I’m not sure if Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud will ever get distribution in this country, but since bootlegs of everything save the missing footage of The Magnificent Ambersons seems to be readily available all over the web and choice streets in downtown Manhattan, I will still put forth my two cents. It’s no revelation that at Reverse Shot, we’re big fans of Tsai Ming-liang, so whenever one of his films makes its way to New York, we consider it a pilgrimage. Thanks to the Village Voice’s Best of 2005 film fest, Cloud had a cozy little day-long run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. If you were to wander in to Wayward Cloud as your first Tsai film, you might think he’s simply another ASIAN EXTREEEEME cinema provocateur, mixing the studied pacing of Hou with the gross-out extravagance of Takashi Miike, and then perhaps a touch of Jacques Demy thrown in for good measure. Then again, if you’ve seen every Tsai film other than The Wayward Cloud, then what you just read sound like the words of a nincompoop. True, the new film has elements of The Hole (water shortage in Taipei), Vive L’amour (watermelon bowling here becomes 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-scene, Tsai unfolds Wayward through an otherworldly, almost dreamlike logic. The opening sequences, 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, therefore plays a porn actor this time, living in the same building as Chen Shiang-chyi ‘s introvert. The film flirts with a delicate romantic comedy structure: we kind of hope these lost souls will find each other, and Tsai even ups the ante by homaging, of all things, Annie Hall, when the two deal with a case of runaway crabs in the kitchen. 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 with a huge penis hat. 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, usually plays 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 twenty 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. Nearly dystopic in its portrait of decline, Wayward Cloud shows Tsai giving up a little restraint. It may be slightly out of control, but the mess suits Tsai well.