The Reeler


February 19, 2007

The Wayward Cloud

Taiwanese formalist turns in a fruit-fisting fever dream -- with a twist

Even by the demanding standards of Asian art-house cinema, Tsai Ming-Liang is the hardass in the room. The camera doesn't move if he can help it, and the opening shot of The Wayward Cloud is a good way to weed out the weaklings fast -- a parking lot walkway, with no one in it. Cars tease us with the sounds of off-screen action, footsteps pass by without anyone appearing. Just as it appears that the whole thing is a cruel, structuralist joke, two women enter the parabolic space; one is normal, the other a nurse carrying a watermelon. Fair enough, until Tsai cuts to the nurse with her cap still on, her legs splayed, and the watermelon resting between them.

What follows is one of the most explicit sex scenes to hit art house theaters since Shortbus; short only of penetration, the movie's many couplings would make perfectly decent porn snippets for file-traders. The only problem is that when the doctor shows up to play with the nurse, he begins performing cunnilingus -- on the watermelon. Nerve endings have apparently been rewired through gourds in the future; by the time the doctor starts fisting the fruit, the nurse is in ecstasy.

The what-the-fuck factor is upped even further at the 20-minute mark. Taiwan is experiencing a drought, hence all the watermelons; their juice is cheaper than water. So it's no surprise when a young man crawls to the top of a building to bathe in the reservoir/water-tower structure; it's a shocker, though, when he plunges into the water and re-emerges as a half-man, half-marine monster with scales, and begins warbling a love song. More elaborate numbers follow, some worthy of a phallus-obsessed MGM.

Tsai has always had a sly sense of humor that suffers on TV; his pacing may seem like a drag initially, but it makes for funnier jokes. Out of the Asian formalist school (including Taiwanese compatriots Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien), Tsai might be the only one who makes comedies -- twisted, dire ones, but comedies nonetheless. Yet he's been in danger of self-parody for a while, as perverse, non-metaphorical sexual set-ups will only get you so far.

Due to its controversial content, it has taken over two years for The Wayward Cloud to get even a token theatrical release in the United States; in the meantime Tsai made I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, which is by all accounts a return to cultish form. Yet the title fits here too; as Cypriot critic Theo Panayides noted in his invaluable decoding of the film, real love (i.e., water) is hard to come by; sex (watermelons) is easier. Porn is the mediating factor, saturating daily life with all kinds of weirdness (fucking in video stores, a porn shoot taking place in a regular apartment building not especially suited for its demands), yet the final shot places an impossibly ambiguous spin on it. Tsai isn't a moralist, and certainly no prude, but it's odd that his most sexually explicit film yet could easily be interpreted as an anti-porn tract.

Like The Taste of Tea, another token-release straggler opening this week, The Wayward Cloud’s most valuable contribution might be melding impeccable formalism with sequences that could make stand-alone YouTube clips, seducing kids who like cult movies into higher waters. It might also be, finally, the best possible introduction to Tsai’s work, which has previously omitted the outré in favor of subtler jokes. The Wayward Cloud doesn't lack for timing deadpan enough to make Jim Jarmusch look like Jay Roach, but its biggest jokes don't require effort to pick up on -- just patience, and occasionally an iron stomach.

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