Bright Lights Film Journal

How Sweet to Be a Cloud? Fancy and Fucking Collide in Tsai-Ming Liang’s Latest

Tsai pushes the art/porn envelope — or does he?

With The Wayward Cloud (Tian Bian Yi Duo Yun — literally “A Cloud at the Edge of the Sky,” 2004), Tsai Ming-Liang would seem on the surface to be joining an increasing list of art films depicting real sex acts performed by a mixture of porn stars and bona fide actors. There have been some admirable films crossing that line — Bertrand Bonnello’s Le Pornographe (2001), which imported porn actors for the sex scenes (and whose single money-shot proved too much for British censors); and above all Cathérine Breillat’s impressive delineation of female sexuality and its ambiguous and conflicted relationship with the male. In both Romance (1999) and Anatomy of Hell (Anatomie de l’enfer, 2004) Breillat used Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi, apparently in real sex acts with lead actress Caroline Ducey (although, perhaps thankfully, this is not so clear from the evidence of the film itself). But it may be indicative of the moral and practical issues involved that in his return in Anatomy of Hell, Breillat had to use a body double for the female partner in his sex scenes — lead actress Amira Casar not only refused but even required a disclaimer at the start of the film.

There has certainly been a decided enthusiasm on the part of some critics and cinephiles for upping the sexual “realism”; but aren’t there some problems with this? For one thing, there is the nature of cinematic representation in fictional filmmaking. Cinema is not merely the unmediated mirror of a reality already existing in front of the camera, and the films we are dealing with here all have performances by actors, the creation of a character in line with the film’s narrative that is exterior to the actor as an individual. What is this need for the sexual part of a role being done “for real,” when the non-sexual part is still being performed/created/simulated? This is irrespective of the fact that this sexual realism doesn’t succeed in better expressing the interiority that is intrinsic to the experience of the sexual act — in fact, the opposite is the case. (Breillat tries to get around this with her use of philosophising voice-overs.)

There is also the question of the nature of the relationship between the director and the actor, how this is founded on a power relationship to the advantage of the director, and the moral issues at stake where an older experienced director is, at best, encouraging young actors at the start of their career to push the envelope in this way. The recent troubles of Jean-Claude Brisseau are a case in point. Brisseau has been accused of sexual harassment in relation to the auditions he held for his Choses Secretes (2002), where he asked the young actresses involved to masturbate for him on camera. Whether the additional charges (which Brisseau denies) are true — that he masturbated at the same time and on one occasion inserted his finger in the vagina of one of the actresses — this case underlies some of the ethical dangers of this push to sexual “realism.”

With this in mind, turn to Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004). Again, the envelope has been pushed a little (actually, quite a bit) more: two bona fide if relatively unknown actors — Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley — are called upon to perform a wide range of sexual acts on camera. I have two reactions to this. Firstly, I have a real unease at the power dynamics in operation here, where a high-profile and prolific director induces, for whatever reasons and with whatever means, two younger and unknown actors to get their first big break in feature films by being filmed having sex together. Secondly, the results in the case of 9 Songs are so negligible. Even with the film’s narrative beefed up with a frame voice-over in Antarctica and nine concert sequences, the film only lasts 71 minutes — and is a dull, tiresome, and unrewarding experience. Lesson: You still need to be talking about something more than just the catalogue of sexual encounters, as Bertolucci understood with Last Tango in Paris back in 1972.

Now, on the surface it would seem that with The Wayward Cloud Tsai Ming-Liang has joined this trend of the sexually explicit/sexually “real” art movie. It’s certainly how the film in the main has been read. For example, in an intelligent but deeply unsympathetic review in The Hollywood Reporter (Feb 23, 2005), Richard James Havis addresses the film in these terms and takes Tsai to task on two counts — for his “coyness” in his presentation of the sex scenes, and for his “misogyny.” Both criticisms are indicative of responses to the film, even if Havis’s interpretation is entirely mistaken.

It’s true that, for all its scenes of a hard core porn shoot, the sex is not overly explicit — it’s hard to tell even with the two cum shots how much is faked/simulated. (But do we care?) And doesn’t this relate to Tsai’s attitude to porn? That attitude, as gradually becomes apparent, is one of deep, moral disapproval.

The world of The Wayward Cloud is in fact firmly in the mode Tsai has delineated in his work to date: a depopulated urban space that isolates the individual characters as they struggle and often fail to make a connection with another individual. The first shot is highly characteristic: a long-take, wide shot of an empty pedestrian underpass, empty until a woman appears slowly walking from right to left, then answered by a second woman (a nurse, it appears, carrying a watermelon!) walking equally slowly from left to right until she exits and we’re left again with the empty underpass. (We might not realise it at the time but this also marks the appearance of the two female leads.)

