The Wayward Cloud Review
If you’d have asked me what I thought of The Wayward Cloud 35-minutes into it I’d have replied simply with an “hmmmm”. The film is a slow burner, and a bit of an oddball at that, despite it being a follow up to Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is it There? and The Skywalk Has Gone; two films that had established our lead characters, Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) and Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi). I have to confess that I am not familiar with Taiwanese director, Tsai Ming-Liang’s previous works and so when it comes to The Wayward Cloud I must take it at face value and understand that there is some kind of linear progression. At first glance the film does indeed feel like pretentious twaddle. I mean watching a man finger half a water melon which is placed between a porn actress’s legs is taking a metaphor just a little too far. It neither feels artistic or clever, and yet quite obviously Ming-Liang is proud of his actions and takes it to its furthest possible reach. It might well be that The Wayward Cloud is an erotic masterpiece; a metaphor for existentialism and human progressions; sex, recycling or even just that water is damn precious to us all and if we drink too much melon juice we might just go crazy and sing until our hearts explode. Well I’ll decide that shortly.
But anyway, the film does have a plot - of sorts:
Thailand: There has been a recent water shortage epidemic in the country - a.k.a. drought. In the midst of this the Government is calling out to citizens via media outlets, asking for them to save water by drinking water melon juice. That’s all very well but not everyone can stand to drink water melon juice constantly. So Shiang-Chyi takes to public bathrooms where she fills up her many empty bottles, so that she can wash herself as well as provide an alternative drinking source. Living above her is Hsiao-Kang - a porn actor who is finding life to be a little difficult at the best of times. When it’s late he sneaks to the roof and bathes under the water tank, contemplating his existence. Little does Hsiao-Kang know that Shiang-Chyi is living in the same building as he; it isn’t until much later that she runs into him at the nearby park where they become reacquainted. Of course unbeknownst to Shiang-Chyi he is no longer the watch seller that she once knew. As the film leads us to believe, they are like two floating clouds that are alone, without any kind of destiny. What will become of them over the course of events?
After a considerably rough beginning The Wayward Cloud manages to blossom into something; I’m not sure exactly what but something, and it‘s not all bad. Tsai Ming-Liang is regarded as one of the most erotic and sensual directors of our time, yet I find myself being confounded by both claims, certainly where this film is concerned. The Wayward Cloud is neither erotic nor sensual; it’s spurred on by tasteless and weak metaphors, along with the need to turn sexual acts into mockery. The trouble is it really wants to be erotic and well intentioned in the process of doing so, while providing an “artistic” aesthetic. Humour is derived from the very actions that should make us reel in horror or be disgusted at. For example: a good portion of the film deals with Hsiao-Kang’s job as a porn actor; if he’s not trying to get it on in a cramped bathroom while the director pours water over him as his partner yelps in a hunched over position he’s made to have sex with a knocked out Japanese porn actress (real life porn idol, Yozakura Sumomo), who is now nothing more than a rag doll - but the shoot must go on. This is never funny, nor offensive in any great way, which means that Tsai Ming-Liang’s idea of using sex in porn as a device for hilarity is somewhat skewered. Likewise it doesn’t reach out and effectively say “Look what we’re trying to achieve here”. What he doesn’t seem to realise is that he can hit the right notes when he’s not trying quite so hard. In fact the most engaging portions of the film come from the quiet interactions between Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-Chyi; simple occasions whereby she will offer him a glass of water melon juice, only for him to run and pour it out of the window when her back is turned, or when they’re simply enjoying cooking a meal together. For a film largely dependent on music and being almost devoid of any dialogue the way in which these characters act with one another is in itself quite charming, whilst having them trying to deal with their given situations or coming to terms with certain revelations. Basically when the film isn’t being patronising it’s actually very much worthwhile.
Of course there’s more. By way of getting deeper into each character’s psyche Tsai Ming-Liang introduces musical numbers into the equation. These act as emotional buffers and allow the main characters to freely express themselves in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways. The revealing of the first song that sees Hsiao-Kang as a mer-man is quite unexpected and jarring, yet it’s intriguing in the way that it’s played out. This film greatly expands on its surreal endeavour to provide entertainment, and it proves to be a 50/50 gamble. Several of the musical cues provide poignant lyricism; the Chinese porn actress sings about how she’d freely give up her soul for a pure heart, highlighting her lack of shame and dignity which she seems to feel that she lost a long time ago. By no means should this be taken to reflect all those who find themselves in the same situation, though it would be interesting to know just what the director is hoping to gain. Another song has our lead actor donning a little pink number and prancing about with a melon umbrella, while dozens of folk brandishing melon umbrellas dance around him in rhythmic splendour as he jovially sings “Ha ha ha ha, ho ho ho” and so on. Incidentally it’s actually the catchiest number of the bunch. But others wane considerably, such as a bizarre sequence that shows Hsiao-Kang dressed as a giant penis while scantly clad, bucket-headed women circle him in unison as he plays with his balloon balls. Whatever turns you on, Tsai.
