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The Wayward Cloud

Devotees of Taiwan auteur Tsai Ming-liang, and gay auds in search of campy exotica, may get their jollies from "The Wayward Cloud," but there's not much of a silver lining for anyone else in this painfully jokey paean to social alienation and frantic masturbation, jazzed up with a handful of musical numbers.

With:
With: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-ching, Yang Kuei-mei, Yozakura Sumomo, Hsiao Huan-wen, Lin Hui-xun, Jao Kuo-xuan, Peggy Wu Jazz Dance Company. (Mandarin dialogue)

Devotees of Taiwan auteur Tsai Ming-liang, and gay auds in search of campy exotica, may get their jollies from “The Wayward Cloud,” but there’s not much of a silver lining for anyone else in this painfully jokey paean to social alienation and frantic masturbation, jazzed up with a handful of musical numbers. Largely ditching his moody, ultra-contemplative style in favor of shock sexual content, pic spins a slight story between a young porno actor and neurotic museum attendant into an initially entertaining but finally tiresome hymn to self-absorption and misogyny. Colorful packaging will ensure some commercial exposure.

Followers of Tsai’s oeuvre will have no problem positioning this one, which plays like the flip side of his 1998 “The Hole” but with the characters of “What Time Is It Over There?” (2001, also co-produced by France’s Arena Films). Whereas “Hole” took place in a roach-infested Taipei drenched by endless rain, “Cloud” is set in a blistering heat wave where water has become scarce.

As in “Hole,” Tsai breaks up his look at two obsessive, alienated people in the same apartment block with campy, highly colored musical routines set to well-known Mandarin songs of the ’50s. Numbers only peripherally comment on the central story, and are largely there for light relief, with deliberately cheesy choreography. One song (“Everlasting Love”), with large artificial flowers and four singers writhing around a statue of Chiang Kai-shek, makes self-consciously cheeky fun of the late KMT leader.

Pic opens with a lengthy scene that pretty much sums up the pic’s attitude to sex and sexuality. A Japanese woman (Yozakura Sumomo), dressed as a nurse, lies on a bed with half a melon between her legs while a guy (Lee Kang-sheng), dressed as a doctor, graphically works the fruit’s pulpy red flesh. Only later is it made clear that the guy, Hsiao-kang, is a porno actor.

Meanwhile, in the same block, a girl, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi), seems to have just returned from a trip abroad, as she’s lost the key to her suitcase and is going nuts trying to find it. Eventually, she and Hsiao-kang meet up, and in the only real line of dialogue in the whole movie (apart from some brief remarks by supporting characters), she asks him, “Are you still selling watches?” Those who’ve seen “Time” — but no one else — will realize they’re the same characters: she’s back from Paris, and he’s changed jobs to make adult movies.

Between the five musical numbers, Hsiao-kang helps Shiang-chyi with her suitcase problem, the pair catch errant crabs in her kitchen (in a presumed homage to “Annie Hall”), the Japanese porno actress is found comatose (or dead) in the elevator, and Shiang-chyi discovers the moaning she can hear in the apartment above is Hsiao-kang making his living as an actor.

Despite the considerable amount of (visually tame) heterosexual sex in the movie, and tiny jokes stretched to extreme length, the overall flavor of the film is distinctly homoerotic. To a woman, the female characters are all stripped of any real sexuality and are constantly degraded or made fun of. The lengthy finale, which has to be seen to be believed, is among the most misogynistic in Tsai’s career.

Early scenes as the characters obsessively move around the city or apartment block promise an almost Tati-esque humor. But as the film winds on, and even the musical numbers start to lose freshness, that promise is never fulfilled.

Tech credits are good, with framing and compositions conjuring up a partially brighter but no less claustrophobic Taipei as in “The Hole.” Performances are in line with pic’s content — not much going on, apart from mannerism.

Title comes from the ending song sung by famous ’50s chanteuse Bai Guang, referring to “a heartless love, with no earthly bond.”

The Wayward Cloud

France-Taiwan

Production: An Arena Films (France)/Homegreen Films (Taiwan) presentation of an Arena Films production, in association with Homegreen Films. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Bruno Pesery. Executive producer, Vincent Wang. Directed, written by Tsai Ming-liang.

Crew: Camera (color), Liao Pen-jung; editor, Chen Sheng-chang; songs, various; production designer, Yip Kam-tim; costume designer, Sun Hui-mei; sound (Dolby Digital), Tu Duu-chih, Tang Shiang-chu; choreography, Peggy Wu. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 15, 2005. Running time: 112 MIN.

With: With: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-ching, Yang Kuei-mei, Yozakura Sumomo, Hsiao Huan-wen, Lin Hui-xun, Jao Kuo-xuan, Peggy Wu Jazz Dance Company. (Mandarin dialogue)

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