Presenting as a bizarre jigsaw puzzle of slow cinema motifs, surrealist musical numbers, a looming climate crisis, and highly explicit sex, Tsai Ming-Liang’s Tian bian yi duo yun (The Wayward Cloud, 2005)  – one of his most audacious works – provides us with a plethora of clues and illuminations about the declining state of our postmodern world and what it means to be intimate in the wake of mass alienation and isolation.

The Wayward Cloud finds us revisiting many of Tsai’s familiar themes and consistent motifs, his symbolic obsession with water in particular. In his debut feature, Qing shao nian nuo zha (Rebels of the Neon God, 1992), a couple’s home is flooded, in He liu (The River, 1997) a polluted river is the carrier of a mysterious illness that relentlessly afflicts the main character whilst his father tries to patch up a leak in their family home, and in Bu san (Goodbye, Dragon Inn, 2003) rain pours torrentially outside an iconic movie theatre. In The Wayward Cloud, it is the lack of water in a drought-stricken Taipei that serves as the film’s impetus. In Tsai’s universe, it is clear this drought is about more than just literal water scarcity and is a metaphorical reflection of a culture that is itself dry, arid, and emotionally stagnant, pervaded by a scarcity of expression and vibrance. 

Cue the humble watermelon. In the opening of the film, a woman walks through an underpass and rounds the corner while another woman, dressed in a nurse’s outfit, carries a watermelon; a seemingly innocuous act not yet loaded with the connotations and innuendo that are about to be placed on this everyday object. We then cut to a clinical looking bedroom, where this watermelon has been cut in half and placed between the nurse’s legs; the sex scene that unfolds introducing us to the fetishistic treatment of this object. This is intercut with news reports where we are told that watermelons, being incredibly cheap and accessible, are an essential source of hydration. They are also used as a sort of communication device, a declaration of love between young people who are too shy to verbally express their feelings. This continues to be intercut with the explicit sex scene (which is in fact a porn movie shoot), juxtaposing the innocent crushes expressed through exchanges of watermelon with an aggressive, even violent sexuality – the watermelon becoming an object of both perverse sexuality and absolute necessity.    

The love interests at the centre of the film are Hsiao-Kang, played by Tsai’s muse and long-term collaborator Lee Kang-Sheng who features in every one of the filmmaker’s feature films, and Chen Shiang-Chyi, a recurring face in Tsai’s filmography. The two characters appeared together previously as ill-fated lovers in the director’s much more narratively coherent Ni na bian ji dian (What Time is it There?, 2001), placing this as a loose sequel. The two meet again by chance in a park, where, in an otherwise mute relationship, the only line of dialogue between them is spoken – another fundamental aspect of Tsai’s cinema. Though both ache for affection, the two have a very different connection to their own sexuality. Shiang-Chyi’s physicality is awkward, unaware, and detached, and although her embodiment is almost infantile, Shiang-Chyi thirsts for connection while being largely sexually repressed. On the other end of the spectrum, Hsiao-Kang, who we learn early on is a porn actor, is oversaturated with sex to the point of the act itself becoming mechanical and lifeless. The two struggle to consummate their relationship as they inwardly battle questions of purity and degradation. 

This struggle of human sexuality is perhaps the most prevalent concern in Tsai’s work. Characters most certainly desire sexual intimacy but are almost always left feeling unfulfilled by their experiences. Fuelling much of the controversy around the filmmaker’s work, Tsai’s approach to depicting sex is fearlessly unabashed and shows sex in a naturalistic, almost documentary-like fashion. Although the spectator is positioned as a voyeur, the sex that is shown is not particularly sexy or sensual, and it is certainly not a reflection of love. Speaking on the topic, Tsai says: “If you look at real life, sex is difficult… Nowadays, human and sexual relationships are even more complex… It’s rarely joyful.”1 One can’t help but feel that Tsai, particularly in The Wayward Cloud, is responding to the explosion of internet porn in the early 2000s, something that continues to impact real-world relationships. And though other forms of cinema and pornography aim to deliver the ultimate fantasy of sex, Tsai is much more interested in dispelling these illusions. Revealing the artifice of such constructions in The Wayward Cloud, he shows the pornography crew making these scenes, thus erasing any sense of eroticism that may be transferred to the viewer.   

Hsiao-Kang and Shiang-Chyi’s ongoing experience of alienation and isolation is heightened by Tsai’s distinct treatment of spatial and temporal properties. Crafted with the collaboration of cinematographer Liao Pen-Jung, whom he has worked with throughout his career, Tsai creates a sense of de-identification in urban landscapes and architectural spaces where a particular city is stripped of its defining features. It could be anywhere or nowhere. There is also a rejection of stylised montage. Instead, cuts are few and the camera coverage is dominated by static, lingering shots. In The Wayward Cloud, either Hsiao-Kang or Shiang-Chyi regularly appear as the sole figure in an otherwise uninhabited shot. When appearing with another character, they are commonly placed between some sort of barrier. For example, when the lovers first hangout in Shiang-Chyi’s apartment, and although both are filled with the expectations and excitement of a blooming romance, the dividing living-room wall creates both a literal and symbolic disconnect between the two. Additionally, when the two lovers are not in their respective homes, Tsai places them almost exclusively in liminal spaces. We see them in hallways and elevators, crossing bridges and walking through corridors as if a destination is desperately trying to be reached but remains cruelly unattainable.     

Though all sounds rather bleak at this point, Tsai does in fact provide us with unexpected bursts of humour and playfulness. The film’s measured pace is interrupted by surrealist, abstract musical numbers, falling somewhere between the avant-garde musicality of Jean-Luc Godard and the campy, DIY aesthetics of John Waters. Though the real-life exchanges of the characters remain timid and childlike, gestural rather than verbal, these colourful, highly choreographed musical sequences serve as a vehicle to externalise both central characters’ otherwise concealed inner world. Though jarring, whether these sequences land or not is likely beside the point. Instead, they show Tsai pushing his own boundaries and constraints as a filmmaker.   

In its confronting conclusion, the lifelessness that pervades The Wayward Cloud is taken to its all too literal culmination, demolishing any inkling of hope one may have gathered along the way and making it all the more difficult to put a finger on Tsai’s intended message. Polarising opinions aside, the interweaving of differing tonal qualities contributes significantly to the filmmaker’s oeuvre, which favours pictorial, textural, and sensorial elements over narrative. It is through this that Tsai’s subtle magic arises.

Tian bian yi duo yun/The Wayward Cloud (2005 Taiwan/France 112 mins)

Prod Co: Arena Films/Homegreen Films/Arte France Cinéma/Wild Bunch Prod: Bruno Pésary Dir, Scr: Tsai Ming-Liang Phot: Liao Pen-Jung Ed: Chen Sheng-Chang Prod Des: Yip Kam-Tim

Cast: Lee Kang-Sheng, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Lu Yi-Ching, Yang Kuei-Mei, Sumomo Yozakura, Hsiao Huan-Wen


  1. Asia Society, “Filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang on Human Relationships, Sexual Desire”, YouTube (6 April 2010): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oas4h6Vu3Wg&t=168s&ab_channel=AsiaSociety.

About The Author

Amelia Leonard is a Melbourne-based writer and filmmaker, and a committee member of the Czech & Slovak Film Festival of Australia.

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