DIRECTED BY: Ming-liang Tsai
FEATURING: Kang-sheng Lee, Shiang-chyi Chen, Sumomo Yozakura, Kuei-Mei Yang
PLOT: During a nationwide drought, a Taiwanese porn star courts a shy and lonely
apartment dweller obsessed with watermelons; characters occasionally burst into fantasy song-and-dance numbers.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: As a romantic, pornographic, hallucinatory musical that makes sure you will never see watermelons or Taiwanese sex movies quite the same way ever again, The Wayward Cloud is audacious and, yes, weird. The powerful downside is the fact that, outside of the musical sequences, Tsai’s minimalism—long takes, a motionless camera, and the absolute minimum amount plot and dialogue he can possibly get away with—is the most acquired of acquired tastes.
COMMENTS: There are seven memorable scenes in The Wayward Cloud—three bizarre sexual encounters (and a couple of ordinary ones) and four outlandish musical numbers. Given all that’s going on, it’s amazing that writer/director Ming-liang Tsai still managed to keep the script so arid, and to convey an overall feeling of malaise rather than excitement. Without these seven scenes, the movie would hardly exist; the wisp of a plot involves a boy-meets-girl-and-never-quite-loses-her story that’s told in nearly dialogue free episodes of long takes of actors reacting to nothing. The meet-cute (or in this case, meet-mute) involves Shiang-chyi coming upon Hsiao-Kang while he’s napping, then sitting down across from him and taking a nap herself. It’s five minutes of hot napping action before they exchange their first words. (It’s helpful to know that these characters have met before, in Tsai’s What Time Is It There? , and in a subsequent short film.) Hsiao-Kang doesn’t divulge his job as a professional video gigolo to his new girlfriend, but there’s no cover story, no sense of urgency that she might discover his vocation, and there’s nothing divulged about her to suggest she would care either way. There is a quiet, believable sort of intimacy in scenes where Hsiao-Kang smokes a cigarette held between Shiang-chyi’s toes; the lovers are so comfortable together they don’t have to say anything to each other. But we, the viewers, still wish they would say something for our benefit.
Fortunately, there is the sex. It’s graphic, but not explicit: there’s no visible genital-to-genital contact, although the squeamish may be grossed out by the simulated semen. The first tryst is earnestly erotic, but as the scenes mount, the pornographic interludes become perfunctory, and finally loathsome. (That progression is by design). After a typically overlong setup involving a shot of a branching corridor, the first sexual encounter is unforgettable: a woman in a nurses’ uniform grasps a halved watermelon between her thighs, and her lover manipulates the fruit’s flesh as if it were human. It’s an amazing X-rated image that will stick with you for a long time, bizarre and erotic in equal parts. After some intercutting to introduce the female lead (watching a television broadcast that gives us the background on Taiwan’s drought and the watermelon fad that’s sweeping the nation) we return to the sex, where the poetic foreplay has ended and the rutting begun; the coupling is still arousing, with melon husks and innards put to good use, but the intercourse is already turning into repetitive pounding. The second major sex scene picks up on that building monotony, with the indefatigable stud jackhammering his hips in a shower sequence—the joke being that the pornographers chose to shoot this scene during a drought, when the city’s water service is intermittent. By the time the final pornographic sex scene arrives, the coupling is repulsive—for reasons I won’t spoil, except to say that Takashi Miike would have been proud to use the final scenario in Visitor Q. Incredibly, this final scene takes over ten minutes to play out; Tsai seems to savor rubbing the viewer’s nose in every disgusting implication, making him or her drink in every distasteful drop.
As attention-grabbing as the sleazy sex is, the musical interludes are the most interesting element of The Wayward Cloud. They illuminate the inner lives of the characters and invest them with emotions—longing, happiness, degradation—that the dramatic scenes are unwilling to deliver. More importantly, they force the pace, causing Tsai to experiment with elements that are otherwise foreign to his style: things like camera movement, multiple angles, words and concepts, and events. The musical accompaniment is a survey of post-WWII, pre-rock n’ roll pop and torch songs, the kinds of innocently jazzy pieces Peggy Lee or Bing Crosby specialized in; there’s even a loony polka, and a number that sounds suspiciously like the old American country/folk standard “Sixteen Tons.” The choreography and visuals are always interesting. The scenarios involve the male lead as a fish-man serenading the moon from a water tank; a love song performed by women who suggestively caress a statue of Chiang Kai-shek; an aging porn actress who imagines herself beset by men dressed as spiders; and a finale where the increasingly reluctant stud imagines himself as a dancing penis in a men’s room, harassed by a mob of plunger-wielding women led by a ringleader in a traffic cone bra. All together, the production numbers take up less than about fifteen minutes of the two hour running time, but you often find yourself wishing one would sweep through the movie like a thunderstorm and temporarily relieve the dramatic droughts.
Mixing graphic sex with colorful musical numbers is a recipe for notoriety, at the very least, and if you go in hoping to see sights you’ve never seen before, The Wayward Cloud will reward your expectations. But Tsai’s insistence on making the dramatic scenes an endurance test is off-putting. We watch the porno shoots in the film from a static camera, but while we are stuck in an unchanging omniscient view, we can see the pornographers choreographing shots and positions, changing angles, and we realize that their final product will be heavily edited to keep the viewer’s interest from flagging. It’s almost as if Tsai is saying that fluid camerawork and crisp editing is for the pornographic hacks; his slow, unadorned style, by contrast, is real art—difficult art, art that doesn’t pander to the audience’s taste for excitement. Although it’s drenched in pornography, The Wayward Cloud isn’t pornographic, because the audience is insulated from arousal by a deliberately inserted layer of artful dullness. Unlike a Tarkovsky, though, I don’t find Tsai’s use of minimalism revealing: other than a few obscure emotions flitting across his actors’ faces, there isn’t that sense of slowly unfolding detail, or of hypnotic morphing beauty. It seems more like a style chosen for the style’s sake, rather than one picked because the material demands it. Word has it that this is Tasi’s most visually active and eventful movie; thank God he had the inspiration to liven it up with the musical numbers. This is the only movie I can honestly say desperately needs a dancing penis.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…emphatically not to all tastes, fans of the obscene, the experimental and the outrageous should make every effort to get along… keep things impressively weird right up to the eye-watering climax.”–Jonathan Trout, BBC (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “ulysses.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)