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!

The Red Turtle – Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016)

I believe this is the first animation film that I’m mentioning on this blog. I haven’t heard a lot about slow animation before, nor am I really a fan of animation. But it’s different with Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle. One could easily argue that the film doesn’t fit the Slow Cinema categories I have established on this site in the last five years. That was my very first thought, too, when the film had started. A lot of movement, comparatively quick cuts – there was something that made me wonder why some people have described this film as being slow or contemplative in the past. Just over an hour later, I agreed with those people and it is, funnily enough, the aspect of movement that, in parts, contributed to my change in thinking.

On the surface, The Red Turtle does not take its time with anything. In effect, the film tells the story of life in under seventy minutes. A man is caught up in a storm, is stranded on an island, tries to escape but a red turtle prevents him from doing so. In subsequent scenes, he falls in love, has a son, the son grows up pretty fast, leaves the island and he himself dies. So basically, it’s the natural circle of life told in a short time frame. In case you’ve been following my work for a long time, you probably know that I would always advocate for length in order to allow for an in-depth depiction of whatever is on screen. For The Red Turtle, this is slightly different and even though the sudden speed with which the story developed was startling at times, the film didn’t lose any of its smoothness.

And this is the key of the film that makes it so wonderfully slow and contemplative: its smoothness, its beauty. The Red Turtle is a magnificent, poetic piece that, despite looking like a speedy story-telling rollercoaster on the surface, takes its time. This sounds contradictory, I agree. And yet, apart from one sequence towards the end of the film, all scenes give the impression that life moves slowly, that it progresses in its own time. I mentioned the aspect of movement before. Especially character movement is not necessarily a major thing in traditional Slow Cinema. It’s there, but it’s limited. What struck me in The Red Turtle is the perfectly smooth, sort of zen movements. The film’s characters swim a lot, for example, and they do it, in parts, to enjoy the very act of swimming, to swim with turtles and imitate their slow and graceful movements, to become one with the still sea that surrounds them (up to a point, one should say).

Then there is the aspect of isolation and loneliness. The story is focused, first of all, on a single man only. He looks for food and for drinking water. He builds a raft in order to escape, but there is only so much you can do on your own on an island. So what the film does show is limited, is repetitive, is the daily survival of a man stranded in the middle of nowhere on an unnamed island. Curiously, once he gave up trying to escape, the film becomes very peaceful. It was his anger that gave the impression of a speedy story development, his rage against natural forces. But after that there is a real shift in tone in the film that, once established, made me sink into my seat and observe the images. I didn’t actually watch the film, I observed it. I wasn’t even distracted by the music. On the contrary, they helped me to feel the sort of isolated, limited life which, at the same time, is a life of complete freedom.

There is something mystic, something metaphorical about The Red Turtle. I felt that the film spoke about a million things, and yet only about one essential thing: life. In some ways, just like with major slow films spoken about on this blog in the past, the film’s utter simplicity, also in its drawing, highlights the beauty of it; of the film itself, of the story, of nature. I often thought about Chinese painting (I can’t let it go!), and was reminded of how often slow films focus on nature. Crucially, there is no dialogue in the film. Thoughts and feelings are expressed by actions only. Body language is the centre of the film, and aligns itself, once more, with other, more known and popular slow films. So maybe you begin to see the contradictory nature of The Red Turtle. Nevertheless, or maybe despite this, this animation film deserves being on this blog. It’s an interesting hybrid that made me rethink the framework I have established for myself. At the same time, it fits almost perfectly, and I’m absolutely delighted that it’s this film that has become the first animation mentioned on this blog. The year starts off well…

Uzak – Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2002)

One of the three films I recently bought with the support of my patrons is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak, a film from 2002 and, even though not his first film, possibly the first well-known film of the Turkish director from Istanbul. It’s my third film by the director. After I had seen his latest film Winter Sleep, I really wanted to see more. I was curious to see the director’s development over almost two decades of filmmaking. Uzak was the beginning of my starting to watch Ceylan’s films chronologically. Let’s see what I will find!

