Bright Lights Film Journal

Butterfly Dream: Tsai Ming-liang’s <em>I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone</em>

“There’s no overt sexuality to Rawang’s care for Hsiao Kang. It’s a tender act of love, a selfless giving of himself to another.”

With I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Hei yan quan, 2006) Tsai Ming-liang has, for the first time in his cinema, returned to his native Malaysia — he was born in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak — and this has provided for a very productive variation on his now familiar style and themes. In recent years Tsai’s work has, like that of the other big name in New Taiwanese Cinema, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, hit something of a point of stasis, leaving the feeling after the major excitements of the progression from Rebels of the Neon God (Qing shaonian na zha, 1992) through Vive l’Amour (Aiqing wansui, 1994) to The River (He liu, 1997) that each successive film — for all Tsai’s mastery of cinematic form — offers merely a minor retooling of a now familiar model.

In this sense, Goodbye Dragon Inn (Bu san, 2003) was the ne plus ultra of his cinema. Here, Tsai’s narratives of emotional yearning and dislocation were refined to the point of abstraction, brief sketches that hardly seemed as resonant as the locale they were set in, Tsai’s own melancholic House of Cinema. In aesthetic terms too, Goodbye Dragon Inn pushed Tsai’s slow contemplative long-take stylistic to its greatest refinement. After all, wasn’t the scene of greatest emotional impact in the whole film that single shot of the emptied theatre, when the camera holds on this image, on and on and on … ? It’s truly tremendous filmmaking, but I also can’t help feeling that there’s something slightly airless about Tsai’s aestheticism here, a loss of the vitality that marked the early films’ engagement with character and environment.

The next film, The Wayward Sky (Tian bian yi duo yun, 2005), was a minor work, a one-note vehicle to give expression to Tsai’s distaste for pornography (although it’s amazing how some critics were able to quite misread Tsai’s frankly over-emphatic intentions). So, it is good to see Tsai’s range of concerns expand with I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. The setting is Kuala Lumpur, but Tsai centres his story on its population of Asian (here, Bangladeshi) migrant workers who were abandoned after the economic meltdown of the Asian financial crisis of ten years ago.

Personal and social disconnection is a consistent theme of Tsai’s work, one that clearly draws from his experience as a gay man in a straight society (and in the case of Taiwan, this is a more overtly homophobic society than the societies of most of his audience in the West). But the personal roots of this disconnectedness are broader than simply those of Tsai’s sexuality. In Taiwan, he is a huaqiao, an overseas-born Chinese, someone simultaneously of the culture and outside it; which is a reflection of and variation on his shifting outsider status, growing up in Malaysia, as a Chinese in an officially-sanctioned/mandated majority1 Malay culture. So, in this return to his country of birth, his identification with migrant labourers — the most despised and discriminated-against portion of the population in wealthier Asian countries (Filipina maids in Hong Kong, Thai labourers in Taiwan etc) — is most appropriate.

The Kuala Lumpur of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone bears a close resemblance to the Taipei of his other films. Tsai loves the old, the dilapidated, the derelict, as if these fragile, crumbling, damp structures are representative of their inhabitants at their most vulnerable, needy, and authentically human. This is a world of mood and texture — crumbling brickwork on an outside wall, peeling paint, near-deserted streets, dark, empty alleys, and an uncompleted, abandoned concrete building where a dark, mysterious pool of water has formed.

Tsai has increasingly used Lee Kang-sheng, the recurrent “Hsiao Kang” protagonist of his films, as a blank slate on which others project their desire. In I Don’t Want to Sleep he has very little agency of his own; instead he is the object of desire on the part of Rawang the Bangladeshi labourer (Norman Bin Atun), Chyi the servant-waitress (Chen Shiang-Chyi), and Chyi’s older woman boss (Pearly Chua). As if to emphasise this, Lee plays a dual role in the film, both roles being ones of speechless dependency. In the film’s very beautiful opening shot — a long static take which takes its time to allow the changing patterns of light to play through — Lee is the paralysed son of Chyi’s boss, unable to either speak or move, reliant on others (his mother or her servant) for the satisfaction of his every need, whether nutritional, hygienic, or sexual.

