Cinesthesia

Vulnerable Bodies: Precarious Desire in Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

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An unlikely trio

The following is a transcript of a presentation delivered at the University of the South’s Interdisciplinary Conference on the Local and Global(ized) Body in Sewanee, Tennessee, in the spring of 2016. 

All life, without exception, is precarious. Vulnerable to injury and illness, witness to its gradual deterioration and anticipating final annihilation, the human subject testifies to its own fragility. And yet the contingencies and uncertainties that attend human life are not exhausted by this concept precariousness, as though the scope of our concerns were as narrow as the mind that, when confronted with such questions, imagines only a world external and indifferent to the collective activities and imaginations that emerge from and ceaselessly transform it. Bodies experience varying degrees of anxiety and exposure to violence depending upon their social location, their position within dynamic, constantly shifting relations of power. If “precariousness” names an intrinsic, existential feature of human life, then recent scholarly emphasis on “precarity” and “precaritization” is meant to draw attention to the ways in which fragility and vulnerability are not evenly distributed.1 Rather, the physical materiality of our common humanity is impressed with, strained through, rendered intelligible by way of shared social understandings and labels, producing bodies that are classed, racialized, gendered, sexualized, nationalized, and so on. Cultural theorist Rey Chow, drawing on Heidegger, notes that we live today in “the age of the world target,”2 where new technologies have made possible everything from Hiroshima to surgical strikes (civilian “collateral” notwithstanding). But the rise of modern capitalism and its technological transformation of the world into map/target has, of course, always been attended by topographies of the body, wherein flesh too has its territories marked and contested, where skin is made to speak (or be silent) and exude meaning (or forget itself). This mapping, too, is a kind of targeting.

In Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s 2006 film I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Hei yan quan), bodies emerge as subject to and subjects of precarity. Set in Kuala Lumpur, a first for Tsai and something of a homecoming for the Malaysian-born auteur, the story takes off after a Chinese drifter (Lee Kang-sheng) is beaten senselessly by con artists promising miraculous solutions to his financial desperation. He then, quite literally, is split in two as the story develops in different directions. In the first of the two overlapping arcs the badly injured drifter is discovered collapsed on the side of the road by a group Bangladeshi day laborers, one of whom (Norman Atun) nurses him back to health on an old, discarded mattress that he and his companions try in vain to reclaim and delouse. When exactly this act of altruism, of ethical investment in the life of a stranger in a country that’s not his own, becomes something more is not entirely clear. But we watch as Xiaokang, as followers of Tsai’s cinema have come to know this unnamed man, is bathed, fed, and cared for by his unlikely savior. In the process the line between the platonic and the erotic, between the ethical and sensual, is blurred. At one point their bodies are juxtaposed suggestively as Rawang, the longsuffering migrant, lowers his guest’s pants so that the injured man can urinate, then shuffles laboriously to put him back in order as the camera stares unflinchingly, only for the unsteady Xiaokang to fall onto his lap. The two, apparently exhausted, then sit as if in post-coital repose.

Other moments feel more innocent, comical even, as when the guest worker spends nearly three minutes meticulously crafting and balancing a makeshift cold compress, composed of an iced drink and plastic bag, only for his patient to later awake, remove it, and then begin to drink it while he’s away. Both the scenes’ slow pacing and offbeat humor are staples for Tsai, who insists that such visual gags are far from intentional, instead emerging organically during shooting. “When things get real or realistic, they appear absurd,” he explains.3 Still, it is difficult to know what to make of the odd couple. One could easily read the relationship as patently asexual, a kind of unspoken solidarity between individuals at the margins of Malaysian society. All the same one wonders whether their furtive glances throughout the night merely manifest human intimacy and curiosity in general, or whether these scenes are meant to evoke similar moments in Tsai’s early work Vive L’Amour (Aiqing wansui, 1994), in which a considerably younger Xiaokang places a gentle kiss on his newfound companion’s lips only once he has drifted off to sleep. No such confirmation arises here. Instead Tsai provides clues but not answers, ultimately calling into question our assumptions about how bodies and lives can or ought to relate to one another in the first place.

