in the 1990s ready to leave the lush, emotionally powerful works of the Fifth Generation -- '80s classics like "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Farewell My Concubine" -- in the dust. These younger directors, among them Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye and Zhang Yuan, set their works, not in the romantic, rural, costumed past, but in the contemporary, confusing, urban world. Alienation as theme, alienating as style.
"I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," Tsai's most recent feature and his first to shoot in his native Malaysia, is a return to his true Sixth Gen form after the outrageous porno-musical sunsplash "The Wayward Cloud"; it's more in line with Tsai's "Goodbye, Dragon Inn," "The Hole" and "What Time Is It There?" The film has two main plot lines. The first centers on a young Chinese man, Hsiao-kang (played by frequent Tsai leading man Lee Kang-sheng), making his way in the strange world of Kuala Lumpur. Wandering into a group of native street numbers runners whose language he doesn't understand, Hsiao-kang is beaten and left lying in the curb. A group of Bangladeshi day laborers take him to their pathetic dwelling, and one of them, Rawang (Norman Atun), nurses the inexpressive, virtually mute foreigner back to health while forming an attachment to him.
The second story concerns a middle-aged café manager (Pearlly Chua) who cares for her invalid son (also played, unrecognizably, by Lee). The son is virtually comatose, save for his eyes remaining startlingly wide open -- and staring at the overhead camera -- as his mother and her pretty young employee (Chen Shiang-chyi) give him sponge baths. The two story threads are tied together (loosely) when Hsiao-kang gets involved with both the café boss and her waitress while alienating Rawang.
The film is all blank, emotionless behavior and documentary-style detachment, but at the climax, Tsai pulls a movie miracle out of his bag of tricks, and it's simply a closeup, that Rosetta Stone of Hollywood cinema, denied us for nearly two hours then bestowed in all its overpowering glory. Tsai reminds us that the human face will make itself understood.
Strand Releasing's DVD is, unlike the movie, simple and straightforward. The grubbily efficient cinematography is captured in a nice transfer and is presented in 4:3 full frame (how revolutionary!). Director Tsai Ming-liang shows us the melting pot of contemporary Kuala Lumpur, and the capital city's diversity is reflected in the range of languages, among them Malay, Bengali and Mandarin; the English subtitles are large, bright white and easy to read.
The full-motion main menu offers the options of Play, Chapters (there are 12), Original Theatrical Trailer (a wordless montage of scenes from the movie) and Other Strand titles (trailers for Apichatpong Weerasethakul's acclaimed "Syndromes and a Century," Brazil's "Love for Sale," the French "Man of My Life" and Aki Kaurismaki's "Lights in the Dusk"). There are no other extras.
Not the kind of film you should recommend to someone you've just met, "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" (who exactly the "I" is remains a mystery) is nevertheless a major work from a major Asian director. The "story" of a (literally) beaten man coming back to something resembling life is a challenge. Tsai Ming-liang works in images, not in easily read signifiers of behavior and situations. You barely get a good look at anyone's face through most of the movie, the dialogue is sparse, there's no score, no effects, nobody does anything, and the editing style is as far from the Hollywood standard as can be. American viewers used to the incessant cutting of, say, a Jason Statham actioner will suffer ungladly Tsai's long, static shots. But ... you who are reading this aren't those viewers. Strand's DVD would have been improved by a commentary track by an astute observer of new Chinese cinema, but it's recommended nonetheless.