Released simultaneously in the UK in November, Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud (2005) and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) are two disparate and challenging pieces of work from this Asian auteur. Well-established in art-house circles as a filmmaker with a unique style and vision, Ming-liang’s two recent films will inevitably alienate a large number of cinema-goers while delighting a smaller group of enthusiastic fans.
While both movies explore similar themes (loneliness, urban dislocation, desire, an obsession with water) The Wayward Cloud is the more immediately engaging film of the two. Set in a scorching, drought-ridden Taipei, it revolves around the irresistible attraction between a young porn star, played by Lee Kang-sheng, and an innocent, enigmatic young woman played by Chen Shiang-chyi (both also star in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone) The film is part musical, part porn, utterly surreal, erotic and emotionally gripping. Ming-liang provokes his audience right from the first scene: a woman in a nurse’s uniform lies spread-eagled on a bed in a sterile white room, while Lee licks and fingers a ripe, hot-pink watermelon between her legs.
The camera is never far from the actors in The Wayward Cloud, wordlessly capturing their every nuanced emotion. Ming-liang’s long takes infuse the film with poetical lyricism, allowing the characters to develop naturally as they begin to bridge their terrible isolation. Despite the explicit intercourse with his co-stars, Lee is emotionally detached and painfully alone. He is a romantic, expressing his yearning through the bitter-sweet lyrics of ‘A Half Moon’, wondering what ‘can soothe my heart so blue’. A chance encounter with Chen blossoms into a tentative romance, their desire for each other swelling from small, tender gestures to a tumultuous, desperate climax in the film’s notorious finale.
After The Wayward Cloud, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone comes across as a self-indulgent, monumentally tedious film, lacking all of the charm and humour of the earlier work. Set in the smog-filled streets of Kuala Lumpur, the film revolves around the frustrations of two men, both somewhat confusingly played by Lee. One is a successful composer, now paralysed and possibly comatose, the other a homeless man brutally beaten and left for dead by a gang of grifters. Found by a group of immigrant Bangladeshi workers, he is taken back to their squat where he is lovingly nursed back to health by the devoted Rawang (Norman Bin Atun). The sparse film is infused with homoeroticism, setting the stage for a love triangle involving a lonely waitress at a seedy café, played by Chen, who is also forced to bathe and care for the paralysed man by his wife and her boss.
Ming-liang’s trademark static long takes, often lasting minutes, and the virtually non-existent dialogue are minimalist techniques that have earned the director a cult following. Pushed to the limit, they make I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone almost unbearable to watch. The director seems to do everything possible to prevent the audience from forming some kind of emotional bond with his characters, his nocturnal long shots keeping them at such a remote distance from the camera that for much of the film it’s virtually impossible to identify the character with the actor. While his shots may be perfectly and elegantly composed, they just aren’t enough to redeem a film that is so alienating to all but die-hard enthusiasts.
Tsai Ming-liang’s reputation is based on creating artistic works diametrically opposed to the bland, lowest-common-denominator junk churned out by Hollywood. However, while The Wayward Cloud is a piece of provocative, stimulating cinema, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is too mired in its own pretensions to be enjoyed simply as a film.