In Lee’s other role, he is Hsiao Kang, beaten up and rescued off the street by a group of Bangladeshis who are carrying an old mattress back to their tenement rooms. He’s taken in by Rawang, the owner of the mattress, who tends to him, under a protective mosquito netting and beneath a poster that spells out the significant words “I love you.” There’s no overt sexuality to Rawang’s care for Hsiao Kang. It’s a tender act of love, a selfless giving of himself to another. There is a sensuality to Rawang’s gentle washing of Hsiao Kang’s body, but what is paramount here is companionship, a connection with another individual in a lonely and alien environment. And nothing gives more expression to the beauty, tenderness, and respect of Rawang’s care for Hsiao Kang than the early scene where he holds his body back to support the upright Hsiao Kang as he pisses.

Constant parallels are drawn between the care given to the two men, the paralysed son and the injured Hsiao Kang. So a scene of Rawang feeding Hsiao Kang is juxtaposed with one of Chyi cleaning the son’s teeth and mouth. This first connection through the motif of the mouth (feeding into the mouth/cleaning of the mouth) is extended in the subsequent shot of Rawang washing down Hsiao Kang’s body through a second connection, a cleaning motif (cleaning of the mouth/cleaning of the body).

But although there is a parallel between the care that Rawang and Chyi each give to a Lee Kang-sheng character, the nature of that care is very different. Unlike Rawang, Chyi’s is not freely given. She’s acting here as a servant, following the instructions of her lady boss, and there’s a sense that in the end she has as little control over her situation as the paralysed son himself. Her subservience within a hierarchy of control is most apparent in the scene where Chyi is rubbing down the older woman’s back and the woman takes Chyi’s hand and uses it to rub her son’s belly and then masturbate him. Here, Chyi becomes the mother’s substitute, for in an earlier scene the mother had already been shown rubbing cream into her son’s belly with her hand moving closer and closer to his crotch. Chyi as substitute here is also an ironic reversal of the scene that has just preceded it, where the mother herself was masturbated in a dark alley by Hsiao Kang. And that sexual encounter was itself a substitute for Hsiao Kang and Chyi’s failed one — principally because Hsiao Kang, as a foreigner with no passport, couldn’t get a hotel room.

After What Time Is It There? (Ni neibian jidian, 2001) and The Wayward Sky, Tsai treats a romance (in whatever unromantic form) between Hsiao Kang and the Chen Shiang-Chyi character as a given, so that little time is spent on developing this narrative. In the film’s second scene and first exterior, Hsiao Kang and Chyi’s paths briefly cross in front of a street vendor cooking up in a wok; they meet again after Hsiao Kang’s recovery when they share a table at a cheap restaurant. This time, Chyi stares at Hsiao Kang with frank sexual interest, a gaze which he then surreptitiously returns. (This exchange of separate looks is repeated in one scene when Hsiao Kang and Rawang are sleeping together — each stares while the other is sleeping/turned away.)

The point at which Hsiao Kang and Chyi become more closely involved is never particularly clear. There’s a sudden encounter on the stairs where Hsiao Kang plays with the cups on the tray that Chyi is carrying upstairs, but we can’t be sure at what stage in their developing relationship this is taking place. This is not a film of character and narrative development and psychological grounding, and in fact the story takes on an increasingly symbolic/ poetic tone. In any case, of the two it is Chyi whose actions are more clearly driven by sexual desire — Hsiao Kang is a far more passive figure, accepting, it seems, any partner that comes his way, moving from one to the other like the butterfly that in one scene alights on his shoulder; and it is she who picks him up in the film’s final movement.

In this last section of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone a smoky haze settles on the world of the film, just like the apocalyptic rain of The Hole and the drought of The Wayward Sky, enveloping the characters in a cocoon that is frustrating and then finally embracing. This haze frustrates Hsiao Kang and Chyi’s attempts — on Rawang’s mattress — to fulfill their sexual desire, as they are forced to resort to face mask and rolled-up jeans to escape from the choking air. But it’s this haze that also drives Hsiao Kang, Chyi, and Rawang indoors, to meet up together in Chyi’s garret room in an encounter that privileges simple physical closeness, the touch of a hand on a back, over sexual intercourse.

