Almost porn: Tsai Ming-liang’s “The Wayward Cloud”

Love in the time of drought

Tyler Durden once said that “self-improvement is masturbation”. It may be true. But another opinion exists: masturbation is just a hand stretched out in search of a bond, an understanding, a thrill. It is a lonely and mechanical exercise, searching for romantic meaning or answer for a simple question: “Do I have a right to be loved?”. Enter: Tsai Ming-liang, a Taiwanese film director and self-proclaimed trailblazer of on-screen masturbation. At times provocative, more often misunderstood, he is, without a doubt, a “visionary director”. That label though contains inherent risks of being marginalized as an arthouse gimmick, since Western audiences can only enjoy Eastern otherness to a certain extent. 

Being part of the so-called Taiwanese New Wave, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, he managed to put Taiwan back on the map while maintaining a distinctively different approach to the filmmaking compared to his peers. As Hou was more concerned of the metaphysics of time and Edward Yang more interested in the epic family portraits, Tsai was fascinated of the urban part of the modern lifestyle: the loneliness and melancholy, the weirdness and randomness of life, the lack of communication and the sense of non-verbal signs. He took the slowness to the extreme, mixing long static shots with intensely physical and dialogue-free storytelling. His characters are usually outsiders and outcasts, who don’t talk and don’t do much either. Always led by Lee Kang-sheng, the director’s omnipresent Buster Keaton-esque character, they drink and have sex in random places, tackle drought and downpour, fight with time and ghosts, deal with loneliness and horniness. But most of all – they masturbate. A lot.

Tsai Ming-liang had debuted with the “Rebels of the Neon God” in the beginning of 1990s, which saw all the elements that would be present in his future films: the static mix of long and middle shots, the incredible sparsity of dialogue and the bizarre behavior of on-screen characters who’s spontaneity resembles the randomness of life much more than the usual plot-driven moviegoing experience. The idiosyncratic duo of Tsai and Lee had managed to create some sort of the extended film universe of Taipei: all of their movies are interconnected and all of them have Hsiao-kang (a sort of an alter ego of Lee) as the main character. The flow of his films and hypnotic slow pace with the absence of the plot manage to create the resemblance of a dream, where from one film to another same faces take on different roles and the same city is at times drastically different. There are no metaphors per se, which are so important to the Western audiences – just a free flow of spontaneous life. 

Some of our most beloved movies are built on memorable moments, haunting like a vivid dream: the ear from “Blue Velvet”, the empty streets of “L’eclisse”, the flight of Guido at the end of “8 ½ ” or the dry paint scratched off by Jeanne Moreau in “La Notte” etc. Same is true of Tsai movies, which contain a dense amount of images, not plot turns. Hence, the highlight of the director’s career – a 6-minute close-up shot of crying Yang Kuei-mei that wraps up his second feature “Vive L’amour” – was “motivated by nothing” and initially was different in the original script. His Deleuzian mental-images are rooted in reality but border with dreams; there, a real world influences a dream world as much as a dream world influences the real one. Despite the plotless and speechless nature of his works, the director’s weirdness is more quirky than transgressive. His deadpan characters and their bizarre ways make his movies entertaining and even funny, and the continuous adventures of Hsiao-Kang makes you think he is a bizarre love child of Monsieur Hulot, Buster Keaton and Antoine Duanel.  In “Rebels” he was a dropout, in “Vive L’amour” – a sales manager in columbarium, in “The River” – a paralyzed creep, in “What Time Is It There?” – a street watch vendor…

“The Wayward Cloud”

“The Wayward Cloud”, premiered at Berlinale in 2005, where it received two “Silver Bears” for outstanding artistic achievement and for opening new cinematic horizons, continues to develop the story that first began in “What Time Is It There?”, and later in the short film “The Skywalk Is Gone”. This time, Hsiao-kang is a porn actor in low-budget adult movies. There is a severe drought in Taiwan and the government encourages people to drink watermelon juice instead. In fact, watermelons are everywhere. Shiang-chyi, who was Hsiao-kang’s love interest in the previous movie, comes back to Taipei from Paris to live in a drab apartment, collect empty plastic bottles and eat those watermelons. The so-called lovers develop some sort of romance, and there is absolutely no plot to help with the classic Tsai’s dry and documentary style. The extremely long and slow scenes are punctuated with the campy musical numbers of old popular Chinese songs, think “Singin’ in the Rain” on acid. For example, in one scene Hsiao-kang is washing himself and transforms into a merman; in the other one, he becomes a huge penis that is harassed by a few dozens of women in the spacy toilet; in yet another one, Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi cross-dress and dance among a few hundreds of watermelon umbrellas.

Yet despite the kitschy nature of the musical numbers and the surreal minimalist style, “The Wayward Cloud” delivers a pretty straightforward story of the loneliness and the nature of sexuality. A sparsity of dialogue and those long static shots create the feeling of anticipation and enticement. The slow and desaturated real world is compared to the fast, colorful and over-the-top fantasy of the musical numbers, which don’t appear randomly but rather speak for the characters and unveil their motivations at the most convenient time, when a long shot seemed to last forever. The lives of the two main characters are present as two parallel lines that sometimes meet and sometimes almost connect, but never coincide.

