A great close analysis of The Wayward Cloud just published :
The Round, the Flat, and the Impossible:"The Wayward Cloud"
By Chris Fujiwara in Undercurrent (new online magazine by the FIPRESCI)
By Chris Fujiwara in Undercurrent (new online magazine by the FIPRESCI)
Concerning this recent debate around Bordwell's attack on the superficiality of film criticism in Cinema Scope (see over here for more links), I deeply believe only close analysis of filmmaking technique, even if some find this type of overanalysis clinical and boring, could help to shed light on the challenging film mastery that looks dull when summarized by a mere synopsis. Of course we need to get into details for some films, powerful films that can actually nurture a profound analysis on style, form and subtext. Only when the film is tested on details (composition, mise-en-scène, symbolism, dynamics, timing...) through a close observation of the cinema language would its genuine achievements be revealed and highlighted. Only film criticism focusing on such artistic accomplishments will help to educate the taste of the audience in appreciating the redeeming efforts, inspired talent and creative decisions of filmmakers developping subtle and understated skills.
Chris Fujiwara's insightful analysis, that I would like to comment here, further comfirms the film is indeed an anti-porn manifesto (contrary to Chris Fujiwara's own conclusion), deconstructing the tricks of simulation and staging at work behind the scene of a porn shooting. His clever description of how the porn scenes are carefully staged, in an alienating mise-en-scène, with use of a fruit as genitalia, the protagonist's "psychological need to separate sex from love", the fakery of the shooting props (shower), the oppressive camera crew, the disincarnated/numb bodies, the frustrating/castrating/objectifying conclusion, all concur to give a pessimistic meaning to Tsai's representation of porn. Or at least give a very cynical view of the immoral tolerance for pornography abuses in society. Thus incarnating the antithesis of Tsai's oeuvre that instead investigates the intimate roots of interpersonal disconnectedness between individuals, love being an impossible goal and pronography being a debauchery of flesh contact denying interiority and identity to the isolated partners.
The distortion of the wide-angle lens is exaggerated by the roundness of the corner of this underground intersection, which would lead us to believe the wall we are looking at is linear and straight, only deformed by a fisher-eye lens, bending a 180° field into 90°. If this tunnel was in a straight line in reality, it would mean the women could see each other when walking toward each other. The symbolism of this mise-en-scène suggests a showdown of the rival women, as if they walked to eachother, but they don't.
And the POV of this shot puts the audience in a position to look at both women advancing toward eachother within a single frame, without a parallel montage of countershots, a (literal) bending of reality to fit the facing sight lines on a plane.
I'd like to discuss his classification of layers of experience within the film diegesis. Notably the third one : "the representation of sex in scenes of which it is unclear whether they are part of a filmmaking situation (the watermelon sex scene, the mirror-masturbation scene); "
The contextualization is obviously ambiguous in Tsai's conscious mise-en-scène and editing, intentionally suppressing certain key continuity shots that would unmistakenably inform the ties between characters, the exact chronology between scenes and the logistical spatiality. Nonetheless, there is always a detail that hints to the logical relationship going on between fictitious layers.
I'd argue layer 2 and 3 are one and the same, with a variation in perception not in nature. The fantasy construct being limited exclusively to the musical scenes, perfectly identified by a distinct artificial style. The existence of another fantasy layer would complicate the understanding of the film unecessarily, which is already difficult to grasp. The understatement of the mise-en-scène requires a rigor/simplicity/clarity of formalism, and Tsai manages to hold it all together all along by establishing clear constructs and obvious hints.
The opening sequence in the tunnel isn't exactly "dislocated, unidentified, unreal" or "fantasy". In fact it links right away 2 layers of the film structure by showing in the same frame 2 characters that belong to distinct film layers throughout most of the film : Shiang-chyi to layer 1 ("the fictional narrative situations involving Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi, constituting") and Yozakura to layer 2 ("the representation of sex in scenes staged for pornographic videos"), who will only meet again in the last sequence.
The watermelon (recurrent symbolic motif in the film) and the nurse uniform also clearly link the first (layer 1) and second scene (layer 2) together. It is unclear if the second scene is a porn set, but the following scenes will comfirm since we'll meet again the same actor couple on other porn sets.
The mirror masturbation scene (layer 2) is also technically decontextualized, but subtle hints connect it back to the film reality. Yozakura is seen naked on a kitchen sink, and we'll see her again in this position in the infamous bottle cap scene (layer 2), shot from under her crotch, showing her onscreen with the porn crew, Hsiao-kang and Lu Yi-ching in the background. Hsiao-kang's masturbation is also a logical continuation from a preceeding scene when he is shown impotent in the bathroom (layer 2).
The scene of Shiang-chyi licking the watermelon in the fridge is linked to other scenes within layer 1 by the fridge that is seen in the watermelon glass scene, and other scenes in Shiang-chyi's kitchen notably the second last sequence when she picks a water bottle to refresh numb Yozakura.
The scene of Shiang-chyi bearing the watermelon under her shirt like a foetus ties up within layer 1 as she will be seen in the staircase (another staircase though) with Hsiao-kang when he dumped the misplaced cap (held with chopsticks in digust as retrieved from Yozakura's vagina in an earlier scene (layer 2). Shiang-chyi carries the watermelon in this scene. And the netting across the stairwell can be seen in that scene too, linking back to the decontextualized scene when Hsiao-kang sleeps in a fetal position on the net (layer 1).
note: Chris Fujiwara assumes the netting is to discourage suicide attempts which is perfectly credible. My assumption was the nettings were a protection against garbage fall, as people throw out the trash bags directly by the window into the courtyard (which is a custom documented in The Hole most notably).
Chris Fujiwara suggests the reality order (layer 1) could be perceived as fantasy (layer 4), although I'd argue the fantasy-looking scenes made surreal by Tsai's laconical mise-en-scène and editing should be seen as an outlandish aspect of reality. Unmistakably part of the real life of the protagonists, but affected with strange feelings (solitude, dislocation, awkwardness, unease) translated by a decontextualized editing, and little references for continuity in the diegesis, which skillfuly conveys directly to the audience the same feeling experienced by the onscreen characters (although for other reasons), achieving the goal to put us in their shoes : strange and disoriented.
Layer 5 : ("TV news broadcast") is also tied together with the first order of reality (layer 1), as the TV voiceover tells about many ways to declare love with watermelon gifts in the form of juice or whole fruit to express different feelings. Which will be utilized by Shiang-chyi (who was the one watching this TV program) with Hsiao-kang by offering him a glass of watermelon juice or chuncks of watermelon in a shy seducing parade.
But TV (including the porn DVD watched by Shiang-chyi in the second last sequence), acts indeed as an external construct separated from any other layers. The TV voiceover narration, giving explanations on the drought and the watermelon sales (which will inspire all the dream sequences on layer 4) could be mistaken for a narrator voice of Tsai film, as the TV narrator is not seen on the TV images (or is it?).
Btw, I believe we can see a cameo of Miao Tien (who usually play the father in Tsai films) eating a watermelon in a contest (?).
The theme of "impossibility" developped by Chris Fujiwara is interesting to deeper understand the disconnected relationship between the protagonists, especially in the final sequence when the wall and the grate materialize the distance impossible to cross between Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang. They are united by proxy of Hsiao-kang's penis only (unilateral and exclusively masculine sexuality) limiting their relationship to contactless carnality. The act of love is anything but sensual, the hands (that played a greater foreplay role in the videostore backroom) are totally inert and inactive here. Each protagonist remains isolated on their side of the wall, meeting physically for a mechanical performance of oral sex.
Although I don't understand his description of "impossible shots"... whiches are indeed unusual in a film mostly shot on real location (constrained by the appartments unmovable architecture). But the removal of the fourth wall in a tight room to get a deeper field onscreen is a common cinema trick, how could this be invested of a specific symbolic meaning in Tsai's film?
"In The Wayward Cloud, Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang are reunited on a two-seat swinging bench in a park. Tsai emphasizes the difficulty of this meeting (and the sharpness of the desire for it) by showing the stages that must be passed through before it can take place: first, Hsiao-kang is asleep, but Shiang-chyi apparently doesn't recognize him; next, she recognizes him, but he is still asleep; then, he wakes up, but now she is asleep. Here, two people who occupy the same space suffer a disjunction in biological time (or the time of awareness). "
I'm happy to see I had noted the same element of mise-en-scène (in a previous post) that Chris Fujiwara analyzes here. Which means I was right on this. :)
"And Hsiao-kang makes his body a bridge by wedging himself between the walls of the apartment-building corridor. "
This is a beautiful interpretation of a funny scene that initially puzzled me. Hsiao-kang playfully creates a gateway, suspended above the floor, when Shiang-chyi comes back from the grocery store with watermelon and food. She hesitates to cross underneath, worried about this unstable equilibrium, but does it several times to play along. Then she feeds him with watermelon chunks like a baby, as he's still suspended by the tension of his muscles. This senseless timebreak alludes to a young couple in love.
The bridge motif is also recurring element that structures the film as noted by Chris Fujiwara.
See also previously: