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Tsai Ming-Liang’s Wayward Boundaries

Can a movie that explicitly demonstrates the darkest grotesqueries of pornography actually function as a refusal to condemn it? Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Wayward Cloud hints at this possibility.

By Jennifer Pan

Released in 2005, Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Wayward Cloud follows the odd and halting courtship between two occupants of an apartment complex—the stoic and melancholy young man, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-shen) and the equally introverted female museum employee, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi). Their tentative and occasionally tender relationship unfolds against the backdrop of a severe Taiwanese drought and is punctuated by shy smiles and charming cooking mishaps. But this love story has a twist: Hsiao-kang stars in porn flicks.

The horrifying nature of the graphic final scene in which Hsiao-kang’s occupation is revealed to Shiang-chyi has often led critics to interpret the film as an explicitly anti-porn endeavor. Certainly each pornographic film shoot portrayed in the movie is fraught with dreariness and emotional disconnect. But rather than doling out straightforward commentary on the porn industry, Tsai uses porn as the starting point for a meditation on the unstable nature of filmic representation. Scenes of the young lovers’ courtship are juxtaposed with explicit sex scenes in a narrative technique that blurs the distinction between “real” and simulated sexuality and implicates the viewer in both the excitement of on-screen love and the discomfort of pornography.

Pornographic films present a singularly messy and obvious dissolution of the boundaries between artifice and reality: they function as highly contrived and controlled spaces that simultaneously rely on the viewer’s knowledge that the sex performed within their frames are unsimulated. Tsai dwells on this condition in each of the film’s porn sequences —often with flashes of humor that serve to underscore the strangeness of the scenes. In one of Hsaio-kang’s porn shoots, the script calls for him and his co-star to copulate furtively in a bathtub. But because there isn’t any running water due to the drought, the producers must simulate the spray of a shower above them using a water bottle punched with holes. When the bottle runs dry, members of the film crew have to leave the shoot to find more water, leaving the actress searching the floor of the tub for the false eyelashes that have fallen off during the vigorous intercourse. When the shoot later resumes with a large jug of dirty river water substituting for the shower, the fake stream is positioned at the wrong end of the tub—opposite the real spout. Tsai lingers on these inconsistencies and manipulations to remind us of the artifice behind all porn films. But when he elides his camera with the pornographers’ camera to capture in graphic detail the “money shot” that ends both the shoot and the scene, Tsai makes sure we do not forget the form of porn’s raw constituents. Suddenly, we’re not watching a movie about pornography—we’re watching the pornography itself.

There is perhaps no film form so solicitous of the viewer’s presence and participation as pornography: actors preen and strip, locking sultry gazes with the camera, continually acknowledging their consumers and inviting their engagement and arousal. The Wayward Cloud pays homage to this kind of seduction with a slightly sinister twist: just when we think we’ve achieved the necessary distance to reflect on the moral value of the film, we realize that the act of watching has already rendered us complicit in the film’s more troubling elements. The movie’s wrenching final pornographic encounter is the best example of this: Shiang-chyi, observing Hsiao-kang’s filmed intercourse with an unconscious (or possibly dead) woman, becomes part of the film herself, providing vocals where the lifeless porn actress cannot, and, finally, participating in an act of oral sex that may very well be caught on the pornographers’ camera.

As the Australian journal Rouge noted, this particular scene was so distressing to audience members in Brisbane that several people walked out, even after enjoying the strange humor underlying earlier porn scenes in the movie. The unexpected and gruesome nature of the final tableau seems to invite moral revulsion, but Tsai turns trickster again, for here the movie abruptly ends. Those who were compelled to walk out did so when there was nothing left to see or judge. If Tsai allows us to condemn the excesses and brutalities of pornography, it’s only after he has first lured us into relishing—even momentarily—those very qualities.