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The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang, 2005)
The Wayward Cloud, a rare (first?) stumble from Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang, at least proves that a subpar effort from the director is still not much to be ashamed of. A tenuous sequel to What Time Is It There?, one of Tsaiís best works, Cloud features two of that filmís protagonists played by the same actors (Lee Kang-sheng & Chen Shiang-chyi). Leeís character is asked at one point whether he still sells watches, and Chenís still has her familiar suitcase, though sheís returned to Taiwan from her stay in Paris. They each seem to be continuing their life from the previous film, albeit somewhat implausibly. Leeís character has become an actor in porno films. Chenís now runs an adult video library. They meet one another, and begin a tentative relationship, which is stymied by his reluctance to tell her about his new career and his refusal to have sex with her.
Itís a setup that hits on many of Tsaiís thematic obsessions, though it has to be said that The Wayward Cloud feels less like a sequel to What Time Is It There? than a loose remake of The Hole, another of Tsaiís films, with which it shares no direct plot connections. As in that film, Cloud takes place in a version of Taiwan afflicted by a water-related disaster (a drought this time instead of a flood), features musical numbers, and is set primarily in one apartment building. The obsession with bodily functions that surfaces in all of Tsaiís films, resurfaces here as well, prompting most of the directorís Tatiesque gags. Weíre made privy to the squishy sex noises created as Lee diddles a watermelon wedged between a womanís legs. We see a shower sex scene requires a grip to provide the shower, since the faucets have been turned off. Weíre asked to giggle as a water bottle is lost inside a porno modelís vagina. Too often this stuff is not funny enough to inspire more than immature tittering, no matter how thematically relevant it might be. It seems obvious that itís intended on another level to disturb us (certainly the comatose porn shoot later in the film does), but to underline the fact that the porn industry objectifies women and creates social alienation is pretty facile.
The cutting here is sometimes much faster than in Tsaiís last few films, and the overall rhythm suffers as a result. Tsaiís carefully constructed movies achieve a sort of somber majesty at their very best but here too many of the longueurs just feel long. Iíd suspect the juxtaposition of brief comic scenes and longer, sadder scenes was to blame, but thatís always been Tsaiís modus operandi, and itís never been a problem before. The affectless performances might be to blame (More words come from TV broadcasts than the filmís cast.), but again, thatís not an uncommon element in the directorís work. Maybe itís just that since his films are always such balancing acts, the slightest of miscalculations can cause them to feel ďoffĒ. Thereís still some incredible imagery on display here from time to time, such as when shampoo seems to enclose Leeís head in the titular cloud or when we see him sleeping suspended over a vertiginous stairwell, but these moments are just isolated moments. Throughout, the imposing landscape of the city makes the few people that move throughout it almost feel like afterthoughts, and Tsaiís decision to frame his leads so that even when they share a frame oneís usually leaving or sleeping pays off thematically, but not really emotionally.
Itís a shame that little else pays off here. The Wayward Cloud is ultimately too ambiguous in its meanings to have much impact. Though the tone is obviously sad, and the film is examining sexual alienation, itís difficult to ascertain its specific attitudes. The final scene is certainly desperate, but itís simultaneously a fulfillment of the longing thatís existed throughout, so it feels cathartic. The porn industry is being looked at in a negative light here, though itís clearly a perceptive industry thatís quick to incorporate any societal malaise into its bag of tricks and itís not without its therapeutic uses. The highly sexual musical numbers might be intended to provide an escapist release, but most of them fail to transport us away from the main plot. Maybe theyíre supposed to be, like the pornography thatís being created, inadequate fantasy devices, but a sequence late in the film, filled with dancers carrying watermelon umbrellas does manage to liven things up, so itís tough to say for sure. The Wayward Cloud frustrates because it has all of the right elements of Tsaiís usual work, but little of his usual poeticism. Clearly Tsaiís work, it falls short of his usual cohesive standards. As the title implies, watching the film is an experience thatís rather directionless.