There’s a scene in the 1996 film Irma Vep in which the director of a turbulent remake of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires makes a confession to his leading lady (Hong Kong legend Maggie Cheung, playing herself). With the film falling to pieces around him, he admits that his motivation for making it was simply the sexual appeal of seeing Cheung in her character’s skin-tight leather cat suit. Cheung’s reaction, rather than disgust or embarrassment, is understanding: “That’s desire, and I think it’s okay because that’s what we make movies with.”
That’s true enough. Films are essentially a way to mediate our desires, to give them form—whether it’s the desire for money, for truth, or just to see a beautiful movie star in a cat suit. But which filmmakers really capture the texture of desire? To imagine a sensual film style, you might think of figures like Wong Kar-wai, Lynne Ramsay, or Barry Jenkins. Their films are kinetic, musical and fleet-footed; the cameras get close to actors, filming them with a lover’s intimacy to render their bodies gigantic and scale them like landscapes. But consider Malaysian Chinese director Tsai Ming-liang. His style couldn’t be more different to what’s describe above: he keeps the camera still, puts the frames wide, and then makes his characters travel the entire length of the set to find each other. But for my money, his films are the most sensual and sexual we have today.
Tsai seems to make his films not only about but with desire, a material as integral to their construction as celluloid and light. His body of work is a masterclass in minimalism; erotic slow cinema characterised by long takes and very little dialogue (the occasional burst into song notwithstanding). There is sex, but as Tsai himself says, “the object isn’t to get you involved or excited, but to watch.”
His eighth and arguably best feature, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, tells two intertwined stories of desire in Kuala Lumpur, their telling weighted with that city’s heavy humidity and languor. The film’s curt English title alone captures the primal, almost brutal nature of desire that festers in an alienated soul like mildew in a dark corner. “Fester” might not seem like the most romantic term, but that’s a matter of environmental conditions, and in this film sex is not just about what we do—it’s about where we do it.
Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-sheng appears in dual roles: First as a paralysed man living above a café and being cared for by a waitress, and then as Hsiao-kang, a homeless mute incapacitated by a beating. Their world is rendered as a place of near-misses and possibilities, of empty space that seems to lie in wait for bodies to fill it. Characters often move from a deep background to the foreground, and usually very slowly. As an audience we’re aware of every single move, so that even at a distance there is intimacy between us and them.
Rawang, a Bangladeshi migrant worker, finds Hsiao-kang lying in the street with some serious injuries. With his friends, he carries him home on a salvaged mattress and sets about nursing him back to health. In his small home, Rawang cleans both the mattress and the patient. Little else happens; sexual attraction between the two men becomes pronounced only because the film avoids inscribing it too firmly. Rawang nurses Hsiao-kang, washes him, dresses him, feeds him, and shares a bed with him, but they never share a conversation. Only a poster above their bed declares “I LOVE YOU.” The space is saying what the men can’t.
One of the more captivating long takes shows the before, during, and after of a banal physical chore: urination. Hsiao-kang needs to pee but he doesn’t have the strength to do it alone. Rawang pulls down Hsaio-kang’s jeans, exposing his buttocks to the camera. Hsaio-kang pees while Rawang holds him steady. Exhausted by the effort, Rawang sits down—and Hsiao-kang’s physical dependency means that he can’t help but sit in Rawang’s lap. The two half-dressed men silently cling to each other to keep from falling. It’s tense, funny, sexy, and commonplace all at once. The erotic intrigue of this moment—and the real time we spend in it—relies upon a masterful control of the dynamics of filmmaking. Simply by being part of a movie audience, we don’t only expect something to happen, we want it to happen. That desire is a tangible commons created between audience, filmmaker, and characters, and it is Tsai’s foundation for how he builds meaning.
In the next scene, we see that Rawang’s job is to pump water from a flooded, half-built tower block. This act of channelling water draws an equivalence between Hsiao-kang and the unfinished building. What Rawang does to one, he does to the other. Similarly, just as Rawang washes Hsiao-kang, he washes the salvaged mattress—the place where he will otherwise sleep, convalesce, and have sex. The duration and repetition of the shots where he cleans the mattress turn the routine into a totemic ritual, like a ceremonial expenditure of unrealised sexual energy performed on the location of sex instead of on another human body. Encased in a mosquito net, the mattress comes to resemble a half-formed crepuscular space, existing somewhere between two worlds.
Rawang and the other characters live in a poetic, in-between realm that is continually blurring boundaries. Humans and places, rituals and pleasures, work and care, sex and sleep; these distinctions collapse because of how characters perform their desires upon the world around them.
