Tian bian yi duo yun
France / Taiwan, 2005
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 22 April 2009
Source bootleg DVD
In the first chapter of his 1979 book Seduction, French semiologist Jean Baudrillard discerned the spheres of sex in relation to pornography: “Pornography is the quadrophonics of sex. It adds a third and fourth track to the sexual act. It is the hallucination of detail that rules. Science has already habituated us to this microscopics, this excess of the real in its microscopic detail, this voyeurism of exactitude.” We accept that films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door are classifiably pornographic, that they are stitches in our culture. But where do foreign films that dance the fine equator between indecency and artistry lie? Aside from its brilliance, Dover Koshashvili’s Late Marriage contained an open depiction of sex without the usual strategically placed bed sheet or obstructions. Can they still secure a firm place in our culture?
The Wayward Cloud, a film by Tsai Ming-liang, is a profound glimpse into the sheltered world of pornography. The two main characters are from Ming-liang’s previous film What Time is it There? and his subsequent short The Skywalk Is Gone. Meeting again after years apart, Hsaio-kang and Shiang-chyi live separate, solitary lives in the same building, all in the midst of a national water shortage; to compensate, they must drink inexpensive watermelon juice. She spends her days watching television while, just above her, he films pornography. For much of the film they dance around each other, she unaware of his profession and he seemingly uninterested in her. He only visits to try and open her luggage, which is jammed, while she forces glasses of watermelon juice on him, despite her overstock of bottled water.
Adding to the two main performances are Lu Yi-ching and Sumomo Yozakura as nameless, washed-up porn actresses. Nude and licentious throughout most of the movie, they lend The Wayward Cloud some of its most disturbing imagery, with exceptionally disquieting scenes that lead to its harrowing finale. When Yozakura’s character is found unconscious in the building elevator, Hsaio-kang’s movie crew decides to proceed with the shoot anyway. But Yozakura, a real-life Japanese porn actress, infuses her performance so far beyond the writhing and moaning that it continually pulls you down like a chain, and slowly you become aware that the explicit happiness she wears is only a façade.
As in his other films, Tsai uses little dialogue, relying instead on the vast landscape of his adopted home country, as well as the pale, undersized surfaces of Taiwan’s buildings, to convey the desolate, unexpressed emotions of his characters. It’s also blatantly honest—few directors today wield an unblinking eye to such reserved subjects. The various moments of sex are unhidden, filling the entire frame; the camera doesn’t look away, and seems to be daring us to do the same. And it’s through these scenes of overt voyeurism that we see Tsai’s true genius: infusing something usually unrestrained and erotic with pain-staking emptiness.
Amidst these instances of breathtaking dejection are musical numbers. The characters, all silent, convey feelings in private bursts of song, all lip-synched. While swimming in a reservoir of water, Hsaio-kang transforms into a merman-like being who swoons with love and longing beneath the moon; later, while “fluffing” in private before a scene, he is transported to a public bathroom, where the walls are a garish yellow and women dance around him in makeshift costumes (including what appear to be brassieres made of orange traffic cones), singing of failed erections. Normally this would be offsetting, even comically ridiculous, but Tsai shoots them in such vivid colors that they attest to every longing expression, every silent stare and restrained smile. In a sense it evokes the vibrant moments of Singin’ in the Rain, in which Gene Kelley imagines his start across an illuminated stage.
During the film’s screening at the Berlin Film Festival, many patrons left the theatre during the final scene, I assume in disgust. There’s an undeniable perversity to the last ten minutes, something so nonchalantly deliberate and direct you yourself may want to find a dark, calm corner. It’s Philip Guston’s City Limits—that bleak, confounding turn in artistry, the sudden division between acceptability and unease; what begins as presentable beauty ends in confoundedness. But the conclusion allows us to finally view the inborn ruthlessness of Hsaio-kang’s chosen profession.
The Guston reference is not made in passing. Guston, a painter who died in 1980, began as someone influenced by Renaissance artists, then Abstract Expressionism, only to find fame in the arms of somber existentialism—paintings of shoes and bulbs and one-eyed men. Tsai’s film is by no measure a notch on the existential meter, and nor will it ever be. But his disassociation with the orthodox filmmaking of his past has lent itself to authenticity. Who else would open a movie with a lengthy shot of an empty parking ramp, only to shift to a woman clad in a nurse’s uniform lying on a bed with a half-watermelon placed over her genitalia? That style of unabashed risk-taking is something we’ll never find in mainstream Hollywood, not for a long time.
Nonetheless, there are certain aspects of this film that many people may find juvenile. Aside from the explicit sex, The Wayward Cloud also contains a fair amount of ripe adult humor. Kuei-mei’s character, in the midst of pleasing herself with an empty water bottle, gets the cap stuck somewhere inside her, and Hsaio-kang is forced to reluctantly remove it. The scene is both humorous and well shot, framed between her parted legs as she performs the lewd act on herself. The Wayward Cloud is a comedic tragedy, a musical bathed in silence. There’s been an undercurrent of movies like this one, films that challenge the predictability of Hollywood. Not unlike Cory McAbee’s The American Astronaut or the Polish Brother’s Northfork, this film does not merely encompass genres—it reinvents them.
When we view The Wayward Cloud, there is an ambiguous hint of Baudrillard’s title subject. Yes, the two characters are lost in two separate worlds, and they dance around one another despite being the only two dancers in the ballroom. Do they seduce one another? Yes, it becomes apparent. But we’re seduced, too. The world of pornography baits us towards assurances of endless bliss, of perpetual availability, with promises that beauty and perfection are predisposed certainties. We are seduced. And it’s fallen on those outside our culture to show us our addictions.