Why Tsai meant to conclude his film by this infamous porn scene?
Over one year already since The Wayward Cloud premiered at Berlin 2005, and that the guys at Rouge (Helen Bandis, Adrian Martin, Grant McDonald) produced a great shot-by-shot analysis (with screen captures) of the last sequence that caused so much controversy and perplexity.
Check it out there, and come back here for my own additional notes on their close reading, as I will not repeat everything they say (which is very pertinent). So the parallel reading of both interpretations is required.
Shot-by-shot spoiler analysis. MATURE content.
(the two lead protagonists are named HE and SHE for clarity)
The composition of the image, high angle slightly slanted, isolates HE and the japanese actress in different squares (frame within the frame) traced by the grate.
Symbolism of the grate (The Hole/Vagina/TV)
I'd add another grate occurance in the shape of the net hung in the stairwell where HE sleeps in a fetal position. This is a transitory shift of the grate symbol, horizontal in The Hole: the erotized peephole between HE (voyeur) upstairs and SHE, naked, downstairs, until they can connect physically through the enlarged hole. The upstairs/downstairs junction is also affirmed earlier in The Wayward Cloud when SHE contemplates the blue sky painted on her bedroom ceiling, where a round cloud stands for a symbolic hole through which descend orgasmic noises from the porn movie shot above.
Same motif in Vive L'Amour, Lee Kang-Sheng was under the bed, looking up and listening to the couple making love right over his head.
In The Wayward Cloud the peephole is vertical, between SHE (voyeur) in the lobby, and HE, naked, in the bedroom performing porno. The vagina symbol will become more obvious later.
The cardboard girls standing in the lobby with SHE are a lifeless observer from an indifferent outside world. This society that never interacts with the stylized world of these protagonists (the whole film is rather deserted). Their smile is fake and contrasts with HER distress as if mocking her about-to-happen scene of adultary/jealousy (reminding the hysterical laughters imagined at the church by the paranoid protagonist in Buñuel's El).
Maybe these cardboard silhouettes represent the laughing audience we are with the prescience of what SHE refuses to believe until she'll see it for real happening before her very eyes.
The most graphic sequence of the film couldn't be de-erotized more. The girl is numb, like a blow-up doll animated by a grip. A direct reference to an extreme form of pornography and urban myth: snuff-movies. The girl could be dead or raped under a sleep-drug. Although the cameraman shoots up close to pretend she's active (and alive) in the porno movie they make.
Tsai stands out, differenciating himself from the porn crew and making his film more disgusting than theirs. In the first nurse scene with the watermelon, there is only one camera, Tsai was the porn director, we saw onscreen exactly what the porn cameraman shoots. Later in the shower, Tsai steps back like a documentarian to show onscreen the crew working on the porno set. Then he places his camera inside the action (scene when the japanese girl lost the bottle cap). Ultimately Tsai shoots his own X-rated movie staging a voyeur girl on a shooting set.
The judgemental social witness incarnated by the cardboard girls (China Airlines) gradually disappear behind SHE, who literally upstages them, as HER onscreen size outgrows theirs.
SHE positions herself near the peephole, which from her side is a symbolic TV screen. The very TV set SHE was riveted to in the previous sequence when SHE discovered the japanese girl and HE performed porn on a DVD.
The political backdrop reunites here in the same room the two empires (China and Japan) claiming Taiwan, the little dragon. Like for Hou Hsiao-hsien in Three Times, love is impossible for the taiwanese couple throughout ages because of the political oppression. An island where people are sexual products.
SHE discovers live porn for the first time (she might be virgin too). HE is off-screen, so this composition tells us she only looks at the girl for the moment. A porn actress represented from a very feminist perspective : woman turned into sexual object, without consent, subdued, manipulated by pervert men. An extreme characterization of a freaky porno set, surreal, symbolized, like only would happen in a bad dream.
A key shot that formalizes the partition of their universe, innocence v. brutality, female v. male. Again the characterization of both gender is extreme, totally stereotyped. Although without feeling a self-conscious difference between their behavior they still stare at eachothers, reaching out through this wall-frontier without leaving their own milieu (each on their side of the wall). HE moves closer to the grate, thanks to this ingenious mise-en-scène the limp girl is hidden behind the wall and all we see is HE fornicating with the wall right next to SHE.
SHE was a voyeur in front of TV earlier, then through the grate, yet after this eye-contact SHE is now involved in the action and became an active participant in the show, developping in the next shot.
The reverse-shot alternation removes the wall from the stage composition. SHE watches through the grate, and HE is being looked at by someone behind a grate. Both sides are subjectivized. The grate bars HER face, meaning the grate is not equally distant from each, SHE is the one about to break through the fence.
Eye-to-eye, they emotionally connect with a naked truth into this intense regard. Still no shame, no embarasment, no guilt, as the action continues to take place around them (at this point there is no exchange between the 2 sides, except visually). A hypnotic curiosity instead. The close up on HE puts all the rest out of focus : it's only about the tension between them in a tunnel effect, the rest doesn't matter.
