by Carmen Nge
At the tail end of 1998, during the most infamous trial in Malaysian courtroom history, a non-descript mattress was elevated to the status of scandalous visual spectacle. Purportedly containing DNA evidence that would incriminate a certain former DPM, this mattress was carted to the courtroom as proof of illicit sexual escapades. Although the victim of this political scandal was exonerated many years later, the mattress served as a powerful visual memory for many Malaysians, including Sarawak native and now Taiwan resident, filmmaker Tsai Ming Liang.
A queen-sized, well-worn and discoloured mattress inhabits countless frames in Tsai’s latest film, I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, which is set entirely in Kuala Lumpur. Migrant workers spy it in an alley and transport it back to their sleeping quarters, eager to experience its attendant comforts. Along the way, they stumble upon a beaten, bruised and black-eyed man—eeriely reminiscent of a certain former DPM in police custody—whom they rescue, bundling him up in their newly found mattress.
What follows next is a filmic narrative of exceptional neo-realism, exploring a subject exceedingly rare in Malaysian cinema: the lives of migrant workers in our nation’s capital. Shot almost entirely without dialogue, each frame is meticulously composed and Tsai, who is well-known for his minimalist style and excruciatingly long takes, allows us ample room to observe, soak in, reflect and ruminate on the lives of a group of people we take for granted.
The Malaysian Censorship Board originally banned the film, claiming that it depicted Malaysia negatively by focusing on immigrants and beggars, as well as the haze of 1998. There is no denying that Tsai eschews the typical icons of Malaysia Boleh; the Petronas Towers, Putrajaya and all other towering edifices of development were dismissed in favour of a semi-built, disused and abandoned multi-storey building near Pudu. Preferring to zoom in on the stark realities of the Malaysian urban landscape—dirty and dank city streets and alleyways; abandoned construction projects; decades-old kopitiams and cramped shoplots—Tsai’s film holds up a mirror to our so-called progress.
Malaysians in Tsai’s film are peripheral to the storyline, which revolves around three migrant workers, enmeshed in a quasi-love triangle. But the love that the two men and one woman feel for one another transcends the romantic; what the three migrants feel, if it can be called love at all, is indistinguishable from companionship, caring, and a craving to belong. These are alienated souls, eking a living in a city populated by other displaced and disenchanted persons, and who somehow stumble upon each other. The concept of home exists only within the paradigm of relationships, not a physical space. The mattress they carry with them is symbolic of their transience but it is also symptomatic of their desire to have some semblance of a home, regardless of where they end up staying.
I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone is a powerful meditation on the what is means to be human, even in the face of decrepit conditions and cruel treatment. The slow pace of the film simultaneously accentuates the meaninglessness of existence and the ways in which unexpected encounters gradually blossom into relationships that fill the void of living. But more than anything else, Tsai’s film tells us a beautiful story of three people who manage to find solace in each other, despite residing in a city—KL—that has become increasingly cold, soulless and sullen. The fact that these three people are not Malaysians but instead, migrant workers who barely speak the same language, speaks volumes.
This review was first published in Off The Edge, July 2007 issue.