This is one of those movies that it is not easy to form an opinion about. Your first reaction upon watching it is pretty much going to be "Huh?" Followed shortly by "Did I really just see that? Did that guy really just masturbate that girl with a watermelon?"
"The Wayward Cloud" ("Tian bian yi duo yun") is difficult to categorize. Is it Art? Pornography? Weird for weirdness sake? Director Tsai Ming-liang (I Don't Want to Sleep Alone) is treading the same tightrope as Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves), keeping his balance between the high and the low, the sacred and the profane. This is a film that is bound to offend, confuse, entertain and challenge viewers all with the same imagery.
Somewhat the third part of a trilogy, "The Wayward Cloud" continues the story of Shiang-chyi (played by actress Shiang-chyi Chen) and Hsiao-Kang (played by actor Kang-sheng Lee) from "What Time Is It There?" and the short film "The Skywalk is Gone." Although they share characters, the films are connected more thematically rather than by direct storyline, with Shiang-chyi's isolation from society, and attempting to find connections. Ming-liang has used Kang-sheng Lee playing Hsiao-Kang for about eight films now, but they are not as directly connected as the three films featuring Shiang-chyi Chen. Yes, I know. It gets confusing.
"The Skywalk is Gone" had set up the concept of water slowly disappearing from Taipei in a devastating drought, which is carried over into "The Wayward Cloud," where the scarcity of water has given it a sexual thrill, and people suck down watermelons in order to quench their thirst. Shiang-chyi has reconnected with old boyfriend Hsiao-Kang, who is now an adult movie actor instead of a seller of watches. Their reunion brings few sparks, however, as Hsiao-Kang's job leaves him unable to feel emotion during sex, which has become purely mechanical for him. Both of them are lost in the grey and lonely world of daily scavenging for water, while having an active fantasy life of bright colors and musical sequences straight out of the Peking Opera.
More of a cacophony of images than a plotted film, "The Wayward Cloud" drifts back and forth from fantasy to reality, from raw sex and the ugliness of humanity to brilliant fantasy sequences that would put Busby Berkley to shame. The disconnection of humanity from humanity, the isolation in the modern world, shows up as Shiang-chyi and Hsiao-Kang are unable to find any meaning in their lives beyond base existence.
In terms of sexuality, Ming-liang has pushed all possible boundaries here. Rumored to be unsimulated, (to which I could not answer. It certainly looks real, but they can do amazing things with editing and effects nowadays) "The Wayward Cloud" punctuates almost every scene with sex, although never done in a way to excite. Ming-liang wants to show the hollowness of pornography, and the soullessness of those who perform a basic human function as a way of making a living. This naturally got him into trouble with the Taiwanese government, which finally agreed to release the film uncut due to its artistic merit.
If you make it all the way through "The Wayward Cloud" (and many people don't) you will be left with many questions and ways to interpret the film. Was that girl dead at the end? Did Shiang-chyi cry tears of joy that she finally connected emotionally with Hsiao-Kang, or tears of sorