Monday, March 21, 2005

Way Out Cloud: on Tsai Ming-liang

On a new film by Tsai Ming-liang: The Wayward Cloud or in Pinyin Mandarin: Tian bian yi duo yun.

I saw a new kind of film in Taipei yesterday, where the director, Tsai Ming-liang, stopped in for a surprise speech before the show. (Wouldn't it be great to meet the director before every film instead of sitting through the assault of those damned previews, previews evidently aimed at folks who are deaf and dumb?)

He spoke informally for a few minutes just to assure the audience that he intends the film to have redeeming social values -- as US lawmakers used to say. This seems necessary because the government in Taiwan spent 2 weeks meeting with consultants to decide whether or not to censor the film. They let it show uncut.

That is to say, don't bring your kids to see this! But actual adults will be able to see that it is not porn, but rather a critique of porn. This is a simplification, since the main theme of the film is general alienation. The wayward cloud and the drought in the film are shown to be symbolic of the emotional and interpersonal "drifting" and "dryness" that each scene highlights. The film shows how porn is merely one symptom of people's awkward and failing attempts to connect with each other on a deeper level. Another way to sum this is up is that The Wayward Cloud shows how thwarted desires seek fulfillment in all the wrong places.

The film is unusual in style, so don't expect it to imitate Hollywood conventions. It is recognizably in Tsai Ming-liang's previous quietly grim and dim style (i.e., "The Hole" and "The River" and "What Time Is It There?") but here he adds a lighter note of wit to that.

I don't usually enjoy musicals, but the handful of musical interludes in this film are delightfully surreal and humorous, and while they address heterosexuality, the aesthetic is gay in both senses of the term. I especially liked one of these, where a smiling state statue of historical dictator Chiang Kai-shek is the central prop for a tongue-in-cheek erotic song & dance troupe of lovely ladies, the object of their sensual desire. Talk about looking for love in all the wrong places! Also the music in itself is attractive since we don't usually get to hear those old songs from Shanghai in the '30s and Hong Kong in the '60s.

The final scene officially raises the bar for the visionary use of a sex scene to reflect on alienation. Those who remember the historic shock of "Last Tango in Paris" so many years ago will see what I mean by raising the bar. The Wayward Cloud will make its own peculiar mark in underground film histories.


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