Alienation, longing, an inability to communicate or recognize one’s feelings are all hallmarks of Ming-Liang Tsai’s oeuvre. If his work reached the apex of emotional despair in Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) than this is his most violent lashing out. In The Wayward Cloud Tsai crystallizes his various stylistic motifs to frame and fully expose his most blatant treatise on the human condition in a modern society. However, the quirky embellishments have become the emphasis, the dry humour has become a rasping cackle, and the emotional depths have been drained dry. This is a movie which finds the auteur pushing for a masterpiece and shooting through the other side, exemplifying the need for restraint even when you’re completely in control.
The story begins three years prior with What Time Is It There?, where itinerant watch peddler Hsiao-Kang (Kang-sheng Lee) becomes obsessed with a girl who is leaving for Paris. Between the uncontrolled longing for an imagined ideal and the religious hysterics of his newly widowed mother Hsiao-Kang teeters on the bring of psychological collapse, strewn across the Taipei concrete like a bloodless corpse. Halfway around the world Shiang-chyi (Shiang-chyi Chen) confronts herself by losing herself in a foreign land. A short film, The Skywalk is Gone (which was a bonus on the Goodbye Dragon Inn DVD), functions as a coda, seeing Siang-chyi seeking Hsiao-Kang but finding the skywalk he used to work on destroyed; Hsiao-Kang meanwhile finds a new career doing porn.
Both characters are back in Taipei but, without ever re-connecting. Shiang-Chyi spends her days alone, not speaking with anyone, collecting the remnants of discarded water bottles to survive a terrible drought. Hsiao-Kang’s producer has taken the government’s message of replacing water with watermelon, casting one lucky fruit in a sensual and sticky scene. They crawl through the motions of their lives: he mechanically thrusts in front of the camera while she scurries through the sun-baked streets like a desperate rodent. The only vehicle for expression come as colorful explosions, musical numbers set to syrupy Chinese pop ballads ruminating on love.
Then they meet, and without any need to catch up or even explain themselves, they fall into line as a couple. One with a very big secret which is never discussed, that Hsiao-Kang works in porn and Shiang-chyi (this is my assumption) is a sexually confused virgin. It begins with all smiles, campy romantic comedy moments and nearly setting the kitchen on fire while cooking the most amazing noodle dish I’ve ever seen. But cracks in the veneer find one dealing with a sudden onset of impotence and the other exploring the back room of the local video store. The course is clearly set for collision, but even I was hardly expecting the final sequence where Tsai destroys the concept of intimacy, love, sex and humanity with one vicious scene of rote sex work run amok.
Sounds great, but what’s the problem? Either Tsai is a conceptual genius and the jokes on the viewer or he has managed to totally ruin his own movie by creating something as rote as the porno’s being filmed. His love of wide, curiously angled shots and powerful colors become textbook, the left-field fits of creativity float too gracefully into your out-stretched hand. The characters’ alienation is retread, especially as we’ve met these people before. The only things which felt at all inspired were the most contrived– the wonderfully fun musical numbers which were supposed to expose romantic sentiment as cheap fluff actually become the only genuine expression in the movie. There’s some lighter moments which can be laughed at, such as the porn crew showering the talent with bottled water because the pipes have been shut off, but most of the absurdist humour barely warrants a smile. Conversely the shock we are expected to feel when sex is stripped of everything but commercial potential hits as hard as a feather.
Many people do not have the patience for Tsai’s work and the most obvious reason is that there’s very little dialogue. The same remains true here, although it’s less oppressive than in Goodbye Dragon Inn, and when conversation does break out it’s less obnoxiously ridiculous and snide as, say, an Aki Kaurismaki movie. Other people seem put off by the acting of Tsai’s alter ego, Kang-Sheng Lee. Lee’s approach to his work is essentially be himself, an incredibly odd person of incomprehensible motivations that borders on retardation. It would be easy to think that Lee is used by Tsai as a simple piece of scenery, in the same way that Robert Bresson has been repeatedly criticized for doing, but I think it’s more likely that the movies are written with Lee in mind. No one in the world could play him as well as he plays himself, and it’s fascinating to watch him confront the world around him with mere gestures, tired glances and resignation. For her part Shiang-chyi Chen has undergone some sort of transformation, becoming a reactive animal scuttling through the scenes stripped of self-awareness and forced to climb on all fours back towards the humanity she knew in previous movies. Her resurrection, taking the form of the world’s strangest sexual awakenings, is equally fascinating to watch but ultimately derailed both intentionally and accidentally by Tsai’s exhaustive torturing of his own movie.
It’s not even that it’s a bad movie, but that it’s possibly his worst and that’s very frustrating. You expect a director to suffer for experimenting with styles or trying a completely new approach– the risk for branching out is failure– but not to perfecting what has become their trademark manner of story-telling. And therein lies the ultimate success of the film, more poignant for Ming-Liang Tsai himself than anyone. The running into the brick wall is complete, and now he can brush himself clean from the dust of his past and walk with the confidence of experience in an entirely new direction. Growing hurts, but we all have to do it.
The Wayward Cloud was produced for the American market by Strand Releasing and is presented in a beautiful widescreen transfer. The subtitles are excellent and the audio superb. It’s available on Netflix as well as innumerable torrent sites. I would recommend you start with What Time Is It There? and decide if you want to continue.
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