The whole movie is a perfect balance of yin and yang, except the character’s disability to love or love “in a normal way” makes them seriously frustrated, and this frustration, both mental and sexual, transmits through the screen. That is precisely how Tsai Ming-liang prefers to write his scripts: he takes the same characters, slightly changes their identities, puts them into different situations and observes the changes that happened. He asks simple questions: Can they fall in love? Can they have a right to do so? Are they worth being loved? With that simple method, Tsai manages to create his minimalistic masterpieces.

Is it porn?

The main controversy that surrounds “The Wayward Cloud” is the graphic depiction of sex and masturbation. Since the main character is a porn actor, right from the beginning of the movie we watch him perform his duties; in fact, one of the first performances of Hsiao-kang includes an inventive intercourse with a Japanese porn actress involving a watermelon. Those watermelons are featured constantly throughout the movie, as either a symbol of romance (the TV show in the beginning of the film), fertility (the performance act of Shiang-chyi “delivering” a watermelon) or passion (the watermelon involved in the porn shoot). Besides that, they serve as a substitute for water in waterless Taiwan. That ripe and juicy fruit becomes synonymous with sex: when the water/love is absent, just a few drops may be more than enough. Meanwhile, the rear joy of watermelon/sex is diluted when it is so readily available everywhere. This “sex during the drought” approach reveals the point of the director: he is not making a porn movie, just “a movie about human emotions”. 

Hsiao-kang, romantically interested in Shiang-chyi, declines a few opportunities to have sex with her precisely because sex is his job. For him it is purely mechanical and even slightly repugnant exercise, and that is how Tsai is depicting sex in his movie. It is graphic, but not romantic; raw, but not sensual. The sex with watermelon looks like a joke and the sex scene in the bathroom (where film crew is using a dirty water from the bottle to simulate a shower sex) is downright hilarious. How can sex be private and special when there are a bunch of people filming you in a tight space, setting up light and pouring dirty river water over you? That is what seemingly is on the mind of Tsai Ming-liang – people watch porn, but how often do they think it is fake? How hilarious the image would become if you could zoom out a bit and see and all the crew in the shot, eating donuts and waiting for the lead actor to ejaculate? 

Hsiao-kang, romantically interested in Shiang-chyi, declines a few opportunities to have sex with her precisely because sex is his job. For him it is purely mechanical and even slightly repugnant exercise, and that is how Tsai is depicting sex in his movie. It is graphic, but not romantic; raw, but not sensual. The sex with watermelon looks like a joke and the sex scene in the bathroom (where film crew is using a dirty water from the bottle to simulate a shower sex) is downright hilarious. How can sex be private and special when there are a bunch of people filming you in a tight space, setting up light and pouring dirty river water over you? That is what seemingly is on the mind of Tsai Ming-liang – people watch porn, but how often do they think it is fake? How hilarious the image would become if you could zoom out a bit and see and all the crew in the shot, eating donuts and waiting for the lead actor to ejaculate? 

According to Tsai, his sex scenes were “not enjoyable and dark, because they come not from love, but from bizarre circumstances”. Two main characters did not have sex up until the last scene, which absolutely flips the script, but more on that later. The most intimate moment is the one where Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi are having dinner. In the best traditions of Asian cinema, food is the most intimate way to connect (the camera is even too shy to show them eating a lobster, instead just catching a shadow of the couple). Eating here is true bonding, the only emotional and erotic moment of this bizarre relationship that reaches its peak in the last scene of the movie. Shiang-chyi found a passed out Japanese porn actress in the elevator and brought her back to the film crew. There, she meets Hsiao-kang again, finally realizing he is actually a porn actor. The crew starts working again, with the unconscious actress as a minor obstacle. Shiang-chyi remains at the scene, stupefied, watching the actions unfold through an internal window. She remains there as a confused viewer, watching a real porn film in front of her, with a comfortable barrier in between. Slowly she becomes drawn into the action, taking a voice of the unconscious actress and screaming instead of her. Whether it is a scream of ecstatic passion because of Hsiao-kang or at him, the man, about the climax, runs towards her and ejaculates right into Shiang-chyi’s mouth. His butt is sweaty, she is crying: a drought has ended.

This last scene changes the whole perspective of a light and somehow romantic movie into something heavier and more contemplative. Some view the ending as misogynistic, some see it as the victory of “amour fou”, but nonetheless it is strongly anti-pornographic. Even if the drought has ended, the love breakthrough was seemingly never achieved – the masculinity had lost and value of sex diminished. The question is: If we take sex casually, what can we expect from the love affairs? In fact, where is the line between love affairs and sex? The literal translation of the original title would be something like “Near the horizon there is a cloud”: the unattainable object far away, impossible to grasp. Can you feel it when you touch it?

The Wayward Cloud
天邊一朵雲
2005
режисер: Tsai Ming-liang
жанр: erotic dramedy

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