Chinese-language films are often given radically different titles when they are marketed to English-speaking audiences, and Tsai Ming-liang's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, which plays today at IFC Center, makes it out better than most. Its original title, Hei Yan Quan, is nevertheless enlightening: It means "black circles around the eyes," a phrase used to refer to the dark bags caused by a lack of sleep and also a literal shiner. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone is likewise two things at once: A nearly wordless, dreamlike drift through Kuala Lumpur, and a violent, political look at a multiethnic city suffocating both literally and metaphorically.
In I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai reunites with Lee Kang-sheng, who plays two characters: a paralyzed patient, and Hsiao Kang, an aimless Chinese immigrant left for dead after stumbling on a con-artist and being unable to pay up. Bangladeshi workers rescue Hsiao Kang, with one in particular, Rawang, taking it upon himself to nurse him back to health.
Being a Tsai film, these quickly summarized events make up the better part of the movie, although I Don't Want to Sleep Alone still moves significantly faster than his later works. Still, Hsiao Kang is more like a canvas for other characters to draw on than a character of his own agency and volition, and one gets the sense that "story" isn't what Tsai is interested in here anyway. He is instead enraptured by dilapidated buildings, the disorienting blackness of standing water, the stray notes of a Bollywood hit, a radio report on the fires in Sumatra, a resting moth.
Taken together, this atmosphere is so intoxicating that when Rawang eventually presses a razor-blade edge of an opened tin can to Hsiao Kang's throat in an act of jealousy, it is jarringly and startlingly human. It is also a reminder that no matter how deep you sink into Tsai's world, there is far more at work than just breathtaking images. As one migrant says when asked what he would do if he came into a sudden fortune: "I would buy a house, some goats—everything." And it is in that sudden, bold gasp for "everything," and the viewer's knowledge that it will never come to pass, that I Don't Want to Sleep Alone spreads its wings.