In many ways The Wayward Cloud [Tian Bian Yi Duo Yun] is a culmination of all of Ming-liang Tsai's previous films. Tsai (I Don't Want To Sleep Alone) has always worked hard to imbalance his films between absurd comedy and stilted arthouse, but nowhere was this imbalance as precious or extreme as here. The Wayward Cloud is an uneasy mix of drama, musical elements and porn, keeping you right at the edge of your seat.
Ming-liang Tsai dominated the Taiwanese film scene during the 90s and early 00s together with arthouse partner in crime Hsiao-Hsien Hou (Millennium Mambo, Zui Hao De Shi Guang). While the pacing of Tsai's films is not unlike the pacing of Hou's films, Tsai's work is pretty different in the sense that he has always played around with a weird, somewhat absurd sense of humor. It's not always that easy to quantify, but certain actions and scenes often invoke a chuckle, even if you're not 100% sure it was actually intended.
With The Wayward Cloud Tsai makes the comedy a bit easier to spot (something he already set in motion when working on Goodbye, Dragon Inn), not even counting the rather insane musical intermezzos that are clearly there for comic relief. People expecting a full-blown comedy should be aware that this is still very much a Tsai film though, meaning that there are many "dead shots" with absolutely nothing of substance happening in them. On top of that, Tsai adds some rather explicit comments on the porn industry, which might be a bit unsettling for those who didn't read up on the film.
The story is a direct sequel to Tsai's What Time Is It There, though the stories of both films have little in common besides the two main characters and their respective backgrounds. When Shiang-chyi returns from France she runs into Hsiao-Kang, who is now working as an actor in the porn industry. While a drought is captivating Taipei and driving people to conserve their water supplies, the two hit it off. The only catch is that Hsiao-Kang hasn't informed Shiang-chyi about his new line of work.
Through the years Tsai's visual style has remained pretty consistent. The Wayward Cloud is no exception, as the film is filled to the brim with long, static and uneventful scenes. The first shot is already spot on. We see a walkway that remains absolutely motionless for the first full minute, only then does the first character appear. In the end there's always a sensible explanation for the length of the scenes though and the position of the camera always turns out to be just perfect for what Tsai wants to show us. The musical interludes contrast sharply with Tsai's more traditional style, overflowing with colors and quirky camera positions. The musical numbers are evenly spread throughout the film and serve as some welcome visual variation.
Apart from the musical bits there isn't much music to speak off. Tsai relies heavily on ambient noises to fill the soundtrack, giving the scenes a more overall realistic feel. The musical numbers consist of a selection of classic Taiwanese pop songs, aptly dubbed by the cast. It's a pretty fun selection of songs, surprisingly up-tempo and pretty light-hearted while loosely reflecting on the plot.
Kang-sheng Lee and Tsai form an inseparable duo since the very beginning so it's definitely no surprise to see Lee taking up the main role once again. The bond between Lee and Tsai is essential considering the things Tsai demands from his main actor. Even though Lee has endured quite a lot from Tsai through the years, I'm pretty certain this was Lee's most demanding role so far. Shiang-chyi Chen makes a strong impression alongside Lee while the rest of the cast mostly operates in the background.
The Wayward Cloud is a pretty difficult film to recommend. Even if you're familiar with Tsai's style the direct and in-your-face comments on pornographic material are enough to put off the straight-faced arthouse crowd. The musical numbers and humorous situation on the other hand won't be enough to attract a more mainstream crowd as the film still relies heavily on static scene with very little happening.
Still, I think this is by far Tsai's best film to date. The unlikely combination of all these elements makes for a surprising and highly entertaining film, while leaving enough room for stilted moments of relaxation. The acting is top-notch, the camera work is spot on and Tsai's sense of humor is both unique and funny. Add to that one of the most stupefying and epic endings and you get my favorite Tsai. If you're looking for something different yet challenging, this film is definitely worth a try.