2007’s already shaping up to be a heck of a movie year, considering all the terrific festival hang-overs that are, or will soon be, gracing New York theaters (Regular Lovers, Offside, Syndromes and a Century, Still Life, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Black Book). And as if we needed more news to rejoice, like manna from heaven, the gods have granted us another (and for many, a first) look at Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud. Opening this week at Anthology Film Archives, Tsai’s alternately buoyant and excoriating porno-musical, the most obviously unreleasable of this fine, fine, fine director’s oeuvre (it’s a couple of years old by now, but as freshly rancid as ever), can finally be discussed, booed, and bravoed by befuddled downtown audiences. All the better for film culture: for everyone lulled into a self-reflexive movie trance by Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Wayward promises to be a shock to the system: like his earlier The Hole, it’s a pseudo-musical, one that intersperses fantasy sequences along with its narrative proper. Yet what’s more alienating for viewers this time, is that unlike The Hole’s direct dialectics between dystopic drudgery and spangled fantasy-land, Wayward Cloud uneasily balances between the different sectors of social and cultural exploitation: in “our world” that of obsessive pornographic objectification, and in “the other world” those pop songs and movie images that provide false outlet. These fantasies bump and grind up against one another with increasing chaffing, and provide for one of the greatest moments in Tsai’s career—when Yi-Ching Lu (the mother from What Time Is It There?) gets her crinkled face splashed with splooge, the director cuts to a luxurious Lotte Lenye-like cabaret act in an abandoned garage, complete with black-tighted dancers and an expandable spider web. It has to be seen to be believed, and nothing in The Hole matches its poignancy.
Of course, then, there’s the ending, glibly (heartlessly?) spoiled by Nathan Lee in the VIllage Voice this week. Lee is a friend and supporter, but we hope readers take his toss-off dismissal with a grain of salt. The release of a Tsai film, especially one this divisive, is a moment for rejoicing, and to turn people away from Tsai’s “garish negativity” is to ignore just what it is that’s got his panties in a twist. Tsai has mentioned in interviews that this film is his response to the porn industry in Taiwan; regarding sex, there’s always been a fine line between release and rutting in his films—Wayward Cloud tips the scales and ends in full-blown horror. An “utterly unconvincing love story” cites Lee. Trust me, Lee’s looking for love in all the wrong places: Wayward’s final twenty minutes eradicate any lingering sense that there will be a love match between its two wandering protagonists. It’s useless to compare Wayward to Tsai’s other films on a gradation scale—like in Ozu, the same images, motifs, and plot trajectories reveal themselves again and again in his films, ever deepening (the watermelons of Vive l’amour make a perfectly natural progression from that film’s lonesome bowling to lonesome balling—the addition of a sexual partner doesn’t make the sex any more “fruitful”).
A recent re-viewing of What Time Is It There? reminded me how essential Tsai is to the current international art-film scene, just how rigorous his static mise-en-scène is, and how his compositions can either function as lullaby or nightmare, with a subtle shift of attitude. If What Time Is It There? was the ultimate refinement, thus far, of Tsai’s style and compassion, with its nearly metaphysical love story and searing portrait of loneliness, Wayward Cloud shakes things up considerably. See it; get energized; get angry; throw things at the screen; applaud. Just go see it.
Because you can’t get enough, read more about The Wayward Cloud here.