Saturday, December 28, 2019
Tsai Ming-liang | 黑眼圈 (Hēiyǎnquān) (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone)
lovers and caretakers
by Douglas Messerli
Tsai Ming-liang (writer and director) 黑眼圈 (Hēiyǎnquān) (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone) / 2006
Tsai Ming-liang’s 2006 film I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is only tangentially a gay film. The major subject of this tender work is, in fact, are the caregivers who gently look after their near-dead and dying patients, a young homeless day laborer who cannot even speak the language of the country, Malaysia, to which he has moved (played by Lee Kang-sheng) and a paralyzed and brain-dead patient (also performed by Lee). Their caretakers are another unemployed day laborer, Rawang (Norman Atun) and the former maid/now a night waitress of the “Paralyzed Man’s” mother—the whom some sources identify as the figure who abused him and mysteriously is responsible for his current condition.
Tony Rayns, in my always useful Time Out Film guide, argues that they are one and the same, the “Paralyzed Man” (as he is identified in the credits) dreaming of the other figure. I’d argue against that, since each of the Lee figures have slightly different trajectories, even they often cross over. I’d rather suggest that Tsai has represented them as mirror images of those who care for and come to intensely love their patients.
In the film’s earliest scenes, we observe a Malay street preacher promising the crowd of young and dreaming men surrounding him with the promise of money—if only they will pay him the small sums they hold in their wallets. How these needy Kuala Lumpur workers could possibly believe in his scam, that he will provide them with secret numbers which will suddenly provide them with great wealth, is a bit hard to believe. But all of them are desperate to return home or simply find enough money in order to eat, like our young hero, that they need to believe. They might be described as the true believers of great tribulations, people who have suffered so deeply in their lives that they cannot afford not to believe anything another person promises them.
The “Homeless Day Laborer” strings along with the others, but when it comes to paying, the scam-man’s partners discover he has absolutely no money on his body, punishing him by nearly beating him to death.
Meanwhile Rawang and three other friends, living illegally with him in a large construction site that was never completed, discover a discarded mattress near a garbage dump, carrying the heavy object back to their encampment. Along the way they discover the day laborer almost dying from his beating, and, wrapping him into the mattress, carry him back to their shared “home” as well.
They lay out the dying body and ply him with a home-made medicine from their probably also looted refrigerator. It seems not to matter whether this is the right medicine for the boy they’ve taken into their lives. If nothing else, it startles him back into living.
The next morning, we observe Rawang attempting to wash the new mattress from its previous filth while, suddenly observing the still weak boy he has discovered attempting to leave the Escher-like building, who he quickly retrieves, lovingly wiping his ass, and helping to allow him to urinate. It is the most sexual moment in this film, but one recognizes almost immediately that he is also attracted to the boy he is caring for. Before long they are sharing the mattress, while Rawang attempts to lower the boy’s fever with the cold liquid we have earlier seen him drinking, his very sustenance being used to help his young patient.
In a parallel incident, the maid is seen washing her patient and then gently soaping and cleaning his hair, almost a reverse image of the previous—although we quickly recognize that she equally loves the man for whom she is caring.
Just as the collective building dwellers fear to reveal the existence of their new-found friend to their Chinese landlord, a woman who evidently charges them small fees for living in the uncompleted high-rise, so too is the maid (Chen Shiang-chyi) fearful of the family whom she once served, who enter her space in an attempt to sell it.
So has the director quietly revealed the situations in the Malaysian capital of those who are rather wealthy and those who have absolutely nothing. Yet, this is not truly a Marxist film, but a story about those who care and love and those who don’t, locked into a world, as Rayns argues, of Tsai’s often-employed images of “holes, water, and sickness.” And also, in this film, a smog that is so overwhelming that it even chokes off Rawang’s eventual attempt to finally show his love of the young boy he has saved.
When he eventually discovers that his young would-be lover has been sneaking out most evenings to have sex with the maid/waitress, and that the boy now wants to move in with her carrying with him the bug-infested mattress, he falls into a temporary rage, threatening the handsome young man with an opened tin-can lid. His anger, however, quickly resolves itself into tears, which the young boy wipes away with his tongue—evidence certainly that he too has feelings for Rawang.
In several of Tsai’s films there is no simple resolution of the secret desires people feel for one another. In this instance, moreover, the director’s film is basically a fable, as the story ends with an image of the three of them, the maid, the boy, and Rawang laying together upon a bed floating down from space as the “Homeless Guy,” embraces them both while the mattress floats into a sea below. I guess you might not have seen bi-sexuality expressed any better than in this image.
Tsai appears to suggest that love is not about sex or power, but about saving and caring for another. These three deserve to ecstatically come together from the heavens to reveal their lessons, even if in the hovels in which they must live they cannot find the ability to express what they have miraculously accomplished.
Los Angeles, December 28, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).