Wednesday, September 13, 2006

2006 TIFF--Hei Yan Quan / I Don't Want To Sleep Alone

In her TIFF program capsule, Giovanna Fulvi describes Tsai Ming-Liang as the "master of absurd minimalism" and synopsizes that in Hei Yan Quan / I Don't Want To Sleep Alone "we find Tsai's spectral muse, Lee Kang-Sheng, wordlessly trysting with not one but three equally laconic consorts" and, in typical fashion, "the stoic characters grasp at each other for physical contact."

The film's press kit synopsizes the film thus: "After being attacked and robbed in Kuala Lumpur, the homeless Hsiao Kang [Lee Kang-Sheng] is taken in by some Bangladesh workers. One of them, Rawang [Norman Bin Atun], lets Hsiao Kang sleep beside him on an old mattress he has found. As he nurses Hsiao Kang's wounded body, he feels calm and contented. Is it because of the mattress or because of Hsiao Kang?

"Chyi [Chen Shiang-Chyi], who waits tables in a small coffee shop, is also nursing someone: her lady boss's paralysed son. Chyi hates her life. When she happens to meet Hsiao Kang, her body fills with lustful desires. However, her difficulty in finding a place to have sex with him brings home to her just how little freedom she has.

"As Hsiao Kang slowly recovers, he finds himself caught between Rawang and Chyi, pleading for attention like a stray cat but equally capable of fluttering away as free as a moth. Chyi's lady boss [Pearlly Chua] also develops lustful feelings for Hsiao Kang, finding that he resembles her paralysed son.

"Meanwhile, a heavy haze envelops the city that is so humid that it reeks of the sweat of its multiethnic population. These men and women and the old mattress lose their way in the haze, but perhaps find each other...."

Tsai Ming-Liang introduced the screening of I Don't Want To Sleep Alone by expressing his regret that Lee Kang-Sheng was unable to attend; he had to return directly to Tapei from Venice to begin work on his second film. Of course, Tsai's regulars--Lee Kang-Sheng and Chen Shiang-Chyi--star in Tsai's latest but he hoped we would also like his new Malaysian "discovery", Norman Bin Atun.

Tsai shared philosopher Tzoang Tzu's dream of being a butterfly, which--when he awakened--prompted Tzoang Tzu to wonder if he was dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Tzoang Tzu? Tzoang Tzu's dream recalled me to my nearly-finished novel in the drawer, Confessions Of A Demented Jaguar, wherein a man dreams he is a jaguar who is dreaming he is a man. Both instances intend a focus that all things are one and the interdependence of all things. If we have the patience to stay through the movie, Tsai encouraged, perhaps we would see what he means by sharing Tzoang Tzu's dream.

I could carry this meditation into the film by considering that all the events of the film might be the dream of the paralyzed character. Certainly, I found I Don't Want To Sleep Alone to be one of Tsai Ming-Liang's most private films, cryptically personal, and tender. It has little of the humor I have come to associate with his films and only a shade of the sexual histrionics that made The Wayward Cloud both entertainingly and disturbingly provocative.

Afterwards during the Q&A Tsai was asked about the building used in the film and the mattress, both which served as much as characters as any of the actors. Tsai responded that in 1999 he returned to his homeland Malaysia and stayed for a year. During that time there was a political incident that caught his attention. The prime minister at the time Mahathir had fired his deputy prime minister Anwar due to sex-related scandals and the mattress that was involved was brought into the court room as evidence. Even the Chinese title of the film (Hei Yan Quan) referred to this incident; it actually means "black eye." While incarcerated, Anwar was punched in the eye and he had to appear at his trial with this black eye. [Lee Kang-Sheng's character Hsiao Kang likewise sports a black eye during the first scenes of the film.] This incident raised strong sentiments in Tsai because it made him aware that you could really be somebody and be brought down to being nobody.

The mattress used in the film Tsai found in an old hotel. It had been continually used for 30 years. Escaping his translator, Tsai commented in wry English, "It was very heavy." His audience laughed. It was impossible to be carried by even two people and so they had to remove some of the stuffing to make it possible for Lee Kang-Sheng and Chen Shiang-Chyi to carry it.

