26 décembre 2005

The Wayward Cloud (1/4)

The Wayward Cloud / Tian bian yi duo yun (2005/Tsai Ming-liang/France/Taiwan) ++++


High angle stationary camera (wide angle lens) at the crossing of perpendicular underground tunnels. Dirty cement, artificial neon lights. Distant sound of heels resonates. Real-time crossing (90") of 2 women from opposite sides of the screen to the other. A long plan-sequence shot like a closed-circuit surveillance camera (repeated motif in the rest of the film). Faces are too small to be identified, although one wears a nurse uniform and carry a watermelon: the porn actress (Sumomo Yozakura) of the following sequence.

Cutaway to an actual erotic videotape involving nurse, doctor and watermelon, much more colorful, soft lit, activity cadenced by a faster editing.
Tsai clashes a slow paced impressionistic moment of wordless cinema (to the extant of boredom) with the most diverting excitment (porno) that provokes a reflective conflict to the audience's expectations. A dichotomy of form and content, suppression and debauchery (porn/musical) alternated throughout the film, escalating in degrees until they merge at once, an uncensored disillusioned crude reality.

Almost a satire of the classic vaudeville tragedy opposing "wife" and "mistress" rivals, legal love and physical satisfaction. In fact they represent the existential dilemma of the central character [HE] (Lee Kang-Sheng) between faltering platonic romance and oblivious hardcore activity, two ways out of an overbearing aloof routine. The sexual triangle at the heart of the story : the innocent love interest, museum guide [SHE] (Chen Shiang-Chyi), and the pornstar live nextdoor, unaware of eachother.
Although unmarried in this fable, the protagonists engage in a very tender but passionless, attentionate and indifferent, hide-and-seek juvenile flirtatious game, unable or unwilling to attach one-another. Surreal/discontinuous atmospherical romance like in 2046 (2004/Wong).

note: the 2 lead protagonists will be refered in my text as "HE" and "SHE" for clarity.


Repeating a gimmick used in The Hole (1998) both a tender homage and burelesque mockery of cheesy Hollywood/Asian musicals, Tsai collides his "boring contemplative style" with its total opposite, a deviant entertainment. Sentimental cover songs of the 50ies moraly-correct era are lip-synched by his actors disguised with ridiculous home-made costumes, no choreography, kitsch design and sexualized imagery to pervert their original meaning.
Five musical numbers, clash of cultures and times, substitute to the words unspoken in the film with dream sequences revealing a little more about their emotional load. They are more populated than the city, maybe to emphasize the sensation of isolation of these characters.
"There’s still some incredible imagery on display here from time to time, such as when shampoo seems to enclose Lee’s head in the titular cloud or when we see him sleeping suspended over a vertiginous stairwell, but these moments are just isolated moments. Throughout, the imposing landscape of the city makes the few people that move throughout it almost feel like afterthoughts, and Tsai’s decision to frame his leads so that even when they share a frame one’s usually leaving or sleeping pays off thematically, but not really emotionally."
Jeremy Heilman
Tsai says in an interview that people are only their true self (no pretention, no dissimulation) when they are on their own, without people observing/judging, or during sex. Like in his previous films, this one effectively focuses on the protagonists when they are alone, even after their romance has begun. And when they are in presence of someone else, they do not speak, or one of them is asleep, or isolated in side of the room.

They live in the same housing project (uniformized/anti-socialization) without ever crossing path. Only outdoor could they see eachother. The clever mise-en-scene of their meeting allows to observe each of them before the other has aknowledged their presence :
She recognizes HE sleeping on the swing. SHE falls asleep waiting for him to wake up. HE wakes up and doesn't recognize her. Then SHE wakes up : uncomfortable silence. Bad timing, their disposition to open up are not coordinated and makes the relationship impossible (just like the distance between Taipei and Paris materialized this ambiguous incompatible attraction). SHE asks if he still sells watches, refering in a one-liner to the two precedent episodes of the trilogy featuring these characters (What Time is it There? 2001/The Skywalk is Gone, 2002)
Tsai initiates the dissolution of the cinema illusion, the actors we recognized as Tsai's recurrant partners are not playing a new fictional character but they are in fact coming out of a previous story. The character of the new film is surprised to meet again a character of another film, so are we. First distanciation with the fiction, Tsai distracts the audience from the conventions that the actor is not himself but a character invented by the screenwriter.


