The propulsive sexual climax that concludes Tsai Ming-liang’s highly problematic The Wayward Cloud sets the stage for his follow-up, the New Crowned Hope-commissioned I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. From politically-charged orgasm to Mozart-underscored psychological split: This time out there are two Hsiao-kang’s (both played, as ever, by Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-sheng), the first a bed-ridden mute attended to by waitress Chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), the second a scruffy wanderer who, after being beaten senseless by a gang of thieves, is cared for by itinerant worker Rawang (Norman Atun). Something of a homecoming for the writer-director, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is Tsai’s first production set in his native Malaysia (in a decrepit metropolis soon to be blanketed by poisonous smog), and suggests a literalist exploration of Goethe’s famed Faust observation, “Two souls, alas, are housed within my breast.” The resultant (unanswerable) rhetorical: Which is the real Hsiao-kang? Tsai’s deceptively gentle aural/visual schema implies that one might very well be a projection of the other, though it is foolish to assume anything so concrete—despite his films’ frequently static compositions, Tsai’s cinema flows ever forward with ambiguous, multivalent purpose.
Yet Tsai’s continuing obsession with all things liquid (especially apparent here via the ethereal pool in an abandoned construction site that holds a kind of cosmic sway over the film’s main trio) hints at something more troubling: For the first time there is a sense that the director is treading water, ineffectually replaying themes better explored in earlier works. Likewise sad to say is that Hsiao-kang, as a character, seems to have outlived his usefulness to Tsai’s cinema project. The stresses were showing in The Wayward Cloud (hence the necessity and complexity of its orgasmic conclusion); now, quite literally split in two, Hsiao-kang has become little more than an emptied-out, barely existent schematic, going through a dual series of symbolic and somnambulant motions—something, I fear, that might be quite intentional on Tsai’s part. Add to this I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone’s more implicative minor-key replay of the illness-cum-incest themes that pervade Tsai’s masterpiece The River and we are left with a similarly minor effort, though one still worth experiencing for Atun’s stellar performance as Rawang. His standout moment: a tear-stained, jealousy-fueled close-up as he presses a jagged-edge can against Hsiao-kang’s neck. It’s as uncompromised a vision of unrequited love as the movies have given us, and rendered, as is Tsai’s forte, with a sublimely palpable queer tenor.