Much of the buzz overheard all over the festival today is about Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud (Tian bian yi duo yun), which had its premiere yesterday. There seems to be a split right down the middle, and for every "disgusting", "sexist", and "vile" there are equal portions of "daring", "brilliant", and "masterpiece". Though masterpiece might be too high a praise, the film certainly stands out amongst other competition films -- many of which are plain, simple, festival movies.
As mentioned earlier, the film is a quasi-sequel to Tsai's 2001 film, What Time is it There? The Wayward Cloud finds Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) returning to Taiwan from Paris (big suitcase and all). She coincidentally meets up with former watch seller Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), and the two begin a relationship. What Shiang-chyi doesn't realize is that Hsiao-kang is now working as an actor in porno films, which are being made in the apartment upstairs from her.
At the same time, Taiwan is in the midst of a terrible drought, and much of Shiang-chyi's time is spent collecting plastic bottles of water from wherever she can find them. (The exact opposite of The Hole, where it was non-stop rain.) The local government is pushing watermelon on the people, telling them to drink the juice as an alternative to water.
Many of Tsai's signature themes are at work here -- alienation, the inability for people to connect, loneliness, etc. Dialog is kept to a minimum -- there are probably less than ten lines in the entire film -- yet as always Tsai manages to say so much without words. As incredible as it is to watch Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang's relationship develop non-verbally, the meaning behind their actions (and reactions) during the final sequence is not entirely clear, or at least open to debate. (Surely this is exactly as Tsai intended, hence all the discussion today.)
The film also contains several musical sequences, with characters lip-syncing to Chinese pop songs of the 60s, as he did in The Hole, though they are far more lavish here, with most having a porno theme to them. Fun, light-hearted moments (catchy tunes, too) that leave you unprepared for what follows.
In the press conference, Tsai stated his position as pro-erotic, but anti-pornography, which he finds mechanical and without feeling. Though this is evident in the film, it doesn't fully explain what his intentions were with the ending. Disturbing in its own right, it's made all the worse when you consider this film as a continuation of What Time is it There? So upsetting was it, that for a while Filmbrain felt as if Tsai had betrayed his audience. This isn't the case of course, but so strong were his feelings during the sequence. An ending one would expect to find in a Gaspar Noé film, but not one from Tsai Ming-liang. (Speaking of which, not since Irreversible has Filmbrain felt physically ill while watching a film -- it probably didn't help matters that he was sitting in the third row.) There was much nervous laughter from the audience during those final moments, which, while understandable, made the whole experience even more disturbing.
The Wayward Cloud is an incredibly rewarding experience, and the best film in Competition that Filmbrain has seen. It might not be as perfect a film as What Time is it There?, but it's close. It's a shame that so few other films in competition are as challenging as this one.
Now let's see if anybody picks this up for distribution in the States. This is a film that simply must be seen. You'll never think of watermelon the same way again.