Wayward Cloud, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 04/27/06 11:02:50

"Will make you see watermelons and porn in a new light."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Written and directed by Tsai Ming-liang ("Goodbye Dragon Inn," "The Hole"), "The Wayward Cloud" ("Tian bian yi duo yun") is a sequel of sorts to Tsaiís 2001 film, "What Time Is It There?". "The Wayward Cloud" reunites the two central characters from "What Time Is It There?," Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), and Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), but in decidedly different circumstances. Where the earlier film was coolly meditative, but ultimately romantic, "The Wayward Cloud" is steeped in melancholic despair, disconnection, alienation, and tragedy.

Before moving on, it should be noted that Tsai works in the rarefied air of European art cinema conventions. Narrative is often oblique, elliptical stripped down to the bare essentials, and information about the characters is given out in small increments (and what we learn is often frustratingly incomplete). Tsaiís filmmaking style is equally minimalist. Tsai prefers long takes and static shots (camera movement is either imperceptible or simply occurs infrequently). In this case, however, Tsai throws out the minimalist style for energetically shot, opulently designed musical numbers that serve to give us clues of the characterís inner (fantasy) lives via (presumably) popular Chinese songs or as counterpoint, commenting on their materially and emotionally deprived lives.

Set during a countrywide drought that hints at a world slowly falling apart, The Wayward Cloud crosscuts between Hsiao-Kang, a sex performer in porn videos (to call him a porn star would be an overstatement) and Shiang-chyi, a disaffected video store clerk. Hsiao-Kangís first scene is played for comedy, with Hsiao-Kang bringing a woman in a nurseís uniform to orgasm as he massages a watermelon sitting between her legs. Shiang-chyi listlessly watches television, her legs wrapped around a flower-shaped cushion. The television news repeats warnings about the drought, the shortage of water, and the booming sales of watermelons (watermelons take on erotic and reproductive associations over the course of the film).

Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-chyi donít reconnect right away. Itís not until Shiang-chyi, collecting empty water bottles to recycle that she comes across Hsiao-Kang, asleep in a public park. Shiang-chyi has just found a watermelon nearby, drifting in oily water. She casually uses Hsiao-Kangís water to clean the watermelon, before deciding to stay until he awakens. He does, they speak, or rather she speaks for the first time in the film (and we donít see her face as she speaks). Their initial contact leads slowly, painfully toward a relationship defined by mutual need. Shiang-chyi needs Hsiao-Kang to help retrieve a suitcase key (itís stuck in wet asphalt), but gradually mutual need leads to the promise of something deeper. For two characters seemingly lost to themselves and each other, they have one brief, idyllic moment as they prepare a meal.

That Hsiao-Kang is an adult video performer isnít simply meant to shock audiences through the graphic depiction of (passionless, non-erotic) sex, but also serves Tsaiís vision for the film. The characters may be mired in existential ennui, but theyíre also classic (European) examples of anomie, reflections of a society we briefly glimpse in moral decay and spiritual crisis. The water drought, the empty streets and corridors, the desperate attempts at emotional connection are all evidence of a society wide anomie. Conditioned by a society that has no place for them, disconnected from friends and family (Hsiao-Kang nor Shiang-chyi have neither), the characters are ill prepared for the demands of an authentic, romantic relationship.

"The Wayward Cloud" moves inevitably toward disclosure of Hsiao-Kang's career (if it can be called that, given how little materially he has) as an adult video performer. Tsai Ming-liang takes them toward disclosure, but it's both expected and unexpected. Certainly betrayal, even disgust are part of Shiang-chyi's reaction, but so is something else, Shiang-chyi's voyeuristic complicity that simultaneously eroticizes and dehumanizes the two characters (and subtly brings our own voyeurism to the foreground). Hsiao-Kang seems incapable of anything except sex. Shiang-chyi's efforts at intimacy are rebuffed in the most degrading, humiliating way possible. It's bleak, difficult-to-sit-through, and, as Tsai holds the second-to-last shot past the point of no return, unforgettable.

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