I don’t want to sleep alone – Tsai Ming-liang (2006)

I discovered Tsai Ming-liang’s films early on in my research into Slow Cinema, or even well before I started my PhD. The director from Taiwan could, in fact, be the second slow-film director I have come across, and I don’t want to sleep alone (2006) was my very first Tsai film. It was great to return to the film last night. I was not only reminded of the qualities of Tsai as a filmmaker and observer of society. I felt as tough I was going back in time, doing the first baby steps in discovering aspects of Slow Cinema that would become so vital for my later work. In everything I have said and written so far, I have always considered Tsai to be an exceptional director. I’m not using the word “exceptional” only in terms of quality, albeit it certainly applies to him. There is no doubt about it. But what I actually think of is Tsai’s particular aesthetic, primarily his use of architecture in conveying a sense of alienation, isolation, solitude, the sense of being outside, excluded, different.

I don’t want to sleep alone is very strong on this specific element. The story is, as in most slow films, comparatively easy to summarise. The film tells two parallel stories. One of them concerns a young man paralysed from the neck down. He’s tied to bed and is looked after by a young woman, who lives in a claustrophobic, cramped mezzanine above a woman’s flat. The woman’s relationship to the paralysed man is never clearly established. I’m not entirely sure who she is. She could be his mother, perhaps? It matters little. Towards the end of the film, an estate agent leads people through the flat where the young man lays in his bed. It is a bizarre situation. The cruelty is rubbed into our face. I felt helpless as a viewer.  It’s an uncomfortable situation. The young man is exposed to the views of total strangers. The aim is to sell the house, and in the off we hear an argument about this: “You only think of selling the house. Where will your brother live then? Will your wife look after him?” The scene ends with the maid being slapped in the face by the woman under whose roof she lives. What has just happened?

The question isn’t that unusual for a Tsai film. The reason for this is that he makes extensive use of off-screen sound and dialogue, as well as a particular “architectural” aesthetic. I believe that Tsai’s films are often more about what isn’t there than about what we see clearly. But compared to other directors, Tsai doesn’t simply put focus on the off. He uses walls, doors, and hallways instead in order to represent a border, a sort of frontier between the present and the absent, the places of here and there, the places of where I am and where I want to be. Tsai’s frame architecture is a maze which we have to navigate. Architecture, in whatever way it is used, is an expression of the characters’ minds. Béla Tarr as well as Lav Diaz use landscapes in order to represent their characters’ psychology. For Tsai, it is primarily the particular characteristic of architecture that becomes the main character in all of his later films. Walls, streets, staircases – they all speak volumes.

What struck me most was the way in which Tsai filmed walls. Almost all of them run diagonally through the frame. No one stands straight in front of a wall. There is no frontal shot of any wall at all. Walls run through most of the film’s frames, but they only do so diagonally. This suggests the opposite of “a light at the end of the tunnel”. The walls close off the frames. It suggests increased imprisonment, or perhaps rather a continuation of imprisonment, the continuation of isolation. In almost all scenes in which Tsai lets walls run diagonally, there is no sense of escape for the characters. It feels as though the walls close in more and more, the further they walk towards the horizon. This is a strong statement, especially in a film such as I don’t want to sleep alone, in which many of the characters are migrant workers, some of them from Bangladesh, who try to make a living, but who, we know, will never escape their precarious situation. They are as confined to their situation, as is the paralysed man in his bed, exposed to others, to external circumstances (such as the sale of a house).

But it wouldn’t be a Tsai Ming-liang film without intimate human connections that appear so bizarre that it is almost funny. This is something Tsai shares with Albert Serra; an underlying sense of humour, a dark humour, a dry humour that might not be for everyone, but that can almost be considered the core of their work. Neither director is making straightforward comedies. And yet, both include in their films scenes that lighten the mood a bit, that allows the viewer a bit of relief from the depressive world the directors show, albeit this is more true of Tsai than of Serra. In any case, what matters here is Tsai’s focus on human connections, on the intimacy (or not) between them and what our world, our society does to us. It seems as though human connections will always be there, regardless of external circumstances. And Tsai not only shows those connections on screen, such as when the character of Lee Kang-sheng masturbates a woman in a dark backstreet, just behind a small restaurant at the corner where she is working.

