Tsai Ming-Liang, 2005
Over the past decade Chinese language film has seen a renaissance, with an increasing number of films seeing worldwide distribution and critical success. The most famous director to have emerged is Taiwanese Oscar winner Ang Lee, who has touched upon increasingly controversial and taboo subjects in his films culminating in the most recent film to hail from his native land, Lust, Caution, a film which gained notoriety through it’s explicit sex scenes. One director who has enjoyed massive success in Taiwan but has seen significantly less attention abroad is Tsai Ming-Liang, a director who like Ang Lee has continued to approach taboo subjects in an increasingly graphic manner, with arguably his best work so far being The Wayward Cloud.
The Wayward Cloud continues the story of the characters of Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) and Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi) from Ming-Liang’s previous film What Time is it There. Set in the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, the story chronicles the couples relationship during a massive heat wave that has in turn caused a water shortage, leading the government to issue news bulletins suggest that citizens hydrate themselves by drinking the juice contained within the watermelons that appear to be available in abundance.
These melons become the recurring visual motif in the film, repeatedly being employed for a variety of scenes. There is a large musical sequence in which the streets of the city are filled with umbrellas featuring a watermelon print, in another scene the river flowing through the city becomes mysteriously filled with watermelons and there is of course the ever present glasses of watermelon juice being drank by their characters. As the film is primarily free of dialogue, filmed using long takes and largely static shots, the brightly coloured fruit helps to create a visually arresting Mise-en-scène and their often unexplained presence adding to the surreal fantasy of the film. The watermelons also give way to many of the films more comic scenes, such as when a woman who has been washed in watermelon juice realises she is covered in ants and is forced to strip nude in a crowded elevator.
There most unusual deployment comes however during many of the films graphic sex scenes, including the opening ten minutes in which two characters have sex whilst the woman holds one half of a sliced watermelon between her legs. Once the contents from inside the melon are all but gone, the empty shell is then placed on the mans head for the continuation of the scene. This fetishization of food is most prominent in when it is directly linked with sex in this manner but can bee seen throughout all the film, with the inclusion of numerous shots of things such as lingering close ups of noodles crackling as sauce is poured onto them.
Perhaps most interesting is the lack of dialogue in the film. Despite the focus of the film being on the relationship between Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-Chyi, barely a word is spoken between the central characters, with Hsiao-Kang failing to utter a single line of dialogue throughout the whole film, with the only time we hear his voice being during the musical sequences. One particular musical number occurs when he sneaks onto the roof of his apartment block to bath in it’s water tank, here he sings of his desire to fall in love. Whilst he is only capable of expressing himself physically through his sex scenes with Shiang-Chyi these interludes give the viewer an insight into the feelings of the characters, and gives the film the emotional core that the static, silent approach taken throughout the rest of the film cannot deliver.
These sequences are unique in that by exposing the characters inner desires they serve a purpose outside of simply offering the entertainment of the fantastical dance sequences in the musicals Hollywood has to offer. As China continues to grow in it’s stature so too will it’s film industry, and with it’s newly granted freedoms it’s filmmakers will hopefully continue to push the envelope of what is acceptable in cinema, creating ever more experimental and controversial films.
words by pete bond.