The Wayward Cloud‘s surreal edge continues when the director keeps up with his water melon obsession, whilst trying to maintain some kind of theme about leakage, which he’s all too infatuated with himself. Shiang-Chyi passionately kisses the water melon sitting in her fridge because - well - it’s just there I suppose, with every other opportunity showing her clinging on to the beauty (even at one point trying to emulate child birth with it), before she eventually devours it. There’s probably some profound sexual metaphor there too. In addition masturbation and ejaculation play a large part in his tale, even to the point that we see gratuitous spurts on either faces on window panes. I’m not certain what the director is trying to prove by showing us the aftermath of Hsiao-Kang’s adventures in self pleasure; it feels like another notch on his list that he can scratch off and say “Look what I just did, did you see that“? And then you have to wonder what he was thinking when he decided to end the film on the note he did. After all that build up the final act is left to wallow in itself. I won’t spoil it for anyone who remotely considers picking up this film but any intended controversy is nowhere to be found. The entire film has been blown out of proportion. The weaker stomached have stirred it up a treat but in the end there’s little to shock. It’s “climax” is something of an anti one.
Still, The Wayward Cloud is a wonderful looking film. Tsai Ming-Liang has a superb eye and indeed he works as if he were painting on a canvas. Each shot looks meticulously placed; though it isn’t necessary that a lot of them should be lingered on for what feels like minutes at a time. But many of the scenes allow for emphasis as one shifts to the next. There’s a continual flow which runs throughout the apartment building or outside as characters pass from one bridge to the next. Most of the film feels like a series a photographs, and it isn’t until the dance numbers that it begins to exude life. But if all that Tsai Ming-Liang wanted to capture was a series of still shots then he might as well have just released a glossy book instead. As a way of connecting our lead characters, this surreal playground does its job adequately, yet still it remains perhaps too obscure and - in the end - despite its arty conceptualism it tests the patience, which ultimately leaves it on its arse.
This review is taken from Deltamac’s Taiwanese release. This is a 2-disc set with both discs being house in an amaray case. This comes with a glossy slip cover, which features a shiny, rainbow-like ripple effect, which probably reflects the water theme throughout.
The film is presented - mistakenly - on a DVD-5. For a two disc set (with all extras on disc 2) this really isn’t good to see a main feature having to struggle. The plus is that it is anamorphically enhanced in a ratio of 1.85:1 and colours are reproduced quite splendidly, with the dance numbers featuring a much wider spectrum, while interiors appear dark and dirty or drowned in blue and green hues. Unfortunately the colours have been mistreated during the authoring process, so although they look technically correct some of them are prone to bleeding. This is problematic when we’re talking about greens and reds here - two very prominent colours within the film. Detail is very good but the addition of Edge Enhancement naturally spoils things just that little bit more. Black levels are good, while contrast levels are low - there’s nothing here that surprises me, coming from an Asian production. But the transfer continues to struggle with poor compression, which becomes increasingly evident during some of the film’s more energetic pieces. Quick cuts reveal some ugly blocking as do changes to the environment, such as the flames that appear during an earlier musical number.
For sound we get Mandarin 2.0 and 5.1 surround. Neither track seems better than the other upon first play, but once the film kicks in a little the 5.1 takes over. The film doesn’t rely on dialogue; in its place are various noises which take up the front channels. These don’t consist of much more than moaning during sex scenes or a couple of “ambient” effects. The music is channelled decently through the rear speakers, but in all it’s a very sombre affair.
Optional English subtitles are included. When called upon they may appear to be a little on the large side, with a couple of grammatical errors but they read well and there are difficulties with timing.
Note: The following extras do not have English subtitles, except for the EPK-type inclusion.
Disc 2 features all of the extras. First up is a making of feature (51.22), which goes behind the scenes and follows make-up, choreography and some very lengthy discussion between cast and crew. Next is an electronic booklet which includes English translations for the film’s various songs, along with some words of choice from the director himself as he ambiguously tries to provide us with some meaning behind the film. Following on from this is a picture gallery made up of ten photos, all of which feature Yozakura Sumomo. Three Q&A sessions follow next and these run in total for approximately an hour. Taking part is Tsai Ming-Liang and Lee Kang-Sheng. Finally there is a time coded trailer, running for 1-minute 49-seconds.
So what have we learned from The Wayward Cloud? Melons can be sexy and porn aint easy to film. Tsai Ming-Liang will surely continue to make his little experimental films about the human condition and all that jazz. If he feels that melons really are the only way he can express things without actually saying it then great. There’s no denying that he has a great visual eye and strong sense of composition and colour, it just seems a shame to waste that in favour of more pretentious oversights that only make the film buckle under its own pressure. Yet I find myself frustrated in the end because a part of me actually liked what I saw; I chuckled along with some of the gags, I loved its visual display and the main characters were very likeable. If it had just taken a different route instead of poncing about then I may have had a whole lot more nice things to say about it. Art isn’t dead, but sometimes I think it might as well be.
5 out of 10
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