A young man climbs on to the roof of a high-rise and carefully sneaks into a water tower. He soaps up and lazily floats in the water letting the bubbly foam slowly float away. He turns into a half-man half-fish with pearlescent, sequin scales. He raises his head out of the water and sings a sweet but maudlin song about a love who is far away. The scene finishes and we cut to a woman’s apartment below. A soap bubble plops out of the sink faucet followed by a few more and together they float into a sleeping woman’s bedroom and silently pop out of existence.
Most of Tsai Ming-liang’s 2005 movie, The Wayward Cloud is like this scene. He invents a funny, quirky world where the mood sways between deadpan hilarity and a lyrical playful romance. After an hour it begins to wear a little thin and then just as its about to end the film crashes into a horrifyingly dark and confrontational final scene.
A young man mechanically pumps his penis into the flaccid body of an unconscious actress. The two of them are are surrounded by a camera crew that looks on with cold indifference. They are making a porn movie. The scene goes on and on as he vigorously humps her like a mindless piston. Everyone involved has a lifeless sullen face. The rapist, the victim and the crew are just going through the empty motions of production.
The abrupt change from sweet to traumatic is hard to deal with. The deadpan humor throughout the film is a little dark, but its an absurdist film about how ridiculous life is. A little ribbing about meaningless followed by 15 minutes of rape is hard reconcile.
The film sets up running jokes and ridiculous themes that are such a joy to follow. Taipei is experiencing a serious drought but is overrun with watermelons. Throughout the film watermelons keep sneaking into the frame one way or another. There is a fantastic sex scene with a watermelon that deserves an Oscar, Best Supporting Fruit?
Excluding the end, there are many similarities between The Wayward Cloud and a Roy Anderson film. Tsai Ming-liang hardly ever moves his camera. There is almost no dialogue. His characters find everything a little too challenging and the mise en scène is often a whole joke in and of itself. Both directors watch their characters struggle from a distance. There is a sense of warmth and pity toward each character’s dedication. Neither director concerns themselves with much of a plot. When life is meaningless a plot is sort of pointless.
The ending of the film turns all the preceding material into a build up of small alienations and little indignities that compound until everyone involved is horrifyingly debased and crushed under the weight of their lonely agony. There is nothing wrong with the traumatic ending, its the endings relationship to the film.
It is possible that Tsai Ming-liang meant for this brutal ending to intensify the pathos of the film but there is a difference between pathos and gut wrenching horror. There is room for subjective interpretation but I doubt that Tsai Ming-liang meant for the last scene to fit the tone of the rest of the movie. It was a deliberate choice but its unclear why he made it.
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