The Wayward Cloud (Tian bian yi duo yun) first published by Film4
Summary: In this strange comedy-cum-musical-cum-cum, loneliness and longing pervade drought-stricken Taipei – and there are hardcore sex acts and watermelons, too. Tsai Ming-liang directs.
Review: “Watermelon can open your heart.” So says a television announcer near the beginning of Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Wayward Cloud (Tian bian yi duo yun), adding, “a big red one means you’re wildly in love”, and describing how shy students use the gourds to court the objects of their desire.
Just before this we had already witnessed a ‘seedier’ side to the fruit’s usefulness as erotic intermediary, when porn actor Hsiao-kang (Tsai’s regular star Lee Kang-sheng) was shown licking, fingering and fisting a half-melon held between a starlet’s naked legs, before forcing its flesh down her throat and covering her body in its sticky juices. ‘Real’ sex follows, but by comparison seems somehow anticlimactic and, well, fruitless.
Watermelons are a recurrent motif in Tsai’s film, set in a drought-stricken Taipei where the green-and-pink fruit is selling cheaper than bottled water. The theme of emotional and sexual surrogacy also recurs, as Hsiao-Kang engages in explicit sexual acts with other women (and bathes in other people’s water) while dreaming of romance with former acquaintance Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), little realising that she has recently returned to Taipei and is in fact living in the same building where his porn shoots take place.
Eventually the two would-be lovers drift into each other’s lives like clouds in the sky, and an awkward, sweetly sensual relationship develops between them. But then, inevitably, Shiang-chyi chances upon Hsiao-kang at work in his chosen métier, and as he confuses business with pleasure, his more sexually forward side will leave her both gob-smacked and teary-eyed.
That final tear, and the dose of semen that accompanies it, may be unwelcome, but in its way it represents the liquid flow for which everyone has until that moment been yearning – for while most of Tsai’s films are characterised by endless pouring rains, The Wayward Cloud is not only set in a dry patch, but focuses much of its comic business on the search for water – in rooftop storage tanks, public toilet cisterns, and other people’s water bottles. The film – and more particularly the main characters’ relationship – may be marked by a sort of restraint, but once the floodgates have finally been opened, there can be no going back. Intimacy and animality have come into direct confrontation.
As Shiang-chyi’s only line (“Are you still selling watches?”) in The Wayward Cloud suggests, this is a sort-of sequel to Tsai’s 2001 feature What Time Is It There? (in which street vendor Hsiao-kang sells Shiang-chyi a watch before she leaves for Paris) and to his 2002 short The Skywalk is Gone (in which Hsiao-kang loses his watch-selling pitch and auditions for a career in porn). Lu Yi-ching, however, who had previously played Hsiao-kang’s mother, is here an ageing pornstar whose face is at one point showered in the young man’s cum – before, that is, she bursts into song (“I’d sell my soul too/to keep my heart true”).
For as well as being a near-silent comedy of observation, and a film sticky with the juices of love, lust and longing (whose final, in-your-face sequence had many viewers walking out at the Berlin International Film Festival screening), The Wayward Cloud also features occasional – but elaborate – song-and-dance numbers, much like Tsai’s The Hole (1998). All this makes for an oddball mix, part Jacques Tati, part Jacques Demy, with a crab-eating scene that is straight out of Jan Svankmajer, and hardcore sequences thrown in to boot – but more adventurous viewers should not find the film, or indeed its shocking climax, too hard to swallow.
Verdict: Tsai’s bittersweet musical comedy of frustration, fruit and fellatio may be dry, but it drips with melon-choly.
© Anton Bitel