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Tsai Ming-liang's Precarious City

by Ethan Tussey

by Rosalind Galt for IN MEDIA RES

Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) maps transnational capital through Kuala Lumpur’s urban built environment. The director’s first film shot in his native Malaysia, Sleep traverses KL’s grimiest streets from the perspective of migrant workers. It figures a globalized world in terms of the movement of laboring bodies through unfinished high-rise buildings, dingy dormitories, and temporary walkways around construction sites. These architectures of rapid, exploitative, and often stalled urban development nonetheless render visible a precarious foothold on community. 

Here, a group of Bangladeshi workers laboriously carry home a mattress they have found behind a dumpster. An interior, domestic object moves awkwardly through public space. We move through dirty alleys and crowded intersections, across dark passageways and empty streets. Time expands and shots that would normally be elided for the sake of narrative efficiency swell to an unexpected duration. As spectators, we feel the weight of the mattress in the sheer time spent watching the men struggle with it. In this heavy time, KL’s multiethnic cityscape emerges as a transnational collage where domestic things are repurposed in public: the mattress finds a new home, and a couple on the street sing a Malay version of a British nursery rhyme. 

If Sleep views KL as an assemblage of precarious globality, its cinematic architecture also encloses spaces of intimacy. In the previous scene, another foreigner – and recurring Tsai character – Hsiao-kang has been beaten up by a gang. We see him stagger and collapse, and the editing allows us to believe that the men have walked past without helping, deciding it was none of their business. We think time is seamless, but when they arrive home we discover that something was elided and the men have rescued Hsiao-kang after all. There is a space enfolded in the mattress and likewise an uneen pocket of time, secreted in narrative space. Hsaio-kang is enveloped in this safe space, an interiority hidden from public view. Precarity is often held to foreclose on communalism but Tsai reverses this conventional wisdom. The men take a risk in bringing home this sick stranger, proposing in the process a different use of cinematic space.


Clip from I Don't Want to Sleep Alone

film clip

from I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006)
Creator: Tsai Ming-liang
Distributor: NA
Posted by Ethan Tussey