Smoke gets in your eyes

Pub date April 17, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

Long before Al Gore saw green in front of a blue screen and Hollywood used the Academy Awards to congratulate itself for suddenly becoming ecofriendly, Tsai Ming-liang braided more than a half dozen superb movies set in parts of a poisoned planet that Americans rarely contemplate. Resulting in at least a pair of classics — 1997’s The River and 2003’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn — Tsai’s one of a kind linked works to date have been distinguished by their not just rare but entirely singular realism and prescience about everyday pollution. Along with Todd Haynes’s similarly radical 1995 melodrama, Safe, The River uncovers the taken-for-granted toxicity of human-made environments and does so with a depth that realizes there is no easy diagnosis, let alone cure.

Tsai’s palette changes a bit in his latest film, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, the first set in his birth country, Malaysia. Instead of the soaked Taipei that dominates most of his alienated romantic comedies, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone occupies a Kuala Lumpur beset by nearby fires. While painterly, the colors aren’t so glossy, partly because smoke gets in Tsai’s eyes and those of the film’s lovers, who of course include his frequent star Chen Shiang-chyi and his muse, Lee Kang-sheng. If (as Tsai once suggested to me) Lee’s characters are connected to — if not directly reflective of — Tsai’s view of whatever Lee’s going through in his offscreen life, then Tsai must be annoyed to the point of murderous thoughts. This time Lee is leading a double life, leaving the gorgeous Norman Atun to pine for him just as Lee once pined in what was previously Tsai’s most literal musical-beds narrative, 1994’s Vive l’Amour. Unrequited love has a long life in Tsai’s world, where hearts are pure while water and air are toxic. (Johnny Ray Huston)