(Written for the Unspoken Cinema blogathon.)
There's been a lot of sex in certain strains of contemplative cinema over the past few years. The carnal acts in these films can be expressions of tension and barely-buried resentment (Twentynine Palms), longings for an idyllic existence (Battle in Heaven) or signifiers of crushing mundanity (Sangre), but rarely do they scan simply as sex. Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud is similarly festooned with symbolic fucking; however, the physicality of the sex, its definition as a human process, carries just as much importance as its metaphorical resonance. Tsai's main aesthetic project with this film is a consideration of personal space, and the couplings and uncouplings of his characters bear that out.
The signature shot in The Wayward Cloud points the way towards this. The first shot in the film is an extended long shot of both sides of a curving tunnel, with the screen bisected by the curve's apex; two women walk through the tunnel, passing each other with little acknowledgment of the other. This framing gets three reprises during the course of the film: in Shiang-chyi's apartment when she (Chen Shiang-chyi) offers Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) a watermelon juice, in a similar hallway with Hsiao-kang hanging from the ceiling on the left side, and in the film's dark climax.
Each reprise shows the opening-up of the territorial bubble. The first shot shows two strangers with minimal contact; the second shot involves two interested parties who have reunited after a long separation and involves a modicum of tentative interaction; the third shows a couple becoming comfortable with each other's presence; the fourth and final iteration involves violations/breaches of comfort (both the couple's and otherwise). The film, then, is structured as a progression from isolation to trust of another in regards to personal space to misuse of said trust. Loneliness in the world of Tsai is painful, but not as painful as letting someone get too close. Note also that the film, which starts with a hazy long shot, ends with as uncomfortable a close-up as has ever been filmed.
There's a lot of spatial discomfort in The Wayward Cloud. Tsai's always been a fine purveyor of the wide-open-spaces style of contemplative filmmaking, but with Cloud he occasionally casts his eye on enclosed, cramped places. There's an early scene, shot from overhead, where a porn actress is riding a crowded elevator and suddenly becomes overcome by an ant attack. As she tears her clothes off, a couple (conspicuously male) fellow riders jump forward, a little too eager to help her with her dilemma. The scene cuts away before she can really respond, but it's implied that she has no problem with what amounts to a group grope.
The same actress turns up in at least one of the various scenes involving porno shoots in an anonymous bathroom, actor and actress crammed into a bathtub, director and cameraman hovering right above them. (I'm not even going to get into the disturbingly tight close-up that occurs during a bit where an actress takes a money shot - Tsai, among other things, uses the mechanics of pornography to criticize it, making this the becalmed yin to the blistering, angry yang of A Hole in My Heart.) The unspoken message is that, by allowing everyday violations as such, you open yourself to bigger ones like that which occurs during the climax of Cloud.
But it's not always so cut-and-dried; at times, Tsai uses enclosure to suggest comfort (Hsiao-kang swimming in the small water tank) or emotional closeness. Hsiao-kang and Shiang-chyi making their first intimate contact in a small back room that can only be described as a porno wing falls under the latter rubric; compare this scene, shot at a medium-close-up range, with the myriad pornographic scenes, which are generally depicted in disinterested medium shots. There's also something to be said for the gulf between something like the aforementioned watermelon-juice scene, where its characters are separate in the frame but growing close in the heart, with the first sex scene, where, despite the physical proximity, contains no feeling or even any actual contact for its first stages (a watermelon is humorously used in proxy). The phsyical and emotional aspects are therefore characterized as related but separate, occasionally even working at cross purposes; Tsai, in essence, is using his carefully-considered mise-en-scene to reflect the emotions (or lack thereof) of his characters.
It's not a rare thing to pull this gambit, but it is rare to do this and then push it into disturbing places, thus exploding our reactions. The last sequence once again sees our hero and heroine divided, both spatially by a wall and emotionally by Hsiao-kang's occupation... but this time, there's a cutout window in the wall. Shiang-chyi, at first repulsed, then tries to use this window to cross the chasm between the two; when Hsiao-kang responds in an unexpected way, bursting the metaphorical barrier, the end result is devastating. It's a bigger violation of space and respect than what immediately precedes it and thus far more troublesome (though one of the most disturbing things for me about the finale is indeed how we know nothing of the Japanese porn actress). Yet, there's also a certain ambiguity in it - much like the climax to The River (a film of which Cloud could be the mirror image), Tsai is at bottom allowing his characters an unmistakable connection. It's just that the connection is so deeply screwed-up. Tsai, though, refuses to look away. He holds that close-up, violating our personal space in a sense. But then, that's kind of the point, isn't it?