As for the building, it was as if the building itself was waiting for Tsai to come shoot it. [The structure is near the Padu Jail in Kuala Lampur and was one of the Petronas twin towers, then the tallest building in the world. In the early 90s, as part of its economic development plan, the Malaysian government had brought in large numbers of foreign workers to work on its many construction projects, many of which were abandoned during the Asian economic crisis.] At the time Tsai found the building, it had already been abandoned for over ten years and he wasn't allowed to enter to check it out. It wasn't until five years later, last year, that he was given access. Upon entry, he discovered a large black pool of water up on the fourth story, probably accumulated from rain and flooding. As soon as Tsai saw the black pool of water, he knew this was where he was destined to film. [As backstory here, before filming I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, Tsai had met a young fortune teller who recognized him but didn't know anything about the film Tsai was going to make. The fortune teller told him that there would be a pool of dark water in his next film. Thus, when he found the pool of water in the abandoned building, it confirmed the fortune teller's prophecy.] The pool further reminded him of a poem by Bei Dao:

Let us go,
For we have not forgotten.
Let us seek the lake of life.

Tsai was asked about the scene where the paralyzed man (also played by Lee Kang-Sheng) was whacked off by his mother; if that was some kind of cultural thing. The audience laughed nervously. Tsai asserted--with a giggle--that this could happen in real life because even paralyzed men get erections. What he was trying to say with the scene was that some things are beyond your physical control. Even though the man was paralyzed, he got an erection. And the hand that jacked him off represented authority and that which has control over the body. He added that, while the scene was being shot, the set was dead quiet. Everyone was uncomfortable. When he finally yelled cut, one of the camera assistants approached him and said, "Well, Tsai, I will never work with you again."

Tsai was asked if, as an actor, Lee Kang-Sheng would basically do whatever Tsai directed him to do. Tsai responded that in this film Kang-Sheng had to endure a lot of pain, especially as the paralyzed character, because within character he was not allowed to make any expressions or to move or to yell cut if he needed to take a break. It was extremely difficult for him.

With regard to his returning to Malaysia to film, Tsai said it was like a salmon returning to its origins to spawn. It had never really occurred to him that he would return to Malaysia to make a movie; he thought he would remain in Taiwan, particularly because in Malaysia there are a lot of restrictions and boundaries that he could not overcome. But what attracted him to Malayasia was the plight of the foreign workers who, after the abandonment of the government construction projects, were left to fend for themselves. Tsai identified with them. He thinks of himself as a wanderer, displaced, without a home. Further, in their plight, he saw a reflection of what has been of utmost importance to him in his own life, namely freedom, and what freedom means.

Asked about his frequent reliance on themes of illness and disease--in this film Lee Kang-Sheng as both the paralyzed man and the beaten foreigner--Tsai explained that during the filming of I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, he was very anxious. There were many uncertainties that caused these anxieties and in all of his films there has always been something he has tried to pursue; for example, interpersonal things, love. And often it's about the body, which is something you cannot always control, you get sick and die. But as soon as he started shooting the scene where Rawang is nursing Hsiao Kang back to health, he knew he had found what he was looking for. It is a very simple interpersonal connection where, when you are sick, you need to be taken care of, when you get old, you need to be taken care of. We often forget the importance of such things: to be taken care of when we need help and to take care of someone who needs our help. When he saw Rawang nursing Hsaio Kang, everything else seemed vague and hypocritical, and only that moment of unconditional tenderness seemed true. Thus, in the process of making the film, Tsai healed himself.

Cross-posted on Twitch.

09/17/06 UPDATE: J. Robert Parks writes at Framing Device that I Don't Want To Sleep Alone "is a glorious return to form", noting Tsai's "amazing ability to use slightly diagonal lines to create dynamic compositions."

"Best of all," J. Robert states, "Tsai's sentiment has returned, as he treats his characters with true affection instead of the ugliness shown in Wayward Cloud."