Habitués of the Tsai Ming-liang oeuvre more or less know what to expect of The Wayward Cloud, the latest exercise in long-take lassitude, deadpan existentialism, and inscrutable water metaphors from the most obsessively consistent of contemporary filmmakers. Less predictably, the film's belated New York releaseit opens at Anthology Film Archives a full two years after premiering at the Berlin Film Festivalcomes (all over your face!) as something of a mixed blessing. Sad to say, but the only thing more unfortunate than a Tsai Ming-liang film that fails to get a theatrical release is one that eventually does and sucks dick.
No, The Wayward Cloud isn't very good, but I meant that literally: The seventh feature by the Taiwanese über-auteur climaxes with a sexual provocation that makes The Brown Bunny's infamous cock gobble seem positively romantic. Graphic as it is, hardcore fellatio isn't what distinguishes this wayward production; after all, Tsai's the guy who imagined an erotic bathhouse encounter between father and son in The River (1997) and brilliantly conflated the act of gay cruising with moviegoing in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003). The Wayward Cloud's sexual explicitness goes hand in hand with a shift from nuanced melancholy and stealth monumentalism toward garish, befuddled negativity. The result feels as ill-suited to Tsai's delicate sensibility as those irksome Day-Glo worm paintings that wrapped up the recent Brice Marden retrospective at MOMA.
Tsai newbies are encouraged to start anywhere but here and work their way though the contemplative angst of Rebels of the Neon Gods, the plaintive geometry of Vive L'Amour, the moist musical apocalypse of The Hole, and the chic sentimentalism of What Time Is It There?, the most overrated of Tsai's films, yet an essential prelude to the hardcore what-the-fuck (and why-the-fuck, and who-the-fuck) of The Wayward Cloud.
Plot-wise, What Time Is It There? tracked the intercontinental crypto-romance between Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a watch vendor, and Chen Shiang-chyi, a young woman on holiday in Paris. Their inconclusive story was picked up again in The Skywalk Is Gone, the superior short-film sequel, in which Shiang-chyi returns from Paris looking for Hsiao-kang, who has given up street vendingthe title refers to his demolished workspaceand is now auditioning for porn.
The Wayward Cloud reunites the pair in an exceedingly squeamish, utterly unconvincing love story; it's troubling that Tsai's most disgusted film is also his most explicitly heterosexual. As the movie opens, Hsiao-kang toils on the set of a low-rent skin flick, fingerbanging a watermelon propped in the crotch of his female co-star. Elsewhere in the same sad apartment complex, Shiang-chyi lounges on the floor, gulping watermelon juice. Taipei is in the grip of a drought, a reversal of the typically damp Tsai scenario (and a signal, perhaps, that he's run dry of productive ideas). Wordlessly, incrementally, via Tsai's evocative minimalist m.o., our principals are joined in a mirthless parody of an affair. The Wayward Cloud features one of the clumsiest heavy-petting sessions ever committed to film and one of the least-romantic moonlit strolls. Is the mock-farcical crab-cook sequence meant to comment on Annie Hall, or is it merely a desperate go at levity?
And so the narrative trajectory of What Time/Skywalk has collapsed into a bitter simulacrum, a point made vivid by a return to the musical form of The Hole. Frequently triggered by a release of fluids, The Wayward Cloud bursts into a half-dozen oddball song-and-dance routines: Hsiao-kang metamorphosed into a bespangled man-lizard, crooning at the moon; elaborate choreographies of watermelon umbrellas; showgirls with traffic-cone bustiers gallivanting in bathrooms. Tsai can work rhythmic wonders from 10 minutes of footfall in an empty hallway, but Jacques Demy he is not. These aren't musical numbers so much as the idea of them. Likewise, The Wayward Cloud feels less like a Tsai film than the failed attempt at one.
Oh, I've read all kinds of elaborate defenses of the film, including a frame-by-frame analysis of the climactic nasty that argues an ecstatic "expression of love." Now, I'm a total sucker for "volumetrics of the shot" and whatnot, and pulling your cock out of a comatose, possibly dead Japanese porn star and ramming it down the throat of a woman you ostensibly dig is many thingsbut unless you've been on the receiving end of a similar scenario, I'd caution against calling it love.
Take heart in this: Tsai got his groove back with his lovely new (really new) movie I Don't Want to Sleep Alone, coming to the IFC Center this May. The Wayward Cloud fails as allegory, human story, anti-porn screed, postmodern musical, and even formal delight (Tsai's emptied-out aesthetic has never felt so empty, his mannerisms so pointlessly mannered), but it seems to have worked well enough as a necessary purge.
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