In Tash Aw’s column Freeze Frame, he explores how his favorite masterpieces of Asian cinema have influenced him.
For most of the second half of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai Ming-liang’s 2006 masterpiece of unfulfilled desire, the characters struggle to breathe through makeshift face masks, fashioned from materials as desperate as plastic bags or metal jelly molds. Their daily lives are being slowly constricted, suffocated by something in the air, which we presume to be Kuala Lumpur’s famous near-annual smog, except no one really knows for sure—the news on the radio provides conflicting information—so the smoke that descends upon the city takes on a more sinister aura. The air itself has become dangerous to breathe. No one knows when this oppressive anxiety will end.
As I write, Kuala Lumpur is in virus-induced lockdown. Looking out from my apartment I can see only the odd car on what is usually a busy highway, and the neighborhood is almost eerily calm. The city’s streets are emptier and more silent than in the film, but the sense of stasis and uncertainty is the same. Both in the film and now, the anxiety is caused by something that threatens our health, but it is also tied to a deeper malaise: a fear that our societies are fragile and ill adapted to the swirling changes of modern life.
The people who inhabit the Kuala Lumpur of I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone are drawn from some of the most vulnerable and ignored—yet omnipresent—sections of society. The story is built around a chance meeting of two migrant workers, Rawang, a construction laborer from Bangladesh, and an unnamed man—possibly from Myanmar or China, though we never find out since he doesn’t say a word throughout the entire film—who drifts through the streets and is badly beaten up one night by a gang of local thugs. Rawang and his group of fellow Bangladeshi workers come across the Homeless Man—as he is called in the credits—close to death in the street. They have found a soiled mattress dumped in a heap of rubbish nearby, and are struggling to haul it back to their cramped quarters, where it will be at least better than the thin pieces of cloth they usually sleep on. At first they decide to leave Homeless Man where he is—he is none of their business, and in their world, we understand that physical violence is so commonplace it barely deserves a second glance—but Rawang persuades them to go back for the unconscious stranger, whom they place on the mattress and carry back to their boardinghouse.
In the first days after their meeting, the injured man is so badly hurt that Rawang must help him with even the most basic of functions: feeding him, holding him upright as he urinates, washing him, dressing and undressing him. Many days and nights pass like this, and as Rawang nurses the man back to health, he finds that he enjoys the physical bond created by their enforced closeness. In their rudimentary lodgings, particularly when they are both sleeping on the mattress—which Rawang has lovingly scrubbed clean, fumigated, and aired in the sun—the two men enjoy an intimacy so intense that it drowns out the noise around them—the incessant rowdy chatter of the other men, the ever-present TV at night, the traffic. They never exchange any words, but we have no doubt that Rawang cares deeply for his new companion. He loves him.
Meanwhile, very close to where Rawang lives in the heart of downtown Kuala Lumpur, a young man lies in bed, permanently paralyzed. We don’t know what illness he suffers from, but he is incapable of any movement, though from time to time, he is able to blink and his eyes tear up, perhaps from memories of times past, or from the frustration of being excluded from life. He is cared for by his mother and the family maid, who lives in a makeshift room built into the ceiling space above the man’s bed. On the ground floor of the building is an old coffee shop run by the two women, neither of whom wants to be there. They are both dreaming of gentler existences in more beautiful times and places, but they are trapped in this decaying corner of the city.
Favored by migrant workers and anyone in search of somewhere to eat and drink cheaply late at night, the kopitiam is a remnant of old Kuala Lumpur, a once-thriving business now barely profitable. But this one is right in the middle of town, where real estate is expensive. Soon, it will be sold, and the handsome, dilapidated space and its eclectic, democratic clientele will be forced move on, replaced by hipsters and luxe backpacker hostels. For both the people who frequent the coffee shop and those who live in the rooms above it, the building is a refuge for misfits and outsiders, those injured by the sharp edges of a rapidly modernizing society with little time for kindness.
Shot fifteen years ago, the film feels at once utterly contemporary and anchored in a distant past, as if Tsai Ming-liang had anticipated the Kuala Lumpur of 2020 while celebrating the historic richness and squalor of the city’s urban life. Unlike some of Tsai’s other celebrations of queer desire, most notably Goodbye, Dragon Inn, set in a Taipei cinema on the evening before it shuts forever, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone offers little romanticism and no nostalgia at all. It is chaotic and dirty, with no effort made to prettify the decay of the old shop lots in the city center. And yet, in its stark framing of the dimly lit back lanes, dank alleyways, and porticoed walkways, it provides some of the most ravishing views of downtown Kuala Lumpur ever captured onscreen. Walking through Chinatown late one evening a few weeks ago, just before the city went into lockdown, I was reminded of the film’s enduring beauty and humanity. The only people on foot in the streets were migrant workers, generally Bangladeshi, generally men. They paused to watch Bollywood movies playing on small TV screens in shop windows, or gathered in groups to watch someone perform a magic trick, or maybe gamble—anything that offered them a few moments of laughter and entertainment. Overhead, the tips of the skyscrapers and giant new shopping malls peered over the roofs of the old, low buildings, like symbols, visions for the future we were meant to believe in. The people in the streets around me that night were the ones who built those skyscrapers. What does it mean to construct the future of a country but remain unrecognized, unwanted?
Much of the action in the film takes place close to Pudu Prison, which was demolished several years after the film was shot. Rawang first finds the Homeless Man outside the painted walls of the jail; he spends quiet moments alone in an abandoned construction site nearby, whose haunting beauty is a reminder of the pitfalls of rampant development in contemporary Asia. The ever-present threat of incarceration sits next to a physical reminder of the failure of ambition; those whose lives are the most precarious remind us that our notion of progress is fragile.
As the Homeless Man regains his strength, he begins to roam the streets once more, and soon runs into the maid, embittered by years of service to the paralyzed man and his vain, cruel mother. Tired of caring for someone who seems barely alive to her, she finds solace in the Homeless Man’s company, and after many thwarted attempts, they finally manage to get together in the abandoned construction site. The man has stolen the precious mattress that he has shared with Rawang and carried it all the way to his secret resting spot—a sort of double betrayal of the friend who saved him. But when he and the young woman get together, the smog is at its worst, and they cannot kiss without choking. As soon as their lips touch, they have to pull away and gasp for breath, battling to stay conscious.
Their inability to consummate their desire is a physical one, but it also seems psychological, as if they are held back by fear. What they long for is intimacy and belonging, but in this half-finished shell of a tower block, they are incapable of achieving either. The harshness of their lives has weakened their bodies and they are unable to withstand the choking smog. If they give in to their desire, their lungs will give up. Who will come to their aid then? Their world will swiftly become as lifeless as the devastated building they are in. Like the smoke that hangs in the air, their fear is universal. In this moment, caught somewhere between indecision and exhaustion, we share their anxiety—at how quickly our lives can be upended, at losing the ability to express even our most basic passions to the people closest to us. Perhaps the fear will dissipate when the toxic air has cleared. Or maybe we will never quite forget the knowledge that the edifices of this modern life we have created are fundamentally flawed, and might crumble at any moment.
Tash Aw’s most recent novel is We, the Survivors.