France / Taiwan / People’s Republic of China, 2004. Colour, with English subtitles.
The screening at the Leeds International Film Festival was accompanied by an introduction from the director and scriptwriter Tsai Ming-Liang [with a translator]. This was an engaging little talk as the filmmaker expressed his pleasure in visiting the Hyde Park Cinema. It reminded him of ‘a special kind of memory’ from his youth. He also won my approval by saying that he preferred his film to be seen in the 35mm format rather than on DVD. He did warn the audience that the film contains some shocking scenes, dealing with sex and violence. But he promised there would also be the pleasure of some beautiful ‘old Chinese music.’
The film is set in modern Tapei in Taiwan. Currently there is both a severe water shortage and a glut of watermelons. The former is expensive and rare, the latter ubiquitous. At the start of the film there is a scene with two of the main characters, an unnamed young woman and Hsiao-Kang. They are involved in a fairly explicit sex scene, with a watermelon as a crucial prop. Later I realised that they were actually performing for a pornographic film. Such scenes recur throughout the movie. At times we see the girl and Hsiao-Kang separately trying to achieve a climax: the only time he succeeds is unintentionally, when he has to ‘withdraw’ whilst filming. Presumably it is against porn ‘rules’ for the male protagonist to actually ejaculate in the female. Meanwhile, there is a third main character, another young woman, Shiang-Chyi. She spends much of her time collecting plastic bottles, which she films with water at every available opportunity. It transpires that Shiang-Chyi and Hsiao-Kang are old acquaintances. [It seems that both appeared in earlier films of the director, and apparently this film picks up on these]. When not involved in porn film-making Hsiao-Kang visits Shiang-Chyi’s apartment, but they do not get round to having sex.
Late in the film Shiang-Chyi finds the unconscious girl porn star by the lift in her apartment block. She drags her into the apartment. Unable to rouse her she watches a porn DVD and recognises both the girl and Hsiao-Kang acting in the film. The porn film director appears and Shiang-Chyi helps him carry the still unconscious girl back to the apartment used for filming. Here she watches as Hsiao-Kang has violent sex with the comatosed girl whilst the crew film them. A sudden cut changes the action to Hsaio-Kang having oral sex with Shiang-Chyi through a wooden lattice. He appears to ejaculate into her mouth. The film ends.
The early sex scenes, [which appeared to me to be actual sex] were quite funny to watch. But gradually the recurring scenes became as repetitious and monotonous as actual porn movies. Quite possibly this is a deliberate ploy. However, the final scene, with the limp, unconscious girl being pummelled and pumped by Hsaio-Kang struck me as quite appalling to watch. This also seemed to be the response of the watching Shiang-Chyi. But the sudden cut to oral sex between her and Hsiao-Kang seemed to completely displace that, both in terms of plot and of any critical comment on the action. There is some point made here: Hsiao-Kang achieves the orgasm which he was singularly denied earlier in the film. What that might intend I am not sure?
I struggled to find some sort of salutary point of view in this film. There are possible interpretations that could have the film commenting on pornography, sex as a commodity and even the repressive social situation in which these event occur. But the film’s overall tone and presentation fail to make that point. The interesting context regarding the contradictory rise and fall of water and melons also seemed to fade away in the later stages of the film.
The festival catalogue reproduces comments on the film that run, “a surreal, erotic and outrageous musical drama and one of Tsai’s finest films.” If I can comment on these in turn.
I did not find any surrealist sensibility in this film. The Surrealists saw the world of dreams and the unconscious as an alternative reality. But I failed to discern such an alternative here. I did not even find the film erotic, pornography rarely is. The best surrealist art shocks but it also illuminates issues like sexuality.
And I did not think the film was really a musical. There are a number of musical interludes offering both song and dance, but they are insertions into the film, the songs do not seem to dramatise the characters or their situations. The songs were in Chinese, but they all appeared to be ‘remakes’ of popular North American songs from the 1950s, with new lyrics. The final number, The Wayward Cloud, is actually a version of The Wayward Wind, which I remember from my youth. [The music and original lyrics have been running through my head ever since].
I have not seen any of Tsai Ming-Liang’s other films, so this may indeed be his best work. But I find it really inferior to the films of other major Taiwanese filmmakers. Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian, 1991, restored to its original version in 2009) deals with youth, sexuality and alienation, and is at times genuinely disturbing. But I found its comment on relationships and violence much more powerful than this film. And if I can refer to a genuine surrealist film, Belle de Jour, (Luis Buñuel, 1967) deals with sex as commodity and fetishism, but subversively.
The director is quoted in the catalogue on his work and film; “sex has prominently featured in my films. I am the first Chinese director to shoot masturbation . . . Sex to me is completely normal thing, but in Chinese communities it is a taboo . . . When I was making The Wayward Cloud, I felt that society’s attitude to sex had matured thanks to video, cable TV, the Internet, where porn is in abundance.”* Whilst I can sympathise with objections to sexual taboos, I do not think that easily available pornography is a step forward. The director does not explain what was the function of ‘shooting masturbation’. And I remain unclear as to why there was so much explicit pornographic material in The Wayward Cloud. I find it disturbing that the film’s conclusion offers the transition from effective rape to what appears to be consensual oral sex. My response presumably sounds moralistic. I note that pornography tends to present itself as amoral, and that this film [perhaps not intentionally] appears to do the same. The filmmaker’s comments suggest that he believes that merely revealing what was forbidden offers a critical stance. I would suggest that the presentation and the context are crucial to a critical standpoint. The presentation in this film does not seem very different from actual pornography and the context fades away as the film develops.