Connection, human or not, is, just like architecture, a core element in I don’t want to sleep alone. The title itself suggests as much. Loneliness in a busy city which never sleeps. Alienation juxtaposed with an eternal longing for a feeling of intimacy, for warmth. That is the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang. But compared with his later films, which tend to get bleaker and bleaker, and which he empties more and more of human intimacy, there is something of us as loving human beings left. This, of course, is established on a visual level. The use of sound is equally important, however. It starts right at the beginning. While we see the opening credits, we hear German classical music. It appears to be non-diegtic music, music that does not stem from the actual film world but which has been added in post-production. But a cut makes clear that the music is, in fact, diegetic. It comes from a radio that stands on the nightstand next to the bed of the paralysed man. Tsai uses this strategy several times in the film. Music bridges two scenes. It connects them, brings them together, something that the film characters long for, but which only really seems to happen on an auditory level.

Rupture is more present in Sleep than smooth connections. I remember an almost literal jump cut at the beginning of the film from the paralysed man’s room to a scene set in busy streets, showing two characters waiting for take-away food. The rupture, the sudden change in sound, shifting from quietude to sensory overstimulation, made me jump. It’s an extreme change on a visual and on an aural level, which was disorienting. I can imagine that this is what it was like for the migrant workers, depicted in Tsai’s film, when they arrived in the big, unknown city. Although set and filmed in Malaysia, Sleep tells a universal story, which, in fact, a lot of slow films do. But Tsai stands out with his particular aesthetics that make his films as recognisable as any Tarr or Diaz film. Having rewatched the film after seven years, I can say that it wasn’t surprising that I got hooked on the director’s work. He’s just damn good. His films are touching, very expressive, deep and heartfelt. Sleep is also a good entry to Tsai’s work in general, if you’d like to discover it. The advantage is that most of his films are available on DVD. Time for you to check Google!

Cemetery of Splendour – Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2015)

I need to make a general observation about Apichatpong Weerasethakul first before I go into detail about his new (and wonderful) film Cemetery of Splendour (2015), his Cannes entry five years after he won the Palme d’Or with Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past livesApichatpong is very often regarded as one main player in the field of Slow Cinema. It is true that especially his early films are very slow and use the long-take long shot combination with little dialogue attached to it. Since Uncle Boonmee, however, Apichatpong is moving away from those strict Slow Cinema aesthetics. This doesn’t mean that his films are not slow. They are, but his films are less strictly Slow Cinema. His films have shifted seamlessly into the broad category of arthouse cinema, which is always slower than the average film. I noticed this shift when I watched Mekong Hotel in 2012, and Cemetery of Splendour is another example. So I’m not even sure whether this post should be on this site or not. I also feel as if I need to point (once more!) to the critics who all said that Cemetery of Splendour was Apichatpong’s best film – and at the same time his most accessible. Again, accessibility guarantees success with critics, as we have seen with Lav Diaz before. Just don’t give critics a film they need to puzzle together.

I used this phrase in my previous post already: “regardless of its pace” – Cemetery of Splendour is a wonderful film. It has a dreamy, meditative atmosphere around it. Jen, Apichatpong’s all-time muse, tends to a soldier suffering from an unexplainable sleep sickness. As usual in the director’s films, it is at some point difficult to distinguish between reality and dream. The line between the two couldn’t be thinner. I don’t agree to the comment that Cemetery of Splendour is Apichatpong’s most accessible film. Story-wise it is, perhaps, because what is happening to the soldiers is explained to the viewer. I found it a bit disappointing. I would have rather kept wondering what went on. On the other hand, it worked nicely and it made the story even more intriguing (and no, I’m not saying what it is!). But this didn’t make clear what was real and what was just a dream or a hallucination, which, I find, also contributes to the respective accessibility of a film. If you think you have understood the story but actually cannot tell right from wrong, accessibility is a relative term.

I saw a brief interview with Apichatpong on French-German channel ARTE in which he explained a few things about the now well-known lamps he used in his films. I loved every single scene which contained those lamps. I found them fascinating, and they had something mysterious and supernatural to them. Something that helped blur the line between reality and dream, between life and death. Apichatpong said that he had read something about the link between light, memory and sleep – a fascinating point I would love to investigate further.

