Sunday, June 10, 2007

Malaysian Malaise

Tsai Ming-Liang is a director whose profile has fallen slightly in world cinema in recent years, as the commercial popularity of one fellow Taiwanese, Edward Yang, and the critical canonisation of another, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, has outstripped his films, which are slow, difficult, often inscrutable and less respectful of the still stringent social mores of Taiwanese society.

Tsai first came to prominence with Rebels of a Neon God and Vive l'Amour, which were big festival hits in the early 90s. Both films were cool, artfully mounted portrayals of urban alienation in modern Taiwan, in the second film the locus being the female real estate broker, played by Kuei-Mei Lang, whose tearful breakdown on a park bench in the final scene is one of the most moving scene I have ever seen in the cinema. Like his Korean contemporary Hong Sang-Soo, Tsai explores the interzone of menial and temporary work that prevails across much of the Tiger economies of the Pacific Rim. Boredom is the dominant atmosphere but Tsai in all his films manages to wheedle out little snatches of drama amidst all the static ennui and his formal compositions - mostly long takes with a perpetually immobile camera- are a joy to watch for those with a lengthy attention span.

In recent years his films have becoming increasingly outré - even if his basic technique remains the same. The Hole, which was about a hole that mysteriously appears in the floor of a Taipei apartment, occasioning a rapprochement between two previously mutually unknown people, was laced with the songs of 50s Mandarin diva Grace Chang. Goodbye Dragon Inn weaves a story around the final screening at an old Taipei movie palace; What Time is it There? exported the ennui - and quite a bit of anxiety - to Paris, and The Wayward Cloud was a thoroughly bizarre, and overlong pornographic musical, centred on the watermelons that Taiwanese people have been advised to consume instead of water during a heatwave.

For his new film I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai returns to the country of his birth, Malaysia. The film follows a mute Chinese (played by Tsai's usual leading man, the imperiously deadpan Lee Kang-Sheng) around the streets of a Malaysian city - I'm guessing it's Kuala Lumpur but it is never made clear. After getting beaten up by a number of local hustlers in the opening scene he is taken under the wing of a kindly Bangladeshi who seems to have an affection for him, but which is never consummated. The young man then has brief liaisons with both a mother and daughter - the owners of a small greasy-spoon - who are caring for a comatose son, who is also played by Lee. As ever in a Tsai film there is little dialogue and the character motivations are vague, even malleable. The compositions are pristine and the tone is sad, though it is a sadness that is always undercut with an exquisite sense of visual irony - the non-professional Lee has perfected his shtick so well by now that he is becoming an autodidact master of deadpan to rival Buster Keaton. There is an unusually optimistic final scene, which itself signals a departure of sorts for Tsai. Not surprisingly the Malaysian authorities found much to object to in the film, and banned it before Tsai made cuts to their liking. For a foreigner the film is a fascinating glimpse of this unknown but important Asian country, a place where cutlery takes precedence over chopsticks - except among the Chinese minority - where the Roman alphabet is used everywhere and where devout Muslim women wear headscarves while otherwise being liberated enough to walk down the street wearing a T-shirt and jeans.