By Matt Singer
[Photo: Left, “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone,” Strand, 2007; Below, “Provoked,” # Eros International, 2007]
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone
In 2002, Tsai Ming-liang told The Onion AV Club “It’s my belief that human beings are like plants. They can’t live without water or they’ll dry up. Human beings, without love or other nourishment, also dry up. The more water you see in my movies, the more the characters need to fill a gap in their lives, to get hydrated again.” That quote calls to mind the films Tsai’s made in the years since, including “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” where an endless rainstorm threatens to drown the final night of an old Chinese movie theater, and “The Wayward Cloud,” about a dry world so thirsty for water that they’ve taken to collecting the rain in buckets and plastic bottles and fetishizing and even having sex with juicy watermelons.
Water isn’t quite as vital to Tsai’s new film, the evocatively titled “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone,” but it is present, most visually in the form of an enormous reflecting pool in the crumbling ruins of an unfinished building. The idea of reflection also plays a key role in the story. Tsai’s perpetual leading man, the De Niro to his Scorsese, is Lee Kang-sheng and in “Sleep Alone” he plays two different roles, as a comatose man cared for by two women, and as a homeless man who crosses the wrong con man, is badly beaten, and then rescued by a bunch of foreign workers who nurse him back to health.
Tsai’s films are typically quiet affairs, heavy on mood and mystery, light on dialogue, occasionally punctuated with glitzy musical numbers; “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone” falls in to the director’s format of what could be termed “brooding and canoodling.” As always, he doesn’t skimp on the atmosphere; every dingy corridor or blind stairwell seems tinged with sexual dread. There’s even a scene that might top sex with watermelons; after nearby fires have filled the air with a “haze” worthy of a John Carpenter film, one of the Lees tries to make out with the other Lee’s nurse while both are wearing gas masks to protect them from the toxic fog. That is some erotic eco-horror.
The takes are as long as ever, whether to ponder an image of inexplicable beauty (like a set of glowing children’s toys that Lee encounters on the side of the road) or to confront us with the harsh realities of existence (as when one of the workers has to help the bruised Lee to the toilet). Because the images linger long enough to let your mind wander away, and because no one ever actually says anything, it’s easy to get a little lost in one of Tsai’s pictures; multiple viewings are a must for a full appreciation. But for those very same reasons, it’s tough to muster the stamina to do it, particularly for a film like “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.” You’d almost rather go and have a drink of something a little stiffer than water.
What would Jack Hill, the king of women in prison movies, make of “Provoked”? Here is a movie about a women’s prison so empowering it’s practically transformative. Its heroine, Kiranjit Ahluwalia, kills her husband after a decade of abuse and winds up in jail, where she makes friends, learns English and pretty much has a grand old time. At the end of the film she says “I left my husband’s jail and entered the jail of the law and that is where I found my freedom.” In Hill’s movies jail was so hellish Pam Grier and the rest of the inmates would do anything to escape. When Kiranjit receives her release in “Provoked,” she doesn’t really want to leave.
“Provoked” occupies a queasy moral space. If it is faithful to its source the on-screen title is “Provoked: A True Story” without even the benefit of a “based on” or “inspired by” then Kiranjit murdered her husband in his sleep in cold blood. She was brutally abused, emotionally and physically, but does that justify murder in a manner that’s hard to describe as self-defense? “Provoked” says yes.
The film does its best to, yes, provoke the audience into adoring Kiranjit and despising her husband, Deepak (“Lost”‘s “Naveen Andrews). It’s not terribly difficult; Deepak is a loathsome fool who likes to brandish a hot iron and spit at his wife, “You’re a woman! You’re nothing! You’re a cunt! You’re less than nothing!” But some of these scenes still left a sour taste in my mouth than no amount of “true stories” could squelch. Consider the one where Kiranjit and her friends come to the defense of a prisoner who is being picked on because she accidentally killed her children in a drunken haze. Kiranjit stands up for her friend because she is her friend and because she hates bullies. So, bullies are bad but friendly alcoholics who involuntarily slaughter their children are good. That is some perverse prison logic.
Kiranjit is played by Bollywood megastar Aishwarya Rai, the so-called “most beautiful woman in the world” (here, her looks are toned down because, friendly as they may be, British prisons still aren’t very glamorous). Rai’s won numerous acting awards in India, but if this one-dimensional performance is any indication, her English acting has a ways to go. She staggers through most of the movie with a singular expression of watery-eyed terror and sputters in broken English completely free of prepositions or articles (“I want see my children!”), which might be accurate but also infantilizes the character to unbelievable lengths and constantly grates on the viewer’s nerves.
With its theatrical acting and cartoonish villains, “Provoked” looks like an after school special about spousal abuse. That means either after school specials are far more accurate than we’ve given them credit, or the actual telling of this story is as true as a Jack Hill movie.