According to the blurb from the Guardian on my DVD of The Wayward Cloud, Tsai Ming-Liang’s 2005 film (which screens at MOMA tonight ) consists of “high comedy, high-camp musical numbers and a vast amount of hardcore porn,” a description that rather misses the point entirely. Setting aside the fact that this list makes the work sound like an adults-only variety show and the fact the film’s “comedy” is dry to the point of being almost indiscernible and eventually disappears from the picture entirely, there’s the more pressing matter of the misapprehension of Tsai’s treatment of pornography (i.e., it’s not simply presented for the viewer’s titillation), an understanding of which is central to an appreciation of the film.
Continuing the adventures of his perennial protag, the nearly mute Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), Cloud picks up where the director’s 2002 short The Skywalk is Gone left off, with his hero, deprived of his prior means of livelihood, taking a job as a porn star. Against an eerily depopulated urban backdrop — distorted by the director’s near-constant wide-angle framings — in which a nation’s spiritual desiccation is made literal (Taipei is afflicted by a devastating drought), Hsaio-Kang mechanically goes about his job in a series of sequences whose erotic potential is always undercut by Tsai’s focus on process. So as our hero fucks furiously on, his ass pumping up and down like a piston, the camera crew stands right above him, pouring water on a woman (in true Oedipal fashion, the actress who plays Hsiao-Kang’s mother in the director’s previous films) to simulate a shower scene, or manually adjusting the positioning of the actors as they pound away.
By the time of The Wayward Cloud — Tsai’s 7th film featuring Hsiao-Kang — the hero’s sexual alienation has become complete. Shunning any physical contact not related to his profession, he prefers to jerk off to dirty pictures rather than subject himself to a woman’s touch. So when he reunites with his perennial love interest, Chen Shiang-Chyi, the two share some surprisingly joyous moments together — cooking, re-enacting scenes from Annie Hall and, with a slight variation, Mystery Train, and generally warding off the apocalypse — but, tainted by his profession, Hsiao-Kang is unable to engage his partner in any kind of physical expression. At least, that is, until the film’s infamous (and much-discussed) concluding sequence, in which the ultimate in sexual debasement gives way at last to an odd, and utterly sad consummation between the two lovers. Finally, The Wayward Cloud feels like an endpoint, a particular line of inquiry taken to its logical limit and, if Tsai’s follow-up I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone seems like a retrenchment rather than any kind of advance, then his eagerly awaited Visages promises at least a tentative step in a new direction.