Few modern directors have a signature style as easily identifiable as Tsai Ming-liang's. For one thing, Tsai uses very little dialogue and long, static takes with very little movement. He always works with the same actor, the deadpan Lee Kang-sheng (who also goes by his movie character's name, Hsiao-kang), perhaps a deliberate homage to Francois Truffaut's cycle of "Antoine Doinel" films starring Jean-Pierre Leaud. (Leaud literally grows up in these films, which include The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Love on the Run and the short film Antoine et Colette.)
In Tsai's great What Time Is It There? (2001) -- his most obvious Truffaut tribute -- Hsiao-kang plays a watch salesman who falls for Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) just before she goes off to France. He pines after her, renting French movies (The 400 Blows) and wondering about her. Later he meets the real-life Leaud in a park.
But most of all, Tsai is obsessed with water and its ability to create as well as destroy life. In The River (1997), Hsiao-kang gets an unexplained pain in his ear after a dunk in the title river. In The Hole (1998), a rainstorm leaks in through a crumbling building and the residents begin to catch a strange disease that makes them behave like cockroaches. But the water also allows a man and a woman to meet for the first time by causing a hole between their apartments.
Tsai's masterpiece, Goodbye Dragon Inn (2004) comes close to grace. On last day of a dilapidated old movie theater, during a showing of King Hu's Dragon Inn, several lost souls wander about its dank aisles, corridors and storage rooms, looking for some kind of connection. A hobbled ticket girl (Shiang-chyi Chen) longs for the mysterious projectionist (Lee Kang-sheng). Of course, it's raining buckets this whole time, but the theater seems insulated somehow.
Tsai's latest, The Wayward Cloud, has all his usual trademarks. In the film's biggest burst of dialogue, a news report explains that Taipei is in the middle of a drought, and that citizens are encouraged to eat watermelon as a substitute. Tsai immediately puts us off guard here, emphasizing the pungent sweat of humans and the sticky, sweet watermelon juice, with little chance of washing clean, no relief. This lack of water seems to signal a lack of hope, a lack of forward movement, as if the river had stalled.
Hsiao-kang is now working as a porn actor (he auditioned for the job in Tsai's 2002 short film The Skywalk Is Gone). He meets Shiang-chyi in her apartment, and they immediately consummate their long-standing mutual attraction; the sweet longing has been snuffed. But it's not as satisfying as one might expect; there's a watermelon involved (I'll leave it up to you to picture just how), and, because of his work, Hsiao-Kang's lovemaking manner is more professional than passionate.
From there, the couple mostly wanders around. He takes a bath in the building's water tank, the soap and his skin no doubt tainting the precious water. His soap bubbles drift down to her apartment, wafting around a thoughtful Shiang-chyi, perhaps an adorable, but sour, reminder of her lover?
Like The Hole, the film soon reveals itself as a weird kind of lip-synched musical. Hsiao-kang turns into a crocodile and performs in the water tank. (In a later musical number, set in a public restroom, he appears as a penis). Shiang-chyi slowly becomes aware that her new lover is a porn star. His Japanese co-star collapses in their building's elevator. Then, just when you think you've seen it all, wait until the ending.
The Wayward Cloud is indeed a unique experience (and, just in case you hadn't figured it out, for adults only), sometimes shocking and often funny. I suspect it could have been his darkest, most intimate work yet, but it's still something of a disappointment. It feels like a step back to Tsai's The Hole, which is my least favorite of his films. For a little while, it looked as if Tsai were subtly moving in a more mature direction, forgoing some of his distancing, jokey (read: musical) asides and concentrating more on an emotional resonance. Maybe next film.