... where angels fear to tread ... (I'm no angel ...)
It is clear that Tsai Ming-Liang's latest film is highly personal, and as such it invites the kind of probing that may appear impertinent and may also be wide of the mark. Fools like myself, however, rush in ... It marks his return to his roots, his return, after many years, to his country of birth, Malaysia, and its major city Kuala Lumpur, but it may also be personal in other ways, without pressing things too far: there are plenty of clues, out of which we may concoct a partially hidden story that may or may not be valid and is open to various degrees of interpretation. Consider the following:
Tsai (who has been from the outset openly gay) is on record as saying that he will never make a film without Lee Kang-Sheng, a promise he has kept through seven movies.
In his first widely released film, Rebels of the Neon Cod, Lee plays a lonely outsider fascinated by a couple of boys who steal money from call-boxes; the character can be read as gay, though this is never made explicit.
In the next two films, Vive I'Amour and The River, Lee's character is explicitly gay. In Vive I'Amour he kisses in terror the lips of the sleeping (heterosexual) man he loves (and who doesn't deserve him). The River contains a sequence in which he visits a gay bathhouse and has sex in a totally dark room with his father, who slaps him brutally when the light goes on.
In the next film, The Hole, the character is heterosexual, and this continues through all the subsequent films. In What Time is It There?, he humiliates and punishes a man who tries to involve him in washroom sex.
I Don't Want to Sleep Alone opens with Lee unconscious on a bed in what appears to be (but isn't) some kind of hospital (it would be a very dubious one, as we find out later). Offscreen, perhaps from a radio, Tamino's aria from Act 1 of The Magic Flute, in which he gazes upon Pamina's portrait, is in progress: 'Dies Bildnis its bezaubernd schon' ('This face is supremely beautiful'). (The film was shot during the Mozart Bicentenary, celebrated all over the world; the vast abandoned building that was to become the central location '... felt almost like a post-modern opera theatre ... I was reminded of Mozart's The Magic Flute'--Tsai, in an interview).
Subsequently, some way into the film, we are returned to the prone, helpless, unconscious figure, but the performance of the opera has reached the Queen of the Night's 'Vengeance' aria: 'Die Holle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen' ('Hell's fury burns in my veins'.
The main plot of the film concerns a young man (also played by Lee Kang-Sheng--Tsai has suggested in an interview that he can be read as the unconscious Lee's dream, and from here on, when necessary for clarity, I shall refer to them as Lee 1 and Lee 2), brutally beaten and left for dead, rescued by the film's main character, Rawang (Norman Atun), who takes him in, washes him lovingly, cares for him, brings him back to health, sleeps beside him, and very obviously adores him. (Tsai remarks in the interview that originally there were to have been 'some sex scenes' between the two men--which would have brought the film's development even closer to the evolution of Lee's screen career, from gay to straight).
When the young man recovers sufficiently, he sneaks out at night while his savior apparently sleeps, for a casual pickup with a girl his own age, and they have sex together (not very satisfactorily, but I'll return to that later, it's a somewhat different, though central and related, issue). The pickup is watched (from a distance) and followed by, the older man.
When he sneaks back into bed, the older man, who has, after all, saved the young man's life and lovingly nursed him back to health, attempts (in rage, desperation, ... revenge?) to murder him, but is unable to go through with it and collapses in tears. …