Tsai Ming-liang’s cinema is primarily concerned with naifs and innocents, usually confronted with complex existential conditions, and with The Wayward Cloud (and arguably 2009’s Face, as well), the director offers a complete radicalization of such binary forces. Here, Tsai continues the narrative of sort-of couple Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) and Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) – the pair last seen in What Time is It There? and The Skywalk is Gone – continuing in their divergent lives, unaware that they’re occupying the same building. The film’s temporal constructs are essential: the immediate present is set during a water shortage crisis, where watermelon juice is being offered as a cheap alternative, but more broadly the film takes places in a modern-day Taiwanese society where the media broadcasting and pornography industries reign. Dialogue, always fleeting in Tsai films, is here reduced to a near ubiquitous silence – Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi only share a single line, a bit of referential establishing dialogue: “Are you still selling watches?” Sex is a passionless distraction within this ennui, and mouths are literally stuffed to maintain this silence: with pieces of watermelon during the film’s opening, comedic sex scene and with a man’s penis during the film’s brutal climax. In this way, the world of The Wayward Cloud presents sex as a cynical, failed reification of the human desire for love and connection. But Tsai’s work, in a much broader sense, is also always a synthesis of both profound simplicity and complexity, seen visually here in the way he presents acute, fixed interior shots in contrast with intricate urban spaces. The architectural structures work as a network of labyrinths – a confounding series of walkways, driveways, staircases, and rooms – confining the bodies within their claustrophobic spaces: the table under which a cramped Hsiao-kang smokes a cigarette by putting it between Shiang-chyi’s toes; a narrow video-store closet stuffed with porn DVDs; an elevator where a Japanese pornstar slips into unconsciousness, automated doors persistent in their efforts to close on present bodies.
Rather, it is Tsai’s mastery in handling so many disparate tones and modes here, from absurdist comedy to campish, dreamy musical sequences (in which characters’ verbal expressions finally manifest) to serene moments of quietude, that most enriches The Wayward Cloud.
But this establishment of place is only part of what Tsai is so intently doing with The Wayward Cloud, with the other significant parameter found in his representation of character. In one notable scene, Hsiao-keng is masturbating, and Tsai captures this moment through a close-up of Lee’s face reflected in a mirror, as if he is not just alienated from the girl he desires and oppressed by the severity of his surroundings, but also distanced from himself. This fracturedness is also later evinced in Shiang-chyi: her image is tripled in mirrors, her self schismed, as she watched Hsiao-kang film a porn scene, having forcible sex with the unconscious Japanese actress. There’s no question of this prolonged sequence’s disturbing tenor, as it ultimately ends with the first coupling of the two leads and a punctuating tear that falls from the corner of Shiang-chyi’s eye, but it isn’t just the dark power of this ending that testifies to the film’s strength. Rather, it is Tsai’s mastery in handling so many disparate tones and modes here, from absurdist comedy to campish, dreamy musical sequences (in which characters’ verbal expressions finally manifest) to serene moments of quietude, that most enriches The Wayward Cloud. In evoking the first meeting (in this film) between the Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi, in which she finds him sleeping on a swinging park bench, the film can easily be reconsidered as a mix of dream and nightmare for these two wandering souls. It’s a film that always proceeds according to dual conditions, a suggestion made in the film’s opening shot: two corridors are captured in symmetry, Shiang-chyi entering from one end and a female pornstar from the other, the conflict between love and commodified desire, two disparate women here fated to the same end.