Save the green planet

Tsai Ming-liang sounds off about his beautiful visions of a horribly polluted world
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With I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang has made something of a modern silent movie. I didn't count, but I am pretty sure there are only a handful of words (if not less) spoken by the movie's main characters. Taking the place of dialogue is ambient noise — snippets from a Cantonese opera, a Malaysian news report, a talk show in Mandarin — and most of all, unadulterated silence. With communication perpetually out of reach, it is no wonder alienation is such a major theme in Tsai's films. Visually, the director is all about stationary long shots and understatement. He fashions an environment that dwarfs and suppresses its inhabitants.

In many instances this environment is literally ecological. Pollution, contamination, unknown illnesses, and inexplicable catastrophes run deep in Tsai's world: in 1997's The River, the main character contracts a nagging, stubborn neck pain after being in a filthy river (the causality, however, is never made explicit). His peripatetic quest for a treatment leads to a denouement of son-and-father bonding in a gay sex club. The Hole, Tsai's 1998 follow-up, imagines Taipei after a deadly and unknown pandemic strikes; the entire city is emptied out but for two people, surviving unbeknownst to each other. Taipei is once again under ecological threat in 2005's The Wayward Cloud as a dire water shortage drives people to eat watermelons for liquid sustenance.

Similarly, the Kuala Lumpur of I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is not doing too well. In one scene a noxious haze blankets the city, generated by a wildfire in Indonesia that has been blown across the Strait of Malacca. People are warned to stay inside or wear masks if they have to venture out. Unfortunately, there is a mask shortage, so plastic bags and disposable Styrofoam bowls are deployed as makeshift substitutes.

"It is a truthful reflection of the world we live in at this moment," Tsai says during an interview when asked about the scenarios of ecological trouble in his films. "We are living in a moment [when] the world is actually sick. For example, the fire you see in this film [I Don't Want to Sleep Alone] is something that Malaysians and the countries around Malaysia have to face every year. It is a real problem that has a lot of repercussions — not just environmental but also social and economical."

In a sense, the intersection of these outcomes is embodied in the massive unfinished construction site that serves as a kind of structural centerpiece in the film. Located in the middle of Kuala Lumpur, the building to be, along with many others, was started during an economic boom in the country. In the late 1990s the Asian financial crisis devastated the entire region, and the project was left unfinished and abandoned. The foreign laborers brought into Malaysia to help build it instantly became jobless.

Tsai first saw the structure in 1999 when he visited Malaysia, his birth country. Six years later he decided to enter the site for the first time. What he found was a giant pool of dark water — a collection of rain, soot, and runoff that had gathered inside the building over the course of years.

Water, of course, is Tsai's preferred element; his first three features — Rebels of the Neon God (1992), Vive l'Amour (1994), and The River — are known as his water trilogy. Tsai has said before that he sees his characters as plants and their loneliness as a sort of thirst that needs constant watering. As such, discovering that large body of water within a gutted structure was, to him, an unmistakable sign. "I saw the water and decided I had to make a film at that place," Tsai says.

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