I had a brief exchange with my friend, Kevin Lee a couple of days ago, in which he was composing his "best of the decade" list and I casually mentioned that I hadn't seen any films by Ming-liang Tsai, one of his favorite filmmakers. Most of these blind spots are reserved for filmmakers of recent vintage and are the result of spotty distribution of recent foreign films in North America, and some of them are deliberate. After my experience with Abbas Kairostami, another of Kevin's favorites, I've been, well, kind of avoiding Tsai. Not necessarily because I'm using Kevin as a barometer, mind you--I've greatly enjoyed the Hsiao-hsien Hou films I've seen at his recommendation--but mostly because descriptions of his work tend to mix the words "minimalist" and "transgressive" a little too liberally. Anyway, Kevin's surprise at my admission kinda sorta impelled me to seek out something by Tsai, and the most immediately available film for me was The Wayward Cloud from 2005.
Which was probably not the best place to start.
Anyway, the first shot in the film is long, characteristic of a minimalist director. The second shot, however, is something else entirely. Here are a couple of screen caps from this shot (well, actually, I think it's from the third shot, but they're similar enough):
To which, my brain started going: "What the fuck am I watching?"
The story here involves two people who are drawn to each other during an acute water shortage in Taipei, with the male half of the couple concealing his career as a porn star. The long-take, minimalist idiom at work here, combined with the text of the movie, is fairly alienating, but unlike some alienating movies, this film is ultimately about connections. That the connection involved involves fairly explicit sex is almost beside the point, until the end of the movie, in which the connection becomes literalized with an on-screen oral copulation. I never thought I'd see a blow job that could be considered "touching" in a movie, but this comes close. It is placed, however, on the other side of a sequence of profound nastiness. Our hero's Japanese co-star finds herself unconscious for the last quarter of the movie, but that doesn't stop the filmmakers from using her to complete their porn film. The sight of a man fucking an unconscious woman, whoever she is, is so troubling that it kind of makes the ultimate end of the movie ring a bit hollow, if not a more than a bit misogynistic. Maybe that's the point.
Oh, and this is a musical. Really.
The rhythms of this films are such that the musical numbers are particularly jarring, though not necessarily out of place. Some of the imagery in these sequences is striking, and for the most part they got me wondering whether a movie that cries out for some variety of gonzo film making really benefits from a minimal approach. I'm not really sure. In fact I'm not really sure about what I think of this movie generally. It certainly makes an impression, but I'm not sure it says anything that I can hold on to. I do know that the film has terrific moments that I can hold on to, like a scene in which several live crabs escape into a kitchen, and a foot fetish scene that would make Tarantino weep. Is this the point? To take the moments when they come? Maybe.
I dunno: whenever the art house and exploitation intersect like this all bets are off.