In an era when most movie cameras seem to be moving more, jerking and jumping around, obscuring what they're supposed to be capturing, Tsai Ming-liang's camera grows ever more still, gazing boldly and steadily at a scene for so long that we get to know its every corner. In his 2004 masterpiece Goodbye Dragon Inn, I detected one, maybe two, moving shots. But in his latest film, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, it doesn't even budge that much.
Tsai has never been one for telling linear, easily explained stories, but at least some of his earlier films had recognizable elements. In The River (1994), Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) takes a job in a movie playing a corpse floating in the polluted Tanshui River and develops a mysterious and apparently incurable pain in his neck. In The Hole (1998), a virus has turned most of the population into human cockroaches, and a remaining human couple bonds when a hole opens up between their apartments. In What Time Is It There? (2001), a watch salesman dreams about a girl he has only barely met as she travels to Paris (he watches The 400 Blows on video and she meets the real life Jean-Pierre Leaud). And in Goodbye Dragon Inn, several lonely people pass a rainy night in a dilapidated movie theater on the last night of its existence.
Tsai's last movie The Wayward Cloud was more disparate and difficult to explain, and the same goes for I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. To start, Tsai's regular leading man Lee Kang-sheng appears in two roles, although it's not clear how or why. The film opens with a man laying in a hospital bed, either sleeping or unconscious, while opera trills on a nearby radio. Next up, we see the same man, or perhaps a different man, getting himself into hot water with a con man on the streets. (Let's assume that it's Hsiao-kang, since Lee Kang-sheng plays roughly the same character with the same name in all of Tsai's films.) We can infer from the dialogue that Hsiao-kang is now in Malaysia instead of Taiwan, and is unaware of the language or the customs. (Though currently based in Taiwan, Tsai was born in Malaysia.)
Next up, a group of young men dig a mattress out of a dumpster and carry it halfway across town. They come across the badly beaten Hsiao-kang and carry him home. A man, Rawang (Norman Atun), cleans the mattress and sets up a bed for Hsiao-kang, washing him, caring for him, bringing him food and even sleeping beside him under a mosquito netting. Meanwhile, a waitress Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi), at a nearby cafe looks after the paralyzed Hsiao-kang doppelganger. Apparently this is part of her job duties, which also includes "pleasuring" the patient. The recuperating Hsiao-kang runs into Chyi, and they begin one of those trademark Tsai relationships, based more on sex and loneliness than actual romantic devotion.
Most of the film takes place in a large, mostly-abandoned concrete-and-steel building, which is partially flooded. Hsiao-kang and others often sit by the indoor lake, either fishing or listening to a generator (perhaps a pump?). All of Tsai's films use water as a motif, both for its life-giving properties and for its destructive properties. Water is usually beating away at man-made structures, or it sits, gathering disease and pollution. The Wayward Cloud took place during a drought. But all that water does little good as this time Tsai focuses on its opposite, fire, filling the city with a rolling, choking smoke that causes most of the inhabitants to don cotton masks. When Hsiao-kang and Chyi try to make love, they wind up coughing and wheezing before they can even make it to second base.
As with The Wayward Cloud, Tsai imparts most of the movie's core information through news broadcasts and radio announcements. But even so, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is highly arbitrary, and most of the above plot and character description is merely guesswork. Most movies over-explain their plot and characters, but Tsai deliberately under-explains, preferring to leave some things a mystery. It's not even clear whether he's still following his previously established arc, in which Hsiao-kang went from being a watch salesman (What Time Is It There?) to a porn star (the short film The Skywalk Is Gone and The Wayward Cloud). Perhaps the paralyzed Hsiao-kang belongs to the larger story arc and the injured one is a new character? There's no telling.