Tsai has said that he cares more about cities and places than he does about people, and while his frame sizes do diminish human bodies, at the heart of his style is a sincere and inquisitive compassion. The most striking and admired moment of the film sees Hsiao-kang fishing in the flooded courtyard of the tower block when a huge moth lands on his shoulder. He holds it for a moment before letting it fly. Rawang emerges from the shadows and very slowly squats near Hsiao-kang, watching the moth’s manic, frenzied but silent movement in an otherwise still space. The men say nothing, and hardly move, but the small animal between them is a silent shout of longing captured with a beauty both simple and bizarre.
The distance between the men does nothing to defuse sexual tension; in most of the film, characters are only brought into intimate physical contact because of necessity. Hsiao-kang’s injuries mean that he depends upon the compassionate touch of the stranger who has taken him in, just as the paralysed man is in the hands of his caregivers. Even when Hsiao-kang regains his strength, Rawang adjusts his sarong as if he is still incapable—a pretext, of course, for fussing over Hsiao-kang’s crotch. Massage, cleaning, dressing, scratching; these functional touches rarely move into the purely sexual, yet are full of erotic energy. This is all to suggest that fulfilment of the body’s desires may lie outside the restraints of conventional sexuality. Labour, ritual, caregiving, coincidence, co-habitation: these all form the stuff of sex in the film. We are interdependent beings, and no amount of urban isolation can thwart our overwhelming desire. That desire may be frustrated, obscured, denied, muffled, and smothered, but it is never quite obliterated.
On paper, this elaborate orchestration of covert and ungratified encounters might seem hopelessly chaste, but some context is illuminating. While Tsai Ming-liang was born and raised in Malaysia, in adulthood he moved to Taiwan and has since mostly made films there; I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is the only film he has shot in his native country. Unlike Taiwan, Malaysia’s LGBT rights are strictly and aggressively restricted. Homosexuality is punishable in court, and only a small minority of the population seem to be in support of a more progressive stance. The country’s film censorship board dictates that any film character displaying homosexual behaviour must repent or be punished by the end of the story.
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone captures the essence of queer sexualities because its expression is one of unrealised longing. This sense of immanence plays off what we expect to happen and what we want to happen to generate a third aspect: what is permitted to happen. What sexual acts might be anticipated in particular places? If the story is about sex, why are we looking at the space around bodies? Exactly how much affection, contact, or intimacy are we waiting for—and why? The film gives us feelings of desire and expectation, and then frustrates those feelings. There is a tension between what we want and what we get.
The film was initially banned in Malaysia, and only a heavily censored version has been screened there. Tsai’s characters can’t repent their sexuality because they can barely utter it. The very narrative drive of the film is the expectation for these rootless, slow-moving souls to finally reach each other and express love, but it never happens in the way we expect. Their sexual unions are not penalised, but they are delayed, foiled, and interrupted. The film’s only fully realised sexual encounter (a wordless fumble in a dark alleyway) is abruptly cut off halfway through an ecstatic groan, as if the real pleasure of the event is the anticipation rather than the climax.
When Hsiao-kang is on his feet again, he has a flirtation with the waitress who cares for his paralysed doppelganger. The pair engage in a glacial cat-and-mouse game through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, searching in vain for a place to have sex. Eventually, they go to the half-built tower—a space neither private nor public—but a cloud of smoke from a forest fire has descended on the city and they become too physically exhausted by the effort to continue.
The meaning of Tsai’s film can’t be unglued from the context of place: When there is no room to breathe, desire itself can be suffocating.
All three lovers—Hsiao-kang, Rawang, and the waitress—eventually reunite in a tiny loft, another “in-between” space where standing upright is impossible. They fall asleep together on the mattress, and after two hours of near misses the film ends with a stunning shot that ties together the threads of space, desire, and union in a dreamlike fantasy. It shows the dark silent water of the flooded tower, still for a time, before the mattress floats into the frame. The three sleeping lovers lie on it like castaways on a makeshift raft. Finally detached from place, floating in the in-between, the characters can rest and sleep in each other’s arms.
It’s very difficult, of course, to separate people from the places we inhabit—least of all the movie theatre. This is what films help us do: understand our desires by paying attention to exactly what it is that we want, and how we might go about getting it. But there is no gratification that brings an end to desire, for desire is what we live on, what creates time, what pushes one moment ahead of another, and what builds the cities where we find one another. It’s what we make movies with.