Slowly, however, our protagonist begins to recover and wander off on his own. The city, though technically a new location, will feel familiar to followers of Tsai’s work, with its atomized roamers and splashes of neon lights. Here bodies crisscross, weaving in and out of one another; they congregate, sit and eat next to one another, exchange glances, and even, on rare occasion, speak to one another, and yet they constitute, in Huxley’s memorable phrase, “a society of island universes.”4 So it is with our unremarkable hero, if we may call him that. He wanders aimlessly, stopping to loiter from time to time outside a restaurant where he catches the attention of a woman who, wordlessly, begins to take note of him. She, incidentally, is not the one he was pursuing. Eventually, after he appears again one night, she follows him into an abandoned alleyway. She guides his hand to grope her breasts; his hand slides down her skirt. Their frenzied movements are somewhere between the animalistic and the mechanical, perhaps another unintentionally absurd visual gag, for the attempt at connection and self-transcendence evidently yields no more than quick release followed by reversion to anomie.

All this, however, is still only half the story. Perhaps the Bangladeshi migrant, the nights shared beneath the hazy net draped over the tarnished mattress, were no more than the dream of a comatose man cared for by a young woman (played by Tsai regular Chen Chiang-chyi) who later pursues Xiaokang’s alter ego following his recovery in the other plot arc. Or maybe, more oddly still, the two exist in the same universe after all. His head shorn, his eyes staring blankly ahead, this Xiaokang, like Tsai’s cinema, is all surface, and these surfaces are exhaustively explored and traversed over the course of the film. Soaps, powders, creams, and ointments are applied to his unresponsive skin. Even more than before, his interior feelings and experiences are denied to us, while his condition transfigures his flesh into a veritable blank canvass onto which unspoken concerns and unfulfilled needs can be projected even as it serves as a center of gravity around which familial conflict unfolds. We might go a step further, asserting that this inert body organizes the world around itself, catalyzes developments and actions that in turn affect it and others. As usual in Tsai’s oeuvre, vulnerability and transgression coincide. At one point, the man’s mother, who employs his caretaker, seizes the young woman’s hand as she applies ointment to his lower stomach, guiding it in rhythmic motions before using it to masturbate her son, a scene that echoes an earlier one in which the mother, absent this distancing prop, stops short of completing the action. It is far from Tsai’s most incestuous scene to date, and it marks a convention in his unconventional outlook: namely, the significance both of the precarious and the triadic relation in establishing new kinds of connections and linkages between individuals. The precarious condition of the son, in brief, manifests itself as an opportunity for a thoroughly ambiguous tenderness while the triad, in this case completed by the nurse, allows the mother to indirectly satisfy what she imagines her son’s sexual needs to be.

Here again an element of undecidability is at work: Is it that the act, which she cannot bring herself to perform alone, simply enacts maternal devotion in an atypical mode, or does her son’s condition provide an alibi for mother to enact a secret fantasy, a forbidden longing? It’s notable that the same actress plays both the comatose man’s mother and the lady from the restaurant groped and fingered by the drifter. Since the relation between the roles is unclear at best, we are left to wonder what connections, if any, the scenes have to one another. Does son, too, secretly long for his mother, dreaming of her from the bed where he’s nursed? Or do their actors merely enact distinct parts in semi-overlapping settings? The dilemma recalls the infamous climax of Tsai’s 1996 film The River (He liu), in which father and son unknowingly visit the same bathhouse and have sex. In that scene, however, what is conveyed is not so much horror as an unsettling recognition of “reciprocal tenderness” absent the domineering mood of a patriarchal system that had previously alienated father from son, and vice versa.5 There again, it is the body’s susceptibility to illness (an unexplained neck pain that forces the two to travel to see a faith healer) that facilitates both the breakdown of socially normative roles and their momentary replacement with something new, strange, and unmistakably egalitarian—an eruption of a repressed relation predicated not on violence but on unthinkably democratic pleasure. Interestingly, Tsai notes that it was Lee Kang-sheng’s own experience with a similarly debilitating neck pain that inspired the scenario and first truly attuned him to the “vulnerability of the body.” 6 Elsewhere he explains, “My films treat human relationships like an experiment.” Describing himself as at times “puzzled by human and romantic relationships,” the director continues, “I might completely destroy a family in order to begin to discuss what families mean.”7 And indeed, in The River the family is strained by emotional distance between father and son, threatened by marital infidelities, and torn asunder by accidental incest. What results, however, is not a picture of hopeless dysfunction but of the complex emotional textures that attend human cravings for connection and the unlikely intersections of individual lives that emerge from these never quite satisfied or predictable desires—shimmering, ephemeral glimpses into alternative, even queer and utopian, futurity. While the scene from I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone lacks this sort of straightforward mutuality, it nevertheless attests to a persistent interest in the omnipresent specter of alternatives to daily routines and relations, ones rendered particularly visible by the abnormal conditions set in motion by cycles of human suffering and care.

