In Malaysia, vacuous horror flicks and Hollywood copycats rule the local cinemas. They promise nothing but instant sensory gratification yet still manage to attain box-office success. In many of such films glamorous personalities compliment the glitzy and oh-so aspirational KL scene. They’re good-looking, they’ve got star quality, who cares if they’ve got no talent, but most noticeable of all is that they’re overwhelmingly Malay.
It is perhaps for these reasons film director Tsai Ming Liang left Malaysia for greener pastures. After decades of making films in Taiwan and hailed as one of the paragons of second-wave Taiwanese cinema, he returned to his homeland to find a completely different country. The financial crash of 1997 had left the country in paralysis. Jobless migrants, many illegal, lurked the streets for scraps of opportunities. And suddenly sex was out in the open: the Anwar Ibrahim case got everybody talking about anal intercourse and homosexuality. For Tsai, this helped set the scene for his film I don’t want to sleep alone (2006).
The inhabitants of Tsai’s Kuala Lumpur are, however, far from glamorous. Lee Kang Sheng, Tsai’s regular leading actor, plays a paralysed man cared by an overworked waitress who falls in love with Lee’s other role, an immigrant who is nursed back to health by lonely squatter played by Norman Atun. The theme of urban alienation and deprivation speak louder than words here, as the characters barely utter a word throughout the film. With more music than dialogue (though hardly a musical), old-school Malay and Chinese song lyrics and urban soundscapes somehow make up for the silence in the relationships the characters form around sex and their desires.
When Rawang (Norman Atun) takes the battered migrant worker into his home, his small acts of compassion slowly burns into love and longing. Rawang painstakingly cares for his guest. He feeds and washes him, dresses him, undresses him. “For him, it’s better than sex!”, the director chuckles as he recalls the aforementioned scenes in his London interview. In a way, Lee Kang Sheng’s two roles personify the neediness of both able-bodied and disabled individuals – the need to be taken be of, the need for food and sex. But while Lee’s foreign worker is able to actively act out his desires, his comatose counterpart can only be involuntarily masturbated by his carers.
With Tsai’s signature style of sporadic dialogue and almost static languid pace – it’s immediately off-putting to mainstream cinema-goers. But the cinematography is just gorgeous. The flooded pits of still, dark water in abandoned building sites and the noxious fog cloud that chokes the city gives the film a weird post-apocalyptic atmosphere.
Not surprisingly, I don’t want to sleep alone was initially banned in Malaysia and later heavily censored for explicit sex, gay themes, and unsavoury depiction of Kuala Lumpur. The ban finely illustrates the denial of the day to day realities Malaysians face in the capital city who live in a climate of social restrictions, urban poverty, crime, and pollution. Much like the recent furore over Slumdog Millionaire, the emphasis on the less pretty side of upwardly mobile, developing countries is bound to take swipes at national pride. Perhaps it’s not postcard-worthy of the tourism board, but the cultural mix that immigration brings certainly reflects the country’s Truly Asia spirit.