The Saddest Music in the World
By Michael Koresky
The Wayward Cloud
Dir. Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan
I’m not sure if Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud will ever get distribution in this country [UPDATE: Holy crap, it just did! Opening this Friday, February 23, at New York's Anthology Film Archives!}, but since bootlegs of everything save the missing footage of The Magnificent Ambersons seem to be readily available all over the web and choice streets in downtown Manhattan, perhaps it’s not worth prolonging critical exaltation over such niggling details as availability. If one were to wander in to The Wayward Cloud as her or his first Tsai film, one might think he’s simply another Asian Extreeeeeme cinema provocateur, mixing the studied pacing of Hou Hsiao-hsien with the gross-out extravagance of Takashi Miike, and then perhaps a touch of Jacques Demy thrown in for prime “What the Fuck”-ness. Then again, if you’ve seen every Tsai film other than The Wayward Cloud, then what you just read sounds like the name-dropping words of a myopic nincompoop. True, the new film has elements of The Hole (there’s a water shortage in Taipei), Vive L’amour (that film’s playful game of watermelon bowling here becomes a painful, sloshy bout of watermelon balling…), and What Time Is It There (there are hints that the two principal characters are the same as those from that earlier masterwork), yet it still pushes Tsai into new realms of both visual flourish and slapdash experimentation. The Wayward Cloud feels like Tsai’s least perfect film…and also his boldest.
With his trademark precise, static, yet inexplicably energizing mise-en-scène, Tsai unfolds The Wayward Cloud through an otherworldly, almost dreamlike logic. The opening images, of Lee Kang-sheng finger-fucking a halved watermelon compressed between a naked woman’s legs, its juices splashing all over the bed in merciless red puddles, prepare the audience for a queasy trip, and Tsai doesn’t disappoint. Tsai has said that he intended to make a film that was very explicitly about pornography, and the porn industry in Taiwan: Lee Kang-sheng, Tsai’s stoic eternal muse, this time doffs all to display his increasingly muscular physique (seemingly gone is the wiry disaffected teen of Rebels of the Neon God) as porn actor Hsiao-Kang, living in the same building as Shiang-chyi Chen‘s introverted young woman, named, naturally, Shiang-chyi. As with the blackout-sketch setup of Vive l’amour (which nevertheless dwindles into ever more profound depths of melancholy discontent). the film flirts with a delicate romantic comedy structure—we secretly hope these lost souls will find each other. Tsai even ups the ante by homaging, of all things, Annie Hall, when the two deal with a case of runaway crabs that just won’t stay in the boiling pot. This precarious balance of the comic and the calamitous isn’t new to Tsai, and the darkness to which The Wayward Cloud descends only has its equal in the final moments of The River, which devised a way for a father and son to unknowingly engage in consensual, neck-wrenched, steam-room sex. Believe it or not, Tsai goes even further here into the horrors of body invasion, using pornography as an incisive launching pad to explore all types of social exploitation. Never has Tsai seemed so angry, which also may account for the film’s odd tonal imbalance.
Interspersed with the nasty sex, masturbation, and watermelon engorging (water is short yet melons are apparently bountiful) are a series of increasingly absurd lip-synched musical sequences, the first involving Lee Kang-sheng transforming into a melancholy mer-man caterwauling at the moon; the final outfitting Lee with a huge penis hat as he maniacally dances around a grungy bathroom with a bevy of Busby Berkeley-esque pink bikini-clad girls in inverted scarlet bucket-hats and clutching blue toilet plungers. Obviously, it’s hit or miss, but how can this balls-to-the-wall stuff work any other way? The balance of the gorgeous and the grotesque is best expressed when Yi Ching-Lu, another Tsai mainstay, gets splooge sprayed across her face by Lee (who, ickily, has often played her son in Tsai’s previous films). Suddenly, we cut to her musical mindscape, a sultry, evocatively lit Kander & Ebb-esque Spider Woman number, entrancingly set in a garage; following her is a cobwebby bunch of male dancers in black unitards, leashed and under her spell. German expressionist, Fosse-esque…whatever you want to call it, it’s a dazzler and a creative apex for Tsai.
If the method to all this madness seems a little hard to decipher, then the final 20 minutes are a terrifying crystallization. The mild courting between Lee and Chen finally intersects with the pervasive sexual exploitation going on upstairs. Yet Tsai’s final, truly shocking images are not bolstered by casual moralizing; rather, we realize we’ve been watching the literal deterioration of a civilization. It’s in the face of Chen Shiang-chyi, and her growing moral awareness, that Tsai finds his emotional outlet. In one of the film’s sole moving shots (if not the only one, but only a second viewing can corroborate this), the camera creeps ever closer to her horrified face as she watches a particularly nasty porn scenario being enacted on the other side of a windowed wall. Her witnessing isn’t voyeurism as much as it is coming to terms with social decline (which she had been staving off through out the rest of the film, endlessly re-filling bottled water and hoarding melons). Here there is no way to reclaim what’s been lost; her head becomes nearly literally impaled on a penis. Nearly dystopic in its portrait of decline, The Wayward Cloud shows Tsai giving up a little restraint. It may be slightly out of control, but the mess suits Tsai well.