The comatose man’s mother administers ointment

By the film’s end yet another triad, closer to that of the subtly utopian mood of The River, emerges. After a forest fire breaks out, producing heavy, toxic smoke that engulfs the metropolis, the government quickly lays blame on undocumented workers for starting the conflagration. The camera then lingers on the ominous miasma that chokes city residents, as viewers are left to consider the asphyxiation of the very same individuals falsely condemned for the environmental nightmare, their bodies doubly exposed to toxicity and illness, on the one hand, and racially inflected hatred and social exclusion, on the other. Once more the absurdity of verisimilitude crops up as a typical immobile long shot looks out over the hazy restaurant where patrons—some masked and others not—talk and eat more or less as usual. (We’re informed by a radio broadcast that there is a shortage of masks.) As an infectious, diegetic pop song plays in the background, Rawang, Xiaokang, and a young woman with whom the second man has been flirting on and off begin to wander off together. As it becomes clear that Xiaokang and his new interest intend to leave their migrant friend behind, he stops pursuing just as the woman from the alleyway before begins to chase the two as they duck into a labyrinthine construction site, by now familiar to the audience as the place where Rawang frequently takes his lunch, where Xiaokang sometimes fishes, and where the two have chosen to relocate the all-important mattress. The amorous pair rushes up stairways, finally throwing their pursuant once she descends and falls into a pool of water, a typical Tsai touch. With this well-timed flooding in a space as mazelike as the unconscious mind, she has reached a libidinal dead end just as Xiaokang and the woman embrace in the throes of passion. The electricity is short lived, however, interrupted by periodic fits of coughing, worsening until finally Xiaokang is forced to use his removed pants to filter the noxious air. Sometime later, as he sleeps, a teary-eyed Rawang silently confronts him in an apparent fit of jealousy, holding a sharp can’s edge to the latter’s throat; his initially terrified Chinese companion responds by wiping the tears from his eyes. Incredibly, in the end the three end up sharing the makeshift bed together, relocated once more to the apartment of the nurse-cum-waitress (the very one above the room where the comatose double presumably lies). The need for closeness, for company, triumphs over other concerns. As a dreamlike aria plays—the sole instance of nondiegetic music used in the film—the story closes with the three sleeping peacefully on the mattress now set adrift in the black pool.

That this communion without community, as it might be called, where improvised exchanges of pleasure, wordless encounters, and ethically and erotically charged acts conjoin lives together in novel ways, cannot be readily explained apart from the vulnerabilities and uncertainties generated by wider social circumstance would seem to place the film at least partly within the realm of politics. Indeed, the film treats in an aesthetic register what social and political theorists have elsewhere described in terms of the intensification of movements of people, capital, ideas, media, and technologies across borders.8 The plight of the Bangladeshi workers, for instance, is a familiar feature of the story of Asia’s by now decade-old economic collapse. Abandoned, unemployed, and left to fend for themselves, they exist at the margins of their new society. Tsai spares nothing in his quiet yet incendiary commentary on their treatment. Radio broadcasts humorously describe the art of knowing when to change one’s mattress, advice presumably lost on those who must take theirs from among the rubbish. These broadcasts, along with the popular songs playing from storefront windows—“intoxicating twangs of wailing dangdut, Bollywood bhangra, and Chinese opera”9—are among the few instances in which words are spoken throughout the film. They also mark the cityscape as a multinational, polyglot space where different cultural forms converge, in opposition to pretenses of a hermetically sealed and homogeneous polity. Rawang and Xiaokang’s ambiguous relationship similarly testifies to possibilities of transcultural connection; throughout the film, Xiaokang never speaks, and yet some sense of devotion and reciprocity between caretaker and cared-for, however opaque, emerges. If by the film’s end the guest worker’s feelings seem clearer, Xiaokang’s remain hard to pin down and are complicated by his pursuit of the waitress/nurse. But the three floating together in a sequence both haunting and beautiful suggests that this need to make sense of it all, to cut through the Gordian knot of human entanglements, is ultimately unnecessary, even antithetical to imagining what sorts of relational possibilities may yet be unexplored.

