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The 400 Blow Jobs

Helen Bandis, Adrian Martin, Grant McDonald

During the first Brisbane Film Festival screening of Tsai Ming-


liang’s The Wayward Cloud (Tian bian yi duo yun [2005]), audience
interaction reached an all-time high. The general reaction to the
film was unremarkable with laughter greeting the Tati-like scenes
of physical exertion and discomfort. That is, until the sequence
which lasts for the final twenty-five minutes of the film. At the
moment that Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) enters her apartment’s
lift and discovers the Japanese porn actress (Sumomo Yozakura) in
what is either a comatose or dead state (we will never know), the
laughter began to die in everyone’s throat. Then Tsai moves us
relentlessly through the main fraction of the film's plot: the
discovery by Shiang-chyi that Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) is
working in porn and the transportation and setting up of Sumomo
Yozakura's limp body for yet another shoot. All this is disturbing
enough, but Tsai mixes into it the culmination of the budding
connection between Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang. Standing at the
grill through which she watches the film crew at work, Shiang-chyi
begins to give voice to the orgasm which the lifeless actress
cannot. At the moment of his own climax, Hsiao-kang launches
himself over to the grill, takes Shiang-chyi’s head in his hands,
puts his penis in her mouth, and comes. At the shot of Hsiao-
kang’s sweating buttocks (the muscles working in ejaculatory
motion, accompanied by a masterpiece of foley sound effects), a
member of the Brisbane audience decided she had enough. She stood
up, pointed at the screen and yelled: ‘FUCK YOU!’ Some of the
audience cheered her as she stormed out of the theatre, and a few
others followed suit.

But The Wayward Cloud was not yet over. Just like Chantal
Akerman’s statement that, after the climactic murder which
concludes the plot of Jeanne Dielman (1975), there are still
'eight strong minutes' left, Tsai gives us a portrait-shot of
Shiang-chyi, a cock in her mouth and a tear slowly rolling down
her face, which lasts over ninety seconds. And then one final
golden-oldie song, straddling the final shot and the blackness of
the credits ...

What is going on in this final scene of The Wayward Cloud? It is


not enough to say that the scene is dark and shocking, and that
the film is thus an accusation of pornography, an exposé of sexual
alienation and commodification (Shiang-chyi transformed into a
compliant porn body-double). Nor is it accurate to charge Tsai
with misogyny, or a wholesale contempt for human sexuality. For,
on one level, Tsai’s cinema has always been, in a crucial sense,
matter-of-factly pornographic, showing (in a less heightened
register) many of the same actions we see here: masturbation
(often extravagantly inventive), quickie sex with prostitutes in
cars, anonymous gay bathhouse encounters (all the way to the
father-son clinch in The River [1997]). A general air of muckiness
and a fix on ‘making do’ with small, furtive possibilities for
sexual communion (frequently perverse and indirect) are central to
his work – indeed, they provide the ground for a very particular
kind of Romanticism which marks him as a modern artist.

So one must grasp and experience the ambiguous ‘fusion’ of Shiang-


chyi and Hsiao-kang in The Wayward Cloud in the context of the
entire film, the entire series formed by this film, What Time Is
It There? and the short The Skywalk is Gone (2003), and even
within the entire œuvre of Tsai. We will consider the final
twenty-one shots (approximately fourteen minutes), comprising the
final chapter of the Taiwanese DVD release. It is important to
bear in mind what Nicole Brenez has called, in reference to
Godard, the volumetric nature of the succession of images: ‘each
image is called on by others, every image prefigures others, every
image makes way for or obstructs the passage of others.’ (1) This
‘volumetrics of the shot’ occurs in Godard across a montage of
1. Nicole Brenez, ‘The Forms of the
Question’, in M. Temple, J. Williams & many different kinds of images (film, video, archival, stills,
M. Witt (eds.), For Ever Godard fiction, documentary, etc), but Tsai – like Antonioni or Akerman –
(London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004), creates the same complexity within the deceptively singular frame
p. 175.
of his mise en scène.

Shot 1 is through the grill that will become the pivot of the
scene; we see Hsiao-kang and the crew getting to work on the porno
shoot, manipulating Sumomo Yozakura’s body. (There is a visual
rhyme between this crew and the road workers that Shiang-chyi
encounters earlier.) The figure of the grill restates both the
distance of separation and the possibility of being an observer of
such a scene – the two indispensable, paradoxically interconnected
preconditions of Tsai’s cinema. An earlier appearance of a grill
appears during Lu Yi-ching’s musical number, where it stands for
the romantic longing induced by separation and distance.