The film’s story is a straight continuation of What Time Is It There? (2001), with the same lead actors reprising their roles. This time, Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi) has returned from her less than successful trip to Paris, and Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) has changed jobs — as a subsequent short, The Skybridge Is Gone (2002), revealed — from street vendor to porn actor. Shiang-Chyi is now living in the same apartment building where — unknown to her — Hsiao Kang’s porn film is being shot (with his partner played by a genuine Japanese porn actress, Sumomo Yazukura).

The film also works as a continuation of The Hole (1998), in its use of fantasy playback dance-and-song sequences using cheesy old Mandarin pop songs. To my mind these scenes work better than in the earlier film, being more firmly integrated with the main narrative, where one motif (for example, Hsiao Kang bathing) is played on in the playback sequence (Hsiao Kang as a merman); or an aspect of the story (Hsiao Kang’s difficulties in arousing himself) is reflected in the sequence (Hsiao Kang as a dancing penis).

There’s a nice touch in the way Tsai bridges into the second playback sequence. After Hsiao Kang has dug Shiang-Chyi’s key out of the tarseal, he moves off-screen, and the camera holds on the dug-up road as water wells up and the music swells up on the soundtrack; within a single shot we shift from the real world to fantasy. This particular playback sequence has the added pleasure, too, of watching female singers camping up around (even stroking the legs of) a statue of Chiang Kai-Shek.

As usual with Tsai, the narrative details are developed obliquely, through short, discrete, often even cryptic scenes. It takes some time, for example, to piece together why Shiang-Chyi is dragging her unopened suitcase around, and why she’s shown in one scene going outside her building at night where some workmen are working on the street. The scenes are related, but Tsai only reveals the connection very slowly: only very much later, after Shiang-Chyi has met up with Hsiao Kang and got his help, do we realise that Shiang-Chyi must have dropped her key in the wet tarseal and now she can’t open the suitcase.

As a contrast to Taipei’s characteristic rain — apocalyptic in The Hole, the standard thunderous downpour in Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) — the city is now suffering from a serious drought with cuts in the water supply. The watermelon is the motif for this drought, a ready source of liquid refreshment that a TV news report also promotes as a sign of love, a gift for your loved one. The use of watermelons in the porn shoot scenes — from the news report we cut to a shot of the porn actress, her body smeared with watermelon — then provides a distorted, parodic mirror-image of this, underlying Tsai’s concept of porn as similarly distorted and inauthentic. In the film’s second shot, the watermelon assumes a metonymic value: the porn actress lies on her back, her legs splayed apart with between them a watermelon half, which Hsiao Kang then probes with his fingers. This is Tsai’s approach to depicting porn in The Wayward Cloud, simultaneously comic/parodic and aestheticised, and very far from “hard core.”

This comic/parodic approach continues with other scenes devoted to the porn shoot. Tsai’s emphasis is on the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise. There are the cramped conditions of a standing fuck scene in a bathtub, with the camera crew right up close to the actors, desperately passing bottles of water to one another to simulate the effects of shower water, with everything abruptly abandoned as the water runs out (there’s a drought, after all) and the actress comically concerned about her missing eyelash. Or there’s a scene where the actress’s “erotic” masturbation with a water bottle ends with her losing the cap inside herself; or the more desperate scene of Hsiao Kang frantically trying to arouse himself before the shoot.

Hsiao Kang and Shiang-Chyi’s developing relationship offers a pointed contrast to these porn shoot scenes. For one thing, we are never shown any sex between the two (excluding the final sequence, crucial to any interpretation of the film). There’s even a scene where the two are explicitly depicted in resistance to the porn around them: in a video store, although they pull one porn DVD after another off the packed shelves and start kissing passionately to the point where Shiang-Chyi drops to her knees and unbuckles Hsiao Kang’s pants, Hsiao Kang stops her from going any further and simply hugs her intensely. This intense hug is repeated outside as they slowly make their way home, her feet planted on his. This seems to be Hsiao Kang’s act of resistance to the mechanism of the porn around them in the video store.

This certainly reinforces the emotional effect of an earlier scene where, after eating a crab dinner together (portrayed by Tsai only through their shadows on the wall), the two lie under the dining table and Hsiao Kang plays with a cigarette in Shiang-Chyi’s foot. It’s the film’s most erotically-charged moment, and a moment of emotional intensity too.

The Hollywood Reporter‘s charge of misogyny must, I assume, refer to the film’s final sequence; although rather than any misogyny, what we get is a very explicit critique of the whole porn enterprise. Shiang-Chyi returns home to find the porn actress collapsed in the lift and drags her into her apartment; her comatose body is then retrieved and taken back to the apartment where the porn film is being shot. (It’s one of the many opaque or simply confusing details of this final section of the film that we’re unclear who contacts who. At this point Shiang-Chyi doesn’t know that, or where, a porn film is being shot in her apartment building, let alone that Hsiao Kang is acting in it; so how do the porno production staff know where the actress is?)