The filmmaker certainly seems to lend credence to this politicized reading. The Chinese title of the film, Hei yan quan, literally means “dark circles under one’s eyes” but can also refer to a “black eye.” As one film critic explains,

Tsai has himself stated how through both this title and the mattress of the story he is referring to the case of Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, whose political downfall was orchestrated by Malaysian Prime Minister Mathahir Mohammad in a patently faked court case. One aspect of the court case was an accusation of sodomy (a crime in Malaysia) where a stained mattress was brought as evidence into the courtroom and where Anwar appeared nursing a black eye.10

Add to this the film’s sympathetic portrayal of much-maligned migrants, its homoerotic subtext, and repeated images of abandoned construction projects, and one can see why the film was quickly banned by the Malaysian government. Still, it would be premature to infer from all this that intolerance of corruption and xenophobia, and the film’s subtle but extensive treatment of both, were the whole story. While the portrait of the struggles of migrants and ethnic minorities surely condemns the violence and mistreatment to which they’re subjected, it does not simply conclude on this bleak note. Rather, as in earlier works like Vive L’Amour, in which an effective combination of personal crises and economic necessity brings three unlikely individuals together without their realizing it, here precarity also signifies positive possibilities of new kinds of relationality. Put another way, it is precisely the kinds of flows of people across national borders facilitated by global capitalism, their desperation for survival, and their all-too-human vulnerability to injury and illness that precipitates novel intersections of bodies not united by language, ethnicity, or nationality. Tsai’s cinema not only crosses geographic borders, then, but also seeks to confuse our usual categories and explore the intersections made possible by that curious predicament of human life: Unable to bridge the expanse between ourselves and others, we nevertheless find ourselves irreducibly dependent upon one another, caught up in each other’s lives in unpredictable ways.

While some left-wing critics have condemned accounts celebrating “‘being vulnerable to others’ and putting ‘unpredictable encounters at the center of things’” as de facto valorizations of “a dominant form of pro-market poetics” in other, though arguably related, contexts,11 I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone stands as a forceful rejection of the curious type of art and thought that favors the approach of first inventing the universe in order to arrive at the type of world that one would like to see. It does not shy away from the realities of urban malaise, the exacerbation of human insecurities under global trade regimes, and the occasional tedium of humdrum human existence. But its unflinching look at these things is paradoxically precisely what enables it to draw out its surprising humor, its configurations of bodies and desires not bound to the narrow templates named by the romantic couple, the patriarchal family, or the racial nation. Its deliberate, slow pacing likewise challenges the obligatory rapidity of Hollywood blockbusters and mainstream commercial cinema more broadly, bypassing the suffocating rhythms and temporalities of transnational capital. Immanent critique in a utopian mode, Tsai’s film suggests, however fleetingly, the possibility of relations structured not by hierarchical norms, but by shared recognition of the vulnerability of the mortal body and the contingency of desire as expressed in care.

Notes

  1. Moya Lloyd, “The Ethics and Politics of Vulnerable Bodies,” in Butler and Ethics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 173-176.
  1. Rey Chow, The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).
  1. Asia Society. “Tsai Ming-Liang on Loneliness, Alienation, and Absurdity of Life.” Uploaded on April 5, 2010. YouTube video, 03:11-03:19. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXx5wiXrDRs.
  1. Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (New York: Penguin Books, 1954), 3.
  1. Rey Chow, Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 189.
  1. Tsai Ming-liang, interviewed by La Frances Hui, Asia Society, November 15-17, 2009, http://asiasociety.org/tsai-ming-liang-lee-kang-sheng.
  1. Asia Society. “Filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang on Human Relationships, Sexual Desire.” Uploaded on April 5, 2010. YouTube video, 00:37-01:30, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oas4h6Vu3Wg&nohtml5=False.
  1. Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Public Culture 2 (1990), 1-24.
  1. Chuck Stevens, “Review: I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone,” Film Comment, May/June 2007, http://www.filmcomment.com/article/i-dont-want-to-sleep-alone-review/.
  1. Ian Johnston, “Butterfly Dream: Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone,” August 1, 2007, http://brightlightsfilm.com/butterfly-dream-tsai-ming-liangs-dont-want-sleep-alone/#identifier_3_15523.
  1. Jedediah Purdy, “The Mushroom That Explains the World,” review of The Mushroom at the End of the World, by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. The New Republic, October 8, 2015. https://newrepublic.com/article/123059/foraging-meaning.
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