The story of Uzak is quickly told: Yusuf, a rather uneducated factory worker, travels to Istanbul to stay with his cousin Mahmut while looking for a job as a sailor. Things are not going to plan, however, and Yusuf prefers following a woman around the city rather than look for a job. He lacks motivation but so does Mahmut. The two couldn’t be more different, more distant. I return to the meaning of distance further below, because it is multi-layered and speaks volumes.

As is the case in Winter Sleep, Ceylan’s 2014 film about the divide between rich and poor, and an investigation of power, Ceylan’s outdoor shots in Uzak are gorgeous. In Uzak, the director plays with different lenses, similar to Alexandr Sokurov (Mother and SonFaust). Ceylan doesn’t go as far as using mirrors, however. Rather, he uses painted lenses (or maybe even broken lenses?). In one scene, the top half of the frame is tainted in a very slight brownish colour, something that visualises the weight felt by Mahmut and Yusuf. It’s also a weight that comes from nature; the heavy, endless snow weighs down on the trees. The film feel claustrophobic throughout the 100 odd minutes with the exception of an outdoor scene in Anatolia. There doesn’t seem to be breathing space, neither for us nor the characters. Ceylan’s experimentation with lenses work well here because they reinforce this idea of claustrophobia, of weight, of heaviness, precisely because Ceylan positions the extra layer of light brown at the top of the frame.

In my head, I returned time and again to Winter Sleep, noticing the similarities Ceylan has kept up over the years. The use of snow is only one of many things. Ceylan uses it effectively to create an atmosphere of both peace and beauty, and of subtle, but boiling tension between his characters. Yusuf and Mahmut are different in everything they do…and stand for. Yusuf is a rather uneducated character, poor, aimless, without much motivation. Mahmut has worked his way up to become a renowned photographer in Istanbul. He has climbed the social ladder but now he no more than pretends to belong there. For him, “photography is dead.” He attempts to behave according to his position in society, but does so without motivation or aim. He simply aims not to lose face. It is for this reason that one evening he puts on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s supposed to be for intellectuals, so he pretends to be interested but switches to a porn VHS as soon as Yusuf has gone to bed. In the end, the two characters are not as different as they might look like at the beginning of the film. In their heart, they are the same. They are only different because Mahmut plays a role that doesn’t seem to suit him. It is like a heavy coat that he cannot take off.

Ceylan contrasts rich and poor, educated an uneducated. But the quest for love remains the same for both characters. Both Yusuf and Mahmut long for love, the latter presumably still in love with his ex-wife who leaves for Canada with her new husband. The former sees a young woman in the streets when he arrives at Mahmut’s place, but whenever he is close to her or wants to approach her, something or someone comes between them. Unfulfilled love – a current that is running under the main storyline and unites the characters that seem so different. It is also here that the theme of “distant” and “distance” comes into effect. Ceylan creates several distances in his film. There is the distance between the two male characters and women. There is something they’re outside of. They cannot get into this world of love, of emotional bonds. It’s something that happens around them, as we see in one scene in which Mahmut sits in a restaurant by himself, having had dinner. A couple arrives. He knows her, she keeps awkwardly looking over to his table without trying to raise the suspicion of her partner. Mahmut leaves, avoiding the situation, putting a distance between it and the situation. Happiness with a woman – that happens elsewhere.

There is a distance between Ceylan’s two protagonists, as I have mentioned. There is also the distance between social classes that often cannot be overcome. Mahmut has alienated, distanced himself from photography, arguing time and again that photography is dead. Ceylan creates several forms of distance, all of which (apart from Yusuf having left his home) are an expression of his characters alienating themselves from their outside world. They close up, they detach themselves from what is happening around them, while at the same time longing for being a part of something, for joining. Uzak is essentially a film about growing isolation and solitude; it is about an often self-inflicted distance the reasons of which aren’t explained in the film. Indeed, this is one of the trademarks of Ceylan’s films: things are the way they are. The director doesn’t try to explain them, he simply shows them.

I’m not sure whether I can agree to the general opinion that Uzak is Ceylan’s best film. It is a good film, beautifully shot, and intelligent. But I would not (yet) go as far as declaring it his best work. I need to see the rest of his films first before I can judge this properly. I loved Winter Sleep but haven’t so far been able to put it into the context of the director’s full filmography. We will see!!