I’m not entirely sure whether it has been written about already somewhere. I noticed explicit references to Tsai Ming-liang and his films. During the screening I wondered whether this was intended (which I believe it was), or whether it was completely incidental. There are three references; Jen washing the body of a sleeping soldier called Itt (Tsai’s I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone), Jen and Itt in the cinema, filmed from behind so that we can see the cinema screen as well as the back of their heads (Tsai’s Goodby Dragon Inn) and a specific shot of escalators in the cinema, which had, to me, strong reminiscences of Tsai’s shots of interior architecture in pretty much all of his films. An homage to the Taiwanese director? Perhaps.

In any case, Cemetery of Splendour contains quite a bit of food for thought again. There was this scene in which Jen says that she doesn’t like Americans because they are poor. She prefers Europeans because it is the Europeans who live the American dream. Interesting proposition, which led me to all kinds of thoughts. There is also a nice point about the preference of stone sculptures showing skeletons over a golden palace with a bathroom made of marble. Perhaps stone, even though it is always regarded as cold, is closer to real life?

I couldn’t help but think that Cemetery of Splendour is perhaps Apichatpong’s most personal film. Perhaps not for himself, but for Jen, the main character and actress. It was a film very much tailored to her and her life story; a great thing to do in a way after many many years of collaboration. The viewer certainly gets to know Jen better than in Apichatpong’s previous films, and it feels as though we’re taking a unique trip with her through dreams and hallucinations. Or maybe we don’t. Who knows that with Apichatpong’s films!?

Cemetery of Splendour is perhaps not the director’s best film. I still favour Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Nevertheless, the film is another great demonstration of the skills of the Thai filmmaker. The visuals are at times superb. The story is fascinating and possibly more engaging than that of his previous films. Maybe that’s why critics liked the film more. The story is progressing easier. There’s less stagnation than in say, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. This may all be well for some people, but there is also a scene, for instance, towards the very end which screams of commercial horror. It neither fit nor was it in any way useful to the story. It was a scene that could have been seen in a commercial film, i.e. it could have easily been cut in Apichatpong’s film. Why did he leave it in? I hope there wasn’t a pressure point for him, because despite so many producers from around the world involved in his filmmaking now, he has so far remained independent in his style. I hope it remains this way.

Day 8 – Vive l’Amour (Ming-liang)

Time for a bit of love on the second advent. Or maybe not, because Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’Amour (1994) is, as all of his other films, not exactly uplifting. But let’s start from the beginning.

Vive l’Amour stands, with Rebels of the Neon God (1992), at the beginning of Tsai’s career. The film was made almost 20 years ago, and when I saw it it reminded me of something Béla Tarr said (I think it was him, but I can be very wrong here): I always make the same film.

It is not so much that Tsai makes the same film over and over again, but if you are familiar with all of his films, you begin to notice the similarities of all of them. It is not only the actor, Kang-Sheng Lee, who appears in every one of his films (who made an impressive appearance in Walker). It is also the themes that remain the same. I mentioned in previous blog posts that poverty is a major issue in Slow Cinema. This is not the case in Tsai’s films. What is striking in his work is the treatment and depiction of loneliness and longing.

Vive l’Amour (1994), Tsai Ming-liang

To my surprise, I had difficulties labelling Vive l’Amour as a straightforward slow film, even though I know that it is often listed as one. I wondered whether I have perhaps become too used to slowness in film that it has become hard for me to judge if something is exceptionally slow, or just “normal” (as in, normal speed like in real life). The film is not a fast film, but I find it faster than his other films. Considering Tsai’s development as a director, his films have over time become slower and also more photographic. L’Amour is not photographic at all, an element that I found specially interesting in his other films such as I don’t want to sleep alone (2006).

There is also more movement in L’Amour than in his other films. Again, this is not to say that the film is fast. I’m merely trying to point out differences in filmmaking that are evident. Tsai has, however, already included his seeming obsession with tight corridors and double framing. And his love for melons!

Vive l’Amour (1994), Tsai Ming-liang

Already, his characters are suffering from loneliness, and even though there is, as usual, sex involved in his films, there is actually little intimacy between the characters. Whenever I watch Tsai’s films, I cannot help but think of a poem by Alfred Wolfenstein, a German poet, whose vivid Städter from 1913 describes the gradual isolation and loneliness of people living in (big) urban spaces. For me, every film by Tsai is an illustration of this poem, an illustration of how cramped urban spaces encourage anonymity and solitude instead of social living. But even though people choose to live in solitude, they long for love and social interaction. This discrepancy naturally causes problems, and Tsai is a director who has picked up this issue time and again, and made some wonderful films out of it.