Tsai Ming-liang's Precarious City

Curator's Note

Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) maps transnational capital through Kuala Lumpur’s urban built environment. The director’s first film shot in his native Malaysia, Sleep traverses KL’s grimiest streets from the perspective of migrant workers. It figures a globalized world in terms of the movement of laboring bodies through unfinished high-rise buildings, dingy dormitories, and temporary walkways around construction sites. These architectures of rapid, exploitative, and often stalled urban development nonetheless render visible a precarious foothold on community. 

Here, a group of Bangladeshi workers laboriously carry home a mattress they have found behind a dumpster. An interior, domestic object moves awkwardly through public space. We move through dirty alleys and crowded intersections, across dark passageways and empty streets. Time expands and shots that would normally be elided for the sake of narrative efficiency swell to an unexpected duration. As spectators, we feel the weight of the mattress in the sheer time spent watching the men struggle with it. In this heavy time, KL’s multiethnic cityscape emerges as a transnational collage where domestic things are repurposed in public: the mattress finds a new home, and a couple on the street sing a Malay version of a British nursery rhyme. 

If Sleep views KL as an assemblage of precarious globality, its cinematic architecture also encloses spaces of intimacy. In the previous scene, another foreigner – and recurring Tsai character – Hsiao-kang has been beaten up by a gang. We see him stagger and collapse, and the editing allows us to believe that the men have walked past without helping, deciding it was none of their business. We think time is seamless, but when they arrive home we discover that something was elided and the men have rescued Hsiao-kang after all. There is a space enfolded in the mattress and likewise an uneen pocket of time, secreted in narrative space. Hsaio-kang is enveloped in this safe space, an interiority hidden from public view. Precarity is often held to foreclose on communalism but Tsai reverses this conventional wisdom. The men take a risk in bringing home this sick stranger, proposing in the process a different use of cinematic space.



I was fascinated by Galt's careful unpacking of the literal and figural roles played by the mattress 'pocket' as it becomes inflected by the montage; in particular, I was reminded of Pheng Cheah's conceptualization of the 'global sheaf'; like 'pocket,' 'sheaf' can be both noun and verb, depending on context. Caught between passive and active, literal and figural, 'sheaf' comes to signify the ambivalent spectral bodies established by postcolonial nation-states in response to the predatory impulses of global capital. Galt appears to be unpacking a similar ambivalence in the relationship between the domestic object of the mattress and the figurations achieved by Tsai's montage, which describes a doubled (i.e. spectral) moment whose retroactive significance dramatizes the singular contingency of urban space - and of cinematic architecture - for the migrant workers who inhabit them.

Thanks, Daniel. I hadn't thought of the affinity between the pocket and the sheaf, but it makes total sense. Of course, pockets are more intimate than sheafs, and I think there's always a particular attention paid in Tsai's films to the relationship between intimate and public spaces. (The end of The River is one striking example.) But as you suggest, the contingency of these spaces seems crucial in unpacking their political stakes.

Rosalind, thanks for this post. I'm drawn to this reclaimed space of the mattress that moves in and across the city, dirty and marked with past use, and indeed a marker of intimacy discarded into the public arena and then repurposed and reused once again. As public and private, urban and intimate are fluid registers, the mattress become a space of care, not for a loved one, but for this stranger found passed out in the street. Care, in turn, is practiced privately as well as publicly, spatially as well as temporally, as we follow the long expanded time it takes for the multiple workers to carefully retrieve and transport the mattress. This used and useful mattress is reclaimed into a space of care, as it makes it way across various sites in the city and because of these pathways through and across those urban happenings.

Rosalind, thank you for getting this week off to such a strong start, this is truly a fascinating moment in this film. What struck me here was the struggle the Bangladeshi workers are enduring to secure this piece material comfort. Like Tsai's use of "heavy time" to present this enduring moment, representationally the workers must struggle together in order to accomplish a task that is both arduous and time consuming. Tsai's use of longer takes, static cameras, and diegetic sound creates an atmosphere that purposes this scene to be experienced in a way the workers know and understand: monotonous, slow, tedious, and exhausting. Yet, I'm curious how many viewers of this film can relate to an urban landscape that forces one to move through it not as a consumer--of time, of space, of products or images--but instead as a nomad who drifts, traverses, and works her way through this setting? In this way, Tsai's cinema suggests to me that the urban landscape presented in this cinematic architecture of duration asks viewer's to experience an intensity of endurance that we so often escape through first world convenience.

Rosalind, this is a beautiful post that thoughtfully unravels some of Tsai's provocative uses of cityscapes, urban times, and global flows. The "unseen pocket of time" to which you incisively point seems also, to me, to refer to cinematic interstices themselves: the space between frames, or perhaps the elusive minutes spectators lose over the duration of watching a film. That such pockets are alluded to here through the image of the mattress seems also to wittily prod at cinema's continuing dreamstate metaphor. If, as Jennifer suggests, the mattress becomes a space of care, then so too does film itself. In light of Jonathan Crary's new work on the radical possibilities of sleep, perhaps we might rethink spectatorial reverie through a different lens. Tsai's work, with its ongoing interest in sleep, flows, and cinema itself, brings to mind these questions. In reclaiming the structures of urban cities, and refiguring them into new juxtapositions of public, private, massive, and intimate, this particular kind of cinematic architecture proposes a new potential for filmic politics.

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