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!

Three Sisters – Wang Bing (2012)

I become more and more a fan of Wang Bing. I’m  making my way through his filmography in a random order, which is a shame, because I believe that you can actually see China’s economical development through the lens of his films. I can already see it when I watch his films in random order, and I’m sure this would be even stronger if I were to watch all of this films chronologically. Wang Bing is in a completely different league than Lav Diaz, observing reality rather than writing a story. Each director works in a different environment and uses different forms and aesthetics in order to record the dangerous, forgotten, sometimes humiliating present people are living through in their respective countries. What I begin to appreciate about the films of Wang Bing is the director’s observational style. His films are documentaries after all, and he observes (via his camera) in detail about what is happening in front of the camera, in front of his eyes. If I had to decide about which director currently shows the human condition best, it’s most certainly Wang Bing.

Yesterday, I finally had a chance to watch Three Sisters (2012), which had been lying around in my shelf for the last two years. Because I moved three times in two years, all my DVDs were always in cardboard boxes and I had completely forgotten that I even had that film! So while looking for Christmas decoration, I also found this DVD again…that was a sign I had to follow!

Three Sisters, as the film’s title suggests, is a documentary about three sisters, who live in Yuannan, a province in southwest China that borders on Mayanmar and Laos. They live in a village with around 80 other families but without their own parents. The eldest, Yingying is 10 years old and is forced to look after her two sisters Zhenzhen, 6 years old, and Fenfen, 4 years old. Despite her age, Yingying becomes a mother figure as a result of circumstances. Her father is absent from the beginning of the film. It is not said where he is; whether he has left the family behind, whether he is a migrant worker or even whether he is dead. The same is true for the mother, who, throughout the film, is present through her absence. The children and their grandfather talk about her, but we never actually see her.

The children go about their daily lives; they dry their shoes around the fire, shoes that are broken (and which cut Zhenzhen’ ankle all the time), full of mud but still halfway usable. There is nothing else for them anyway. They have to make do with that they have, and Wang Bing shows in his documentary that those children do, like any other child probably would. They eat steamed potatoes in their own house, slowly peeling them just like the unnamed man and his daughter do in Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse; the potato as a staple of our food source that helps to nourish us, but also as a symbol of poverty in that there is little else left. In the evenings, Yingying and her sisters head to her uncle and aunt, who give them one proper meal a day. In return, they help with the animals, such as preparing food for the pigs.

It’s those pigs that lead us to the first heart-breaking scene in the film. The sisters take the pigs out onto a beautiful pasture. It is unclear from the off who it is, but while we are seeing Yingying looking across a plain, one of her sisters shouts: “Does no one want me?” A simple image, a powerful message after having seen the three alone for about half an hour, if not more. The one who shouted this, twice in fact, could be Fenfen. I believe she was also the one who said towards the end of the film “Children who have mothers, that’s is the most wonderful thing in the world!” The lack of parental love does not often find an expression in form of words in Wang Bing’s films, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Those two instances alone make clear what the three sisters really go through, and it is painful. They suffer mostly in silence, which becomes more expressive in Yingying in the second half of the film.

It is a small relief when the father, 32 years old, arrives. It is only then that we learn that he’s a migrant worker, trying to earn enough for the family in a nearby city. As the mother has disappeared (he says he doesn’t know where she is), he has no choice but to leave his children to their own devices. But he is a caring father. Once he’s part of the film, I felt that the film became a bit warmer, more affectionate. He had Fengfeng on his lap and laughed with his children. He washed them, which the children themselves never really did. At least Wang Bing didn’t show them doing so. He genuinely looks after them, and that was good to see after so many “cold” scenes which made my heart bleed. However, the father has also returned to complicate the family situation even more. He can no longer leave all three children to their own devices. His plan was to take Yingting to the city to have her work. But her grandfather said he should rather buy her a new pair of shoes and leave her with him. The father decides to take the two youngest to the city instead. Yingying, it is decided, lives at her grandfather’s, works with and for him, but also attends school. The father argues that taking Yingying to the city would be too expensive, he couldn’t afford the school fees for her. The only solution is to leave her behind.

That decision – Wang Bing follows the father with the two little girls to the bus – has an effect on the rest of the film. Three Sisters becomes a portrait of a lonesome sister, who, all of a sudden, no longer knows what to do, why she is there, what she is there for. Even though she goes to school, something we see only once, and even though she also helps her grandfather with his animals (sheep and goats), she becomes an isolated child who seems to suffer in silence. Once her sisters have left, she turns quieter and quieter, very much detaches herself from this world and from the people around her. She does her chores, but she no longer feels present at all. I often felt as though she was a ghost; she herself, like her mother in a way, becomes a present absence. It’s a remarkable change that takes place in the film, and I’m very glad that I watched the long version of the film (there is a shorter version called Alone), because that really brings the whole power of this growing loneliness and this changing character of a little girl to the forefront.

Wang Bing is superb at observing the daily lives and daily struggles of those who live on the margins of society. What I noticed once more in Three Sisters is that all of his films have a journey at its core. It’s movement, rather than stillness. In West of the Tracks, the factories are dismantled as well as all the houses that the workers had so far lived in. They need to leave and look for another home. In Ta’ang, too, there is the idea of being forced to leave one’s home at the core of the film. Bitter Money shows very young migrant workers, who leave their home to work in the city. Three Sisters has the same core theme; the father having to leave to earn money, the people in the village not being able to pay their tax will see the authorities take their cattle away, which means there won’t be much livelihood left for them. They, too, might have to leave as there is talk about destroying houses, building new ones and bringing electricity to the region. It’s a very small sequence, but it reminded me just how much Wang Bing’s films are centred around the issue of people not having a home.

With that comes restlessness, concerns, questions. All of that is deeply inscribed into the faces of Wang Bing’s characters. The director might focus his camera on China, but his films tell a larger story about where the world has been going politically, economically and socially.