This haze has a realistic basis in the annual forest fires in Indonesia that cause such havoc to the air quality in Malaysia.2 But in a radio broadcast we hear the blame for this shifted onto migrant workers and the supposed illegal fires that they light in Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps surprisingly for a Tsai Ming-liang film there is a level of political referencing operating in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. This comes not only in the allusions to the xenophobia and discrimination that the migrant workers suffer, but also in the film’s Chinese title. “Hei yan quan” translates literally as “Black circles round the eyes” and means both “Shadows under the eyes” (from lack of sleep) and “A black eye.”

Tsai has himself stated how through both this title and the mattress of the story he is referring to the case of Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, whose political downfall was orchestrated by Malaysian Prime Minister Mathahir Mohammad in a patently faked court case. One aspect of the court case was an accusation of sodomy (a crime in Malaysia3 ) where a stained mattress was brought as evidence into the courtroom and where Anwar appeared nursing a black eye. Yet Tsai’s own take on this is not so politically orientated but rather developed in a more generalised statement that fits in with his own concerns in the film, namely that “you could really be somebody and be brought down to being nobody”4 — down, in other words, to the level of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone‘s three main protagonists, Hsiao Kang, Rawang, and Chyi.

There’s also another level of referencing at work in the film, to classical Chinese literature, and it comes through in the image of the butterfly which literally rests on Hsiao Kang’s shoulder and then is referred to in the film’s closing song: “Can’t you see the pairs of butterflies? […] You have filled the space in my heart.” The butterfly reference is a famous one in Chinese literature, to the philosopher Zhuangzi’s dream of being a butterfly and the query, on awakening, of whether “Zhou [i.e. Zhuangzi] was dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly was dreaming he was Zhou.”5

There’s a strong implication that the whole story of the film may be the dream/fantasy of the paralysed son, particularly in the turn it takes at the end where the scenes begin to strain credibility. So a distressed Rawang suddenly appears in Chyi’s bedroom to threaten Hsiao Kang with an opened tin can. But in the end how much we may believe in this situation is not the issue here but rather the raw emotion that is being expressed as Rawang weeps, holding onto Hsiao Kang’s hand, and how this is resolved in the following scene where, after Hsiao Kang and Chyi embrace, we become aware of Rawang’s presence in the dark, on the other side of Hsiao Kang.

And this is all being observed by the paralysed son below, as he stares up at the trio above him, just as earlier on Chyi had stared down through the gaps in the floorboards at the mother’s sensual rubbing of her son. That paralysed son now takes in the scene happening in the room above him, with the upward staring of his eyes being expressive of the most intense yearning — if he is not in fact creating this scene himself, in his own mind and on the cinema screen before us. For now the film makes that final scene a poetic archetype, as the water in the abandoned building turns into a symbolic water of life, bearing upon it the gently floating mattress and the three sleeping figures, resting together in perfect harmony.

  1. In 2003 Malays formed 62% and Chinese 24% of Malaysia’s population. []
  2. For example, in 2005 it forced the closure of schools in Kuala Lumpur. []
  3. Anwar was sentenced in 2001 to nine years in prison on the sodomy charge, following a 2000 sentence of nine years for corruption. The sodomy conviction was overturned on appeal in 2004 and Anwar was released. []
  4. Michael Guillén, “TIFF Report: Q&A With I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone Director Tsai Ming-Liang,”Twitch, Sept. 16, 2006. []
  5. The name of Zhuangzi, the fourth-century B.C. Chinese philosopher, is also transliterated as Chuang Tsu, Zhuang Tze, and Chuang Tse. The “butterfly dream” comes from the ninth section of Qi Wu Lun, which is variously translated as On Arranging Things, Discussion of Setting Things Right, or Discussion on Making All Things Equal. My source for the Chinese text is Zhuangzi Duben, ed. Ye Yunlin (Tainan: Daxia, 1989) p. 39. (Thanks to Tu Hsin-hsin for her assistance). []