Both slowly open their mouth simultaneously. SHE begins to simulate the moaning of an orgasm. HE who was quite dispassionate in the performance of this non-simulated intercourse, is finally turned on with HER help. SHE sits her head on the grate, now making a move towards him in sign of reconciliation both physicaly and emotionaly.
The formal shift along this sequence moved from a judgmental distance when SHE considered the pornographic act in an impersonal way (HE out of frame, shot 5), then fully brought to her awareness his nature and his job. In an instant, and one sequence she took herself through the stages of jealousy, denial, shock, anger, indifference, frustration, curiosity and arrousal. In a way this scene is an express shortcut to forgiveness and acceptance of his job, nature, and gender (reconciliation of the sexual duality described in my last post allowing connection). I see this infamous epilog, and the whole film to some extant, as a symbolic confrontation of antagonist/complementary natures of male/female sexuality.
As noted on Rouge, the crew is gone off-screen for good now. They disappeared visually but also are disposed of their role that validated until now the realism of the porn film metaphor. The reconciliation consumed in the previous shots, the film focuses on the couple again, alone.
HE v. SHE >>> HE & SHE.
Wider shot with an odd angle, low and slanted, that isolates the grate on the wall (in a composition reminding more than ever a shot from The Hole) to relocate the junction between appartments separated by a locked door (vagina).
As SHE continues to moan, HE formalizes the vagina symbol of the peephole by literaly fucking the grate, like a glory hole. Which happens to be SHE's open mouth too, simulating a vagina for the male's fantasy. The serie of close-up's on either side of the grate, removes the wall once again from the composition, to isolate only the 2 protagonists in the position of a vertical fellatio.
From HE's side, the composition emphasizes the hole as a vagina, as he stands alone face to the wall, his penis into the grate.From SHE's side, the composition emphasizes the fellatio, HER face stuck in HIS pubic hair. It's like if the penis of the porn movie she was watching earlier on DVD came out of the screen in 3D and in flesh, which corresponds to what Freud called the "penis envy" (woman's fantasy to retrieve this member they are deprivated of).
A tear rolls on HER face (its meaning could go both ways? ecstatic relief or self-pity shame). The shoe she held in her hand throughout the sequence (that belongs the the japanese actress), is dropped to the floor as she's stunned by what just happened.
Rebirth of HE's sexual emotion, desir and real orgasm with a true ejaculation (unmistakenly suggested on screen).
This whole sequence lingers long enough on this uncomfortable pornographic act. I admit not to understand why Tsai insists to hold on this last image some more.
Another odd wider low angle that could pass as a look up to the pierced ceiling in The Hole. The parallel I meant to draw between the two films is they end in a very similar way, only with the function of protagonists reversed.
In The Hole, HE was obsessed with this hole in the floor with a very erotic exploration. And this scene from The Hole is getting really pornographic (with hindsights of The Wayward Cloud symbolism): he intruded things in, stuck his arm and his leg, just like he penetrated it with his penis here in The Wayward Cloud.
The Hole closes on an enlarged opening through which HE lifts SHE to his appartment. But we don't see them making out. The conclusion in The Wayward Cloud is initiated by the other gender (SHE) this time, with entirely explicited symbols in plain view. Although the bodies are separated by a wall, and the sexual relationship (if accomplished and shown by Tsai before the film ends) is only oral, which makes the statement of a dominated woman deprived of climax to the sole benefit of the male pleasure. Not quite a fully realized romantic ending yet.
The former film represents the awarness of a man to a female's sexuality (symbolized, timid, passive, foreplay), the latter the awareness of a woman to a male's sexuality (graphic, physical, agressive). Both stereotypes and symbolized.
Like when she meets HE asleep on the swing (first encounter), she meets her (sexual) rival unconscious. The inner reaction can develops without having to face her eyes and engage in the interpersonal argument that would take place if they were able to insult eachother.
Only the unconsciousness (or symbolic death) of the "other woman" (japanese actress) could make the revelation of HE's porno job possible and bearable. She is able to ignore her, and forgives in order to establish contact with him, on his (sexual) territory.
What's remarkable is how Tsai manages to stick to a silence treatment of his drama even in the most outraging situation, leaving the image and the mise-en-scène deal with the simmering emotions. Characters never resort to words to resolve their inner conflict (anger, jealousy, worry, questions, doubts), only bodies and body functions attempt to signify an answer.
I think all of these 'removals' are perfectly synthesized in the end scene, and then of course broken through, as Lee and Chen 'break through' the screen (I'd say the grate is meant to stand in, in one sense, for a TV or computer display -- cf. Chen's proximity only minutes earlier to the TV screen when the Japanese girl is laying on her floor, and the warping of the image given the perspective of the camera angle), -as much as is possible-. It's every porn viewer's wish, or mental image, that they be 'present' at the act. Craig Keller