It probably isn't fair to criticize the great Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang for repeating himself, because his films orbit tightly around the same themes and motifs, all tales of urban anomie and missed connections infused with deadpan humor and gallons of symbolic water. Though he has yet to whiff completely, Tsai's follow-ups to his majestic 2001 breakthrough What Time Is It There? have shown signs of creative stasis, from 2003's overly deliberate "death of cinema" requiem Goodbye, Dragon Inn to 2005's admittedly provocative The Wayward Cloud, which at times played like a less persuasive redux of his 1998 film The Hole. All these films have their moments of beauty and inspiration, and few directors can approach Tsai's formal mastery, but his latest work, I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, catches him on the downward slope. His signature long takes, once suffused with deep melancholy and unexpected humor, occasionally lose their dynamism here, especially in the first half, which finds his aesthetic minimalism stripped to the bone.
Shooting for the first time in his native Malaysia, Tsai cuts between parallel storylines featuring his favorite actor and muse, Lee Kang-sheng, in dual roles, though he doesn't speak a word in either of them. In one thread, Lee gets beaten within an inch of his life by a con man and his enforcers on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. After spotting Lee passed out on a median strip, a charitable young man (Norman Atun) nurses him back to health in an abandoned building populated by foreign workers who lost their jobs during the Asian economic crisis. In the other thread, Lee is completely comatose, tended to this time by a waitress (Chen Chiang-chyi) who eventually lusts after Lee's character in the other story. (It isn't quite as confusing as it sounds.)
Commissioned as part of the New Crowned Hope Festival, a Viennese tribute to Mozart, I Don't Want To Sleep Alone doesn't reference the composer directly, but the balanced, rhyming structure does have a musicality. Tsai claims to have been inspired by The Magic Flute, and the sad, beautiful setting that dominates much of the film—a dark pool sitting at the center of a building, with incomplete concrete floors rising above it—has the look of a haunted opera house. Tsai's vision of these displaced foreign laborers in Kuala Lumpur is the film's most compelling element, outpacing the sort of anesthetized love triangle that he's pulled off better in the past. But the film ends so beautifully that it's easy to forgive the dead passages that preceded it and hope it carries over into his next movie.