In the way this scene develops Tsai makes very explicit his view of porn as mechanistic and exploitative, a male-centred enterprise that objectifies women and misses the essential emotional component of the sex act. The men clean up the comatose woman, Hsiao Kang readies himself, and the porn shoot continues; and Tsai uses the geography of the apartment to give us a split-screen effect, with Hsiao Kang fucking the unconscious woman on the right hand of the screen, and Shiang-Chyi — now arrived on the scene — standing outside the room, observing, on the left.

Tsai’s perspective on this scene, his critical view, is made abundantly clear in the way his camera dollies in towards a life-size cardboard cut-out of two China Airlines stewardesses as the men busy themselves inside cleaning up the unconscious actress: an explicit comment on the objectification of Woman taking place in the room next door. Shiang-Chyi now joins the cut-out, the women, so to speak, placed together. Prior to this, she is shown as being upset, if not angry on discovering that Hsiao Kang is the male porn actor here. From now we have this split-screen effect, with the men inside and the women (Shiang-Chyi and the cut-out) outside.

Tsai’s view of the male behaviour on display here is abundantly clear, but, to be honest, Shiang-Chyi’s motivation is anything but. After Shiang-Chyi has brought the comatose porn star into her apartment, she sits on the floor in front of the TV eating from the split-open watermelon until she recognises the porn actress from a bag of porn DVDs and VCDs that she’s browsing through.

So now, we’re given a shot of Shiang-Chyi in the foreground, staring close at the TV screen; the half-eaten watermelon half in the middle distance; and the unconscious Japanese woman on the floor in the background. As far as the watermelon is concerned, we remember that through the film the watermelon has been associated with romance (the TV appeals at the start of the film), fecundity (one scene where Shiang-Chyi play-acts pregnancy with a whole watermelon), and eroticism (the use of watermelon in the porn shoot; a scene where Shiang-Chyi licks the smooth outside of a whole watermelon she keeps in the fridge).

Here, the now-eaten watermelon seems to reinforce the erotic experience Shiang-Chyi is going through: she is staring intently, with fascination it seems, at the porn film playing on the TV, a porn film that is disembodied from the world around her (both the watermelon and the actress lie abandoned on the floor behind her) and which will be played out in reality before her very eyes in the following scene. There, she will stand at an internal window and watch Hsiao Kang being filmed as he fucks the unconscious woman, until she herself is drawn into the experience, their eyes meeting as she begins to moan in the woman’s place.

Shiang-Chyi and Hsiao Kang seem to be making a connection here, that draws them together and takes them beyond the confines of what is occurring within this apartment right now. Yet as Shiang-Chyi’s imitation of a porn actress’s sex-moanings gets louder and louder, doesn’t this turn into a scream — a scream at rather than with Hsiao Kang?

It’s at this point that Hsiao Kang, about to climax, stands up and thrusts himself into Shiang-Chyi’s mouth — this is all viewed from behind Hsiao Kang, so that we’re given a shot of his sweaty buttocks and the sounds only of Shiang-Chyi’s choking-swallowing. And the following shots, the film’s final ones, are sombre in the extreme. First, a low-angle one of Hsiao Kang leaning against the wall, moaning slightly (in despair?), a hollow shell of a man. Then, a long close-up of the side of Shiang-Chyi’s face which holds for the time it takes for a tear to slowly emerge and slide down. And finally, in the last shot, the whole narrative freezes in the same way that the characters freeze: we are left with a final wide-shot of Hsiao Kang and Shiang-Chyi, viewed from behind her, frozen in this sexual “embrace” as she finally drops the porn actress’s shoe that she has been holding all this time, then slowly drops her arms one after the other: an image of defeat. And standing to the side, as if in rebuke, is the cut-out of the China Airlines stewardesses.

These final scenes offer a confusing and perplexing turn to The Wayward Cloud‘s story. (It’s also disappointing for an audience that wants to read a romanticism into the relationship between these characters from What Time Is It There?) The critical portrayal of pornography is consistent enough with what has gone before, just made more explicit, but the change to Shiang-Chyi’s character is almost too radical. Is this Tsai’s view of sexuality? Or just of heterosexuality? Or the effect of pornography on the couple? The sexual act is reduced to an empty, mechanistic one that in the end destroys the woman (represented by the unconscious actress, Shiang-Chyi’s tears, the cut-out). With The Wayward Cloud Tsai has given us a serious, even moralistic film, with a profoundly gloomy and dismal view of sexuality and the sex act. It is another superb piece of filmmaking from Tsai Ming-liang, even if this time we might be inclined to resist its final confused and confusing message.