The project was originally meant to study the double-life of South Asian foreign labor, abused and exploited like under-citizens without visa, lost in a stateless limbo, confined to a marginal existence, selling soul and body for survival. They belong nowhere, incapable to return home, unwelcomed to fit in. If later extrapolated to the milieu of pornography, deviant love and perversity, which suggests a caricature of society, Tsai's latest provocation immerses a seemingly superficial romance in a social environment with comparable issues. In the first script, an aunt uncovered her nephew was a porno actor. Changed to a girlfriend due to casting problems, the role commits to a more intimate humiliation, adding jealousy to shame. She must swallow her pride to forgive if she wants to save their relationship, but is it that simple?


In the near-abstracted social anticipation, an exceptionally dry season in Taiwan drained rivers and water supplies, the price of bottled water skyrocketed, and the population fell in an arrested languor. An idealized hot dry summer. Deserted streets instill a sense of suspended apocalypse. This sunshinier weather shows the wealthy areas of an idyllic Taipei in contrast with the usual trademarks of Tsai Ming-Liang's previous films: poor, overcrowded, dirty, polluted, and derelict city with non-stop pouring rain, water leaks or overflows.
We are invited to ponder over the effects of shortage (instead of affluence) on human behavior and vital nervous functions. Tsai internalizes the cycle of water. The various overwhelming watery phenomena that drenched the body in a damp macrocosm, now simmers inside the microcosm of the body itself, like a humanly cloud. Debilitating fluid exchanges with a depleted environment cause awkward, uneasy sensations and a craving to quench desirs. The vital needs of the body are out of control like the natural elements in the sky.
Surprisingly the cinematography does not show off hot colors, sweating skins, suffocating rooms and the sound design does not resort to the clichés of omnipresent ceiling fans, noisy insects or drying/melting material. Tsai prefers to insist on the amusing everyday activity/economy to find/keep water anyplace and the slowish pace of a thirsty person. Exausted people seek a rarefied liquid inside fruits, the precious watermelon juice is cherished.


The theme of essential substitution proves particularly metaphoric (and revelatory) in light of Tsai Ming Liang's own comments on the symbolism of water in his films (as transcribed in the Editions Dis Voir publication, Tsai Ming Liang): "...I always regard the characters in my films as plants which are short of water, which are almost on the point of dying from lack of water. Actually, water for me is love, that's what they lack. What I'm trying to show is very symbolic, it's their need for love." acquarello
This clue helps greatly to decypher the symbolism and gives a whole new reading to the events in the film. Considering this equation (water = love) the body language that replaces verbalization in the film becomes more evident.
  • Thirst = desir: incarnation of an immaterial feeling into a vital physical need.
  • Water bottle = human body either filled with love or emptied, either topped with a cap or parted from a soul-mate.
  • Watermelon juice = romantism, love stream, fun, bodily fluids.
  • Full Watermelon (green, dry) = emotion, feeling, baby.
  • Cut open watermelon (red, wet) = vagina, sex.
  • Food = sex, sensuous appetite, sexual fantasy.
SHE picks up empty bottles in trash cans and steals water from the public toilet flush! She also finds a watermelon in a dirty canal. It tells about her desperate craving for love... She capitalizes/stockpiles water bottles in her fridge like in a safe/incubator.
Unlike HE who doesn't seem to worry about water conservation (love is not a concern to him).

"she forces glasses of watermelon juice on him, despite her overstock of bottled
water. " Adam Balz
This scene uses a faux "split-screen" mise-en-scene, showing the kitchen with SHE, delighted, making watermelon juice on one side and the living room with HE on the other side, trying to open the suitcase, indifferent. Again a clever way to show the protagonists on their own, while both on screen. Fed up with the watermelon overused in his porn movie, HE disposes of the juice through the window while SHE is not looking. An uncomfortable moment when HE cannot refuse the generous offer, he cannot tell why either.

