The Wayward Cloud
2005Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Cast: Lee Kang-Sheng; Chen Shang-chyi
he second scene in Tsai Ming-liang’s latest film opens with a young woman, half-nude, lying spread-eagled on a bed, with a watermelon propped between her thighs. Hsiao-kang (played by—who else?—Tsai’s perpetual leading-man and onscreen surrogate, Lee Kang-sheng) kneels down between her legs, and begins licking the watermelon. He then plunges his fingers into the red fruit, at first delicately but with increasing rapidity, as the woman feigns a violent orgasm.
The territory in The Wayward Cloud, both thematic (love, sex, water, urban alienation) and physical (Taipei, cramped apartments adorned in earth tones), is certainly familiar by now, and, to be sure, Tsai’s as firmly locked into a highly specific formal approach as anyone making movies today. Which is to say, I guess, if you've never "gotten" his work in the past, this probably won’t be the one to convert you; and if the scene described above doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then, well, it probably isn’t.
Me, I can't get enough of it. I didn't find, say, The Aristocrats hilarious the way some people apparently did, but Tsai's deadpan gags really crack me up. Part of what's so funny about them is that they're, frankly, not funny at all—unless you're paying close attention, that is. Consequently, his films reward repeat viewings, and after finishing my fourth of The Wayward Cloud, I think it's his funniest yet. I feel confident, too, in calling it a masterpiece, perhaps second only to What Time Is It There? (to which this serves as a very loose sequel) among the seven Tsai features I've seen.
The presence of water is ubiquitous in Tsai's work. He's said in the past that, for him, it represents love. 1998’s The Hole is set during a flood; The Wayward Cloud during a drought. (Both films also feature surreal, ostensibly retro musical sequences reminiscent of Jaques Demy.) Watermelon, however, is apparently plentiful (a tv newscaster comments, at one point, that it would be cheaper to drink watermelon juice than water), and I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that the fruit, for Tsai, represents sex.
The dialogue in The Wayward Cloud may be even sparer than in his last film, Goodbye, Dragon Inn. (I would go so far as to wager that Tsai is bound, sooner rather than later, to make that all-out silent film he's been flirting with for years, if he wasn't so clearly fascinated by the way sound fills space; David Lynch is probably in his only contemporary rival when it comes to testing the medium's sonic potential.) The loveliest scene in the new film comes when Chen Shiang-chyi's character (Lee's What Time love-interest) spots Hsiao-kang asleep on a swing in a city park. Not wanting to wake him, she sits across from him, waiting for him to wake up on his own. She takes a sip from his water bottle, and eventually dozes off herself. Hsiao-kang wakes up to see her seated across from him, napping. Upon waking, she asks him, "Are you still selling watches?" He shakes his head no. Despite re-sparking their relationship, this is the only line of dialogue exchanged between the couple in the film.
Tsai doesn't attempt to clarify the earlier film's ambiguous ending: We just know that Chen has returned from Paris to Taipei, and Hsiao-kang is, apparently, now working as a small-time porn actor—a job-change he neglects to mention to Chen, whom he can't bring himself to sleep with. In one very funny sequence, Chen gives Hsiao-kang a glass of watermelon juice. Evidently not a fan, he quickly runs over to the window to dump out the glass while she's in the kitchen. Just as he's about to sit back down, Chen comes back into the room and he hands her his now-empty glass. The punchline? She goes back into the kitchen and pours him another glass of watermelon juice.
In another scene, we see Chen lick and literally make out with a watermelon. The irony here, of course, being—in keeping with the proposed water/watermelon relationship—that fuck-for-hire Hsiao-kang can't stand the stuff, while sex-starved Chen can't seem to get enough of it. Later, when Tsai shows a crewhand having to manually dump bottles of water on Hsiao-kang and a woman during a shower sex scene, both the humor and the significance of the situation are brilliantly clear.
I don’t want to reveal anything about the film’s final scene. It’s the sort of thing you need to experience for yourself. Suffice it to say that it's a stunner, as haunting as What Time's iconic closing shot and as bold a statement as the last scene between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. Like Kubrick, Tsai views sex as something tremendously mysterious. They would also seem to agree that discussing it only complicates matters, even if they arrive at this conclusion through radically different means (Tsai by way of his signature minimalist omission, Kubrick through some legitimately disturbing monologues).
Needless to say, Kubrick's swan song proved extremely divisive, and I imagine Tsai's latest will, too, even among cinephiles who have typically appreciated his films. From my viewpoint, they're both daring, thoughtful, immediately vital works by masters working at the height of their formidable talents.
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2005-10-24