Shot 2 is the most formally dramatic moment of the film, the only
shot containing a slow, deliberate camera movement not tied to the
motion of a character – like De Oliveira, Tsai frequently holds
back an essential element of his cinematic syntax for maximum
effect. This camera movement announces to us that something very
heavy is about to happen – and that Shiang-chyi, eventually
entering the frame from the side, will witness it.

Shot 3 shows the crew at work. This is the ‘real’ counterpart to


the sex scene that (after the opening carpark shot) begins the
film. In that earlier scene, a certain surrealism rules: there is
no crew visible or alluded to in any way, even though the sex-act
is clearly a ‘performed’, porno one (complete with doctor and
nurse costumes).

Shot 4, the shortest and most functional of the scene, offers a


side-on view of Shiang-chyi looking through the grill. But notice
– it is important for what occurs stylistically later – how Tsai’s
normal practice is to eschew repeated set-ups, and almost always
(as here) to compose a different angle to reiterate an action,
even as it remains static or unchanging.

Shot 5 offers a diagram of the scene’s mounting sense of drama.


Shiang-chyi is framed in the background but in focus, while Sumomo
Yozakura’s head rolls about, in blurred focus, in the foreground.
When the crew move for another angle, Hsiao-kang’s humping body is
comically shoved off-screen. Shiang-chyi turns away from the
window. This action invites a simple psychological reading (she
turns away in disgust), but The Wayward Cloud is not a
psychologically-driven narrative film in any conventional sense.
More than in Tsai’s previous works, there is a basic sketch of
intersubjective positions – Shiang-chyi’s and Hsiao-kang’s growing
feeling for each other, his sexual impotence or discomfort outside
of the porno-shoot situation – set within a sequence of actions
that obeys the logic both of a rigorously poetic surrealism
(watermelons in the river, bubbles from the tap, transformation of
food substances in a wok, a key in concrete that, once pried free,
releases a pool of water) and of a certain kind of ‘performance
art’ (Shiang-chyi’s pretend-pregnancy, Hsiao-kang’s gymnastics up
the walls). The fact that Shiang-chyi’s turning-away action is not
psychologically transparent is crucial in laying the ground for
what she is to do later in the scene.

Shot 6 reprises a central visual motif of the film: a separation


of two spaces that are split down the middle. This motif receives
a fulsome comedy treatment in an earlier apartment scene between
Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang. Across this divide, there is the spark
of connection between the two characters: he looks at her, she
turns her body back towards the window. Physical separation, and
barriers that create such distance, are a standard metaphor for
interpersonal alienation in Tsai’s work. In The Wayward Cloud,
however, the analysis of this alienation is considerably deepened.
What brings us to this final scene is an entire ‘alienated
economy’ of capital and psyche springing from a simple but
brilliant subtraction: a world without water. Previously in Tsai’s
films, water richly served a triple function: all at once natural
(rain, rivers), social (bathrooms, bottled water) and corporeal
(in and out of orifices). In this city deprived of water, both it
and its substitute (watermelon juice) accrue fetishistic value as
forbidden or ‘unnatural’ conduits to human contact. (Television
broadcasts humourously inform us of the latest teen dating rituals
involving watermelon gifts.) In fact, The Wayward Cloud
brilliantly demonstrates the startling analogy that Paul Willemen
2. Cf. Adrian Martin, ‘Musical
Mutations’, in Martin & J. Rosenbaum once suggested between sex scenes in porno flicks and the song-
(eds.), Movie Mutations: The Changing and-dance numbers in musicals: both offer (in the terms of Richard
Face of World Cinephilia (London: BFI, Dyer’s famous analysis of musicals) the spectacle of a fantasised
2003), pp. 94-108.
abundance in place of a real, material scarcity. (The link with
porno extends the work already done by Tsai on the meaning of the
musical genre in The Hole [1998].) (2)
Shots 7-15. Shot 7 begins a pattern that is highly unusual in a
Tsai film, because it is seemingly familiar and conventional:
shot/reverse-shot alternation. Beginning on him, the back-and-
forth volley continues until shot 15 – with the sole variation
(again reasonably conventional) of a close-up angle on him from
shot 12 onwards. Does Tsai simply use this arrangement as the
simplest and best way to maintain the tension of the mounting
‘mutual’ orgasm? (Note the genius of the post-dubbed sound design
in these shots and, indeed, throughout the film: the way Shiang-
chyi’s orgasmic moans fade up from silence and seem to not quite
belong to her body – at first, one might imagine they are the
death-rattle of Sumomo Yozakura.) In fact, this alternation of
shots is the ‘closing bracket’ of the overarching structure that
shapes the entire film. In its opening minutes, Tsai uses a
pattern of scene-alternation that is also unusual in his work: the
doctor-and-nurse scene is intercut, three times over, with the
scene of Shiang-chyi watching television in her apartment (with
the filmmaker’s rhyming/matching imagination in overdrive:
watermelon between legs/ottoman between legs, juice on body/juice
in pitcher, etc – as well as the introduction of the flower motif
3. Cf. Raymond Bellour, The Analysis
of Film (Bloomington: Indiana that will later become dominant in its circulation between fantasy
University Press, 2000). and reality realms). From that point, Tsai rigorously alternates
between scenes involving Shiang-chyi and scenes involving Hsiao-
kang (with a diversion for secondary character of Lu Yi-ching and
her musical interlude). Tsai’s work in general, and this film in
particular, give renewed vitality to the structures of alternation
and repetition that Raymond Bellour analysed in the 1970s. (3) And
Tsai returns to the very same ‘motor’ of that cinematic machine
which Bellour identified: the introduction, separation and
reunion/fusion of the couple. In its ‘open’ (i.e., unclosed) form,
the alternation between these two characters and their separate
narrative threads structures both What Time Is It There? and The
Skywalk is Gone – with the pay-off that, precisely, there is no
pay-off, no encounter between them, no resolution of yearning or
fulfilment of desire. What marks the radical novelty of The
Wayward Cloud and its significance in Tsai’s artistic evolution is
the fact that – one way or another – this contact is going to
occur.

Shots 16-21. Shot 16 – recording Hsiao-kang’s momentous ‘breach’


of the distance held firm in the previous short-alternation –
marks a complete ‘redrawing’ of the scene’s co-ordinates and
elements. From this moment, the porno crew and its equipment
completely disappear from the images, never to reappear in the
final minutes of the film. How easy it would have been for Tsai to
include the satirical and blackly comic gag of a microphone or
camera lens shoving into this transgressive action! But this is
not a return to the ‘seamless’ porno of the doctor-nurse scene; it
is the veritable opening up of another world within the real
world. (Even in the way the découpage carves out and defines the
spatiality of the scene, this is so: the shot of hands-on-head at
the grill, the low angle on Hsiao-kang near the ceiling, the
images of buttocks and tears already described, and the final
wide-angle shot create a zone markedly different to the one we
have previously seen constructed.) This scene has to be
experienced as an absolutely historic event in the Tsai œuvre: an
overturning, in a single stroke, of the alienated distance that
has hitherto determined the melancholic ‘sentimental destinies’ of
every one of his narratives.

We have now looped back to the images (and sounds!) that caused
such consternation at the Brisbane screening. Afterwards, in the
foyer, a moviegoer could be heard cynically asking: ‘Is that
ending meant to be the triumph of amour fou?’ But it is not as
simple as that; rather than some moment of pure transgression, in
the final scene elements from previous scenes (for example, the
fellatio recalls the stuffing of Sumomo Yozakura’s mouth with
watermelon in the first porn scene) are reformulated into an
imperfect, impure scenario which nonetheless contains a moment of
connection (Hsiao-kang’s buttocks ‘cry’, as well as Shiang-chyi’s
eyes, signalling the breaking drought, water from the body). Tsai
has said that he is ‘pro-sex, but anti-pornography’ yet when
Shiang-chyi and the cut-outs of China Airlines stewardesses mirror
Hsiao-kang and the porn crew, we are close to realising that to
maintain this credo requires some extreme or all-too-human action.
The coming together of Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-kang may be within a
strange and compromised world but it is also, within the entire
context of Tsai’s œuvre, ecstatic: it is the expression of love
they arrive at, and we (as spectators) bear witness to its power.

© Rouge 2005. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the


editors.

http://www.rouge.com.au/rougerouge/wayward.html

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