In opposition to the wet orgasm of Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001/Imamura), illustrated by an hyperbolic water leak from the woman's body, the porn actress from the same country plays here with an empty bottle striving to simulate a mechanical excitation. In this scene, the mislaid cap is separated from the bottle.
A metaphor of disconnectedness, unrequited love echoed in a later scene when HE hides away from SHE in the staircase. SHE goes down and sees an opened bottle full of water abandonned (by HE), then finds a cap on the stairs below. SHE comes back to put the cap back on the bottle but the bottle has disappeared in the meantime (retrieved by HE who didn't want to be seen near where he films porno). HE hides away upstairs again, and finally throws the bottle to cut short her curiosity. The bottle spills out its precious content. The symbolic meaning is all the more interesting since it was precedented by another scene when SHE pretended to deliver a child with a watermelon hidden under her shirt. Does it mean she asks for a baby and he's scared off? It's certainly one of the reasons that hinders their relationship to a stale.

The first porn scene overtly identifies the watermelon half with sexual symbolism. The foreplay in the flesh of the fruit triggers pleasure to the nurse. Directly paralleled by SHE watching TV in a lascivious position with an opened watermelon squeezed between her thighs too, scooping it up with a spoon. Thus before they even met, both on their own. The parallel montage suggests the two actions are simulatenous as if the fantasy of SHE was enacted by HE. They are in the mood for sex, each on their own way.
SHE later licks sensuously the full watermelon in the fridge. All this food fetishism is reminiscent of the infamous Kika (1993/Almodovar) where the man sexually attrated by her eats a mandarin orange off her genitalia.

In a memorable scene, HE and SHE eat crabs they cooked together, we do not see them but their shadows on the wall (like the ghost dance in Dreyer's Vampyr, 1932), illustrated by loud suction noises and laughters (echoes of the squishy noises of the first porn scene). Visually self-censored like in erotic scenes from the Hays code era. A strong symbol of sexual intercourse through voluptuous appetite, followed by the scene underneath the table, both lying sleepy smoking a cigarette (like after making love).

(s) ++ (w) +++ (m) ++++ (i) +++ (c) +++

Berlin 2005:
Silver Bear (Outstanding Artistic Achievement) + FIPRESCI Prize
Alfred Bauer Prize for Cinematographic inovation

Official Website (french, 2 musical clips, trailer, 3 scene clips)

Coming up next :

14 commentaires:

girish a dit…

Great post, Harry.
Makes me want to see the film again; it doesn't have US distribution though.
I'm curious: what does the French title translate to? ("Saveur de la Pastèque"?).

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thanks Girish. Given the full spoilers and the small number of people who saw it this post won't interest many people... but I took so many notes I had to write it all up.

La Saveur de la Pastèque means "The Savour of Watermelon". The french poster tells what is the savour of watermelon ;)
I guess the original title, a play on word based on the american song "The Wayward Wind" has little significance in french.

Anonyme a dit…

Let me second Girish's comment -- a great write-up of one of 2005's best films.

I'm looking forward to parts 2 and 3. I've seen the film three times now and am still unsure about how to interpret the ending.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Thank you for the kind support. It's a hell to put it all in order... part 3 is ready but I need to write part 2.
Haneke's Caché is equally puzzling, but I couldn't find a way into its meaning yet.

Unfortunately I didn't see The Skywalk is Gone. Anybody found clues that link What time is it over there? with The Wayward Cloud in this short film interlude?

I'm intrigued by the tie you draw between Tsai and Tati in your 2005 top10 blog entry. I'd like to hear what you have to say about this thought-provocating comparison.
My impression was more along the lines of Woody Allen's humour (Sleeper; Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex...)

girish a dit…

Harry--I was just thinking of some common features that Tsai and Tati share: very low reliance on dialogue, carefully choreographed scenes, attention to sound design (machine-like, or industrial-age, or disembodied sounds in Tati; and I will forever associate the sound of dripping water with Tsai; in both cases the effect of sound is enhanced by the conscious withholding of dialogue; both filmmakers rely on deadpan humor).
Also, I heard Tsai speak about his admiration for Tati in a Q&A (for "What Time Is It There?").

HarryTuttle a dit…

Ok. The stylized impersonation of Hulot's burelesque threw me off, but your points make more sense to me now. This is maybe most obvious in the musical sequences (the way they move in the umbrellas or lavatory number). The comical drive is distinct though IMHO.

Filmbrain, I quoted your review in part 2 ;) I tried to turn my review into a virtual polyphonic discussion. And it's also in the comments of your entry that I found the very interesting interview referenced above.

Anyway this is just a personal interpretation. We could talk for hours about the implications suggested by this film...

HarryTuttle a dit…

The Wayward Wind - 1956
written by Herb Newman and Stan Lebowsky

Oh, the wayward wind is a restless wind
A restless wind that yearns to wander
And he was born the next of kin
The next of kin to the wayward wind

In a lonely shack by a railroad track
He spent his younger days
And I guess the sound of the outward bound
Made him a slave to his wand'rin ways

Oh, the wayward wind is a restless wind
A restless wind that yearns to wander
And he was born the next of kin
The next of kin to the wayward wind

Oh, I met him there in a border town
He vowed we'd never part
Tho' he tried his best to settle down
Now I'm alone with a broken heart

Oh, the wayward wind is a restless wind
A restless wind that yearns to wander
And he was born the next of kin
The next of kin to the wayward wind

The next of kin to the wayward wind

girish a dit…

Harry, I don't know this song.
Is it from another film?
Or associated with a particular singer/performer?
Just curious.

HarryTuttle a dit…

I don't know if this song is in the film. I can't place it... maybe the first musical number. The original soundtrack is only available in chinese online so I couldn't find the references.

But it's the song (covered by Bai Guang) that inspired the english title of the film.

I'd like to know what is the literal translation of Film's chinese title too.

If anybody knows about this, please leave a comment.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Well I remembered wrong and nobody corrects me!
- The woman in the opening shot does not pull a suitcase, so it might not be SHE.
- The Wayward Cloud cover song is not in the first musical sequence, but plays on the ending credits.

I just rewatch What Time is it Over There? and The Wayward Cloud in a row. ;)

HarryTuttle a dit…

The first meeting scene is more complicate than 3-fold as I first described above. And it's one of the most important defining scenes.

1) Audience recognize a known cinema couple.
After watching them living their lonely lives, the audience finaly sees them in the same frame. And we expect (or not) SHE to recognize HE because they met in a previous film (which is the formal distanciation Tsai initiates).
2) SHE does not recognize HE.
Instead she steals his water bottle to waste fresh water washing her dirty watermelon. It's interesting to note how convenient it is to waste somebody else's water, while she's very conservative about hers, and uses flush water to clean her feet. Again replacing water by love qualifies this attitude emotionally.
2) SHE recognizes HE
3) HE does not recognize SHE
4) SHE gives a clue
5) HE recognizes SHE.
6) The connection with another movie, through space and time, is established. Which was not evident in the plot until then. The same actors could have played new characters since their name is never mentionned.

HarryTuttle a dit…

The suitcase of Shiang-Chyi in What Time is it There? is black, and her suitcase in The Wayward Cloud is light grey.

I thought it was meant to be the same suitcase, and that the secret hidden in this pandora's box that won't open was related to her trip in Paris. Apparently not. I wonder why Tsai used a different color...

HarryTuttle a dit…

Tsai's latest film I Don't Want To Sleep Alone (2006), presented in Venice, seems to come back to the premise of the original idea he couldn't develop for The Wayward Cloud, as I noted above.

From Cineuropa: "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone tells the story of Hsiao-Kang, a Chinese homeless man who is rescued by a group of Bangladeshi workers after being attacked in the streets."

From Reuters: "[I Don't Want to Sleep Alone] explores poverty and alienation among foreign workers in Malaysia who were left jobless and homeless by the late 1990s Asian economic crisis. (...) During that time, you couldn't help noticing the number of foreign workers hanging around Kuala Lumpur in 1999. (...) Lee Kang-Sheng [portrays] a vagrant immigrant who is beaten and robbed on the city streets before being taken in by a group of Bangladeshi laborers who nurse him back to health."

HarryTuttle a dit…

An article in Spanish in Letras De Cine :

Special issue on Tsai Ming-Liang in Tren de Sombras, with an article on The Wayward Cloud (Spanish) and an article by Adrian Martin, Tsai-Fi (English).