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WATERMELON TIME! The Plastic Fantastic Universe of Tsai Ming Liang

The Wayward Cloud_ (Anthology Film Archives) February 23rd – March 4th

Tsai Ming Liang’s The Wayward Cloud, if not one of the best undistributed films from 2005, is arguably one of the most provocative. The quasi-fantastic premise, relayed to us by TV news reports, immediately sets an off-kilter tone: Taiwan is in the midst of a stultifying drought while the price of watermelons has dropped drastically. Yes, watermelons. And they’re selling like hotcakes! Yet in the Tsai universe, watermelons as substitute for the most vital of fluids become not only a deeply embedded symbol of emotional deficiency, but also a metonym for the female sexual organ.

Meta-sexual healing: Lee Kang Sheng & Sumomo Yozakura in Tsai Ming Liangââ?‰?¢s The Wayward Cloud. Ã?é 2004 Arena Films – Homegreen Films – Arte France Cinema

Xiao Kang, played by Tsai’s muse Lee Kang Sheng, has just gotten a job as a performer in a porn movie. We first see him on a bed with a voluptuous starlet (Japanese porn-star Sumomo Yozakura) who has a watermelon, in all its juicy red glory, fixed firmly between her legs. Their doctor and nurse costumes not only codify porno-fetish iconography, but also signify artificial treatment for metaphysical ills. Xiao Kang proceeds to gently lick, and then fervently plunge his fingers inside the watermelon, while our young starlet’s moans of pleasure increase.

One of the many characteristics that set Tsai apart from other Asian auteurs obsessed with ennui and disconnectedness is that his oeuvre has developed into a cohesive whole. Wayward Cloud picks up the story of Xiao Kang and Xiang Qi (played by Tsai stock members Lee Kang Sheng and Chen Xiang Qi respectively) that began in 2001’s What Time is it there? and continued in the 2002 short, The Skywalk is Gone (in which you see Xiao Kang audition for the porno). Xiao Kang and Xiang Qi are enamored of each other but seem incapable of ever making a lasting connection. Now, unbeknownst to Xiang Qi, Xiao Kang is filming the porno with the Japanese starlet in the same desolate apartment building where Xiang Qi lives. Xiang Qi, meanwhile, spends her time hording water she secretly collects from public toilets. This set-up, typical of Tsai, allows for several sight gags that reflect Tsai’s recurring themes of missed connections and alienation.

Doing away with conventional plot, and for the most part, dialogue, allows form to take over the story. Of course, the question is: how far can form hold our attention, especially when filtered through a lens as localized as Tsai’s? For all the apparent opaqueness of Tsai’s conceptual framing and languid sense of time (e.g. static long-takes of an empty corridor), the resultant emotions can be quite moving. While Tsai’s films are, on the surface, lurid performance-art abstractions of the romantic comedy paradigm, his dystopian vision—lost souls, deserted urban spaces, an apocalyptic crisis—effects a lingering feeling of dread.

Another singular Tsai trope is to manipulate his players like puppets within maze-like hallways, bathrooms, elevators and other awkward spaces. In Wayward, sequences shot at the junction of two corridors suggest an attempt towards intimacy that never quite makes it, such as one scene in which Xiao Kang and Xiang Qi cross paths. Xiao Kang, (rendered impotent by soul-crushing anomie), immediately straddle-climbs the hallway stage left while Xiang Qi stumbles around with her bags of groceries before standing beneath Xiao Kang to feed him snacks. The peculiar shape Tsai sculpts in this odd bit of mise en scene—from the curve of the hallways to the figure of Xiang Qi standing under the gecko-like apparition of Xiao Kang—has a haunting resonance in a modern world where basic human communication fails continually. This is followed by a scene in which the two would-be lovers (adrift like clouds, as the title might suggest) gleefully chase crabs around Xiang Qi’s kitchen, a structuralist homage to Annie Hall of all things. Comic trappings aside, the desperate, unbearable loneliness felt by the denizens of Tsai’s world is quite tragic.

Tsai’s greatest conceit in Wayward, a device he first unleashed in 1998’s The Hole, is the injection of supercharged, campy musical numbers into the already fragmented narrative. As off the wall as this may sound it makes perfect sense, since song and dance is the logical extension of Tsai’s already musical playfulness with cinematic structure. On a functional level these routines work like a Greek chorus for the characters emotional state. But on a cinematic level they are invigoratingly cathartic—pure entertainment.

The flamboyant, puerile nature of these routines is reminiscent of theatrical shock-rock group, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Yet in place of Georges Bataille-inflected posturing and ’70s hard rock, we have coquettish dancers lip-synching to charmingly antiquated Chinese pop songs. The songs are wonderful, strangely familiar pastiches of western pop and Chinese melodies. Visually each piece involves suggestive role-playing, from a ’60s girl group motif to a dominatrix, a dancing penis and more. The overall tone is decidedly ‘song’—a Taiwanese slang word that draws parallels to ‘camp.’ ‘Song’ refers to something loud, tacky, provincial and out of date. But something can be so ‘song’’ that it becomes retroactively cool. Despite impressions of the irony inextricably bound to ‘camp,’ the sentiment of Tsai’s ‘song’ aesthetic is more organic, and therefore comes off sincere and quite touching.

While Tsai grew up in a small Malaysian town, his sensibility was largely shaped by the ’60s and ’70s Mandarin films his grandparents took him to see, Hollywood inspired Technicolor musicals in particular. Indeed, Goodbye Dragon Inn was a lament for the passing of the shared experience of cinema and its golden age (represented by the King Hu sword classic Dragon Gate Inn). Tsai’s nostalgia can be equated with longing, both sexual and emotional, but nostalgia also satisfies those very feelings that Tsai’s characters are usually unable to express.

Each episode in Tsai’s cinema becomes a meditation on a specific aspect of his main themes. If earlier films focused on love or longing per se then Wayward is his sex and porn movie. With its simulacra of hardcore porn, Wayward calls to mind the recent slew of art films that incorporate real or realistic sex into their milieu (The Brown Bunny, Battle in Heaven, Anatomy of Hell, and 9 songs). Tsai’s objective seems to be twofold. First, to examine how something that should be as natural and liberating as making love becomes so perilous. Second—and something that has been perilous for Tsai in the critical eye—is to make a bold statement against pornography. His is not a moral disapproval so much as an exposé of porn as inherently false and unerotic. True to form Wayward culminates in a nerve-shattering ‘money shot’ sequence entrenched with signage that is both a prurient nightmare and a semiotician’s wet dream.


David Wilentz

David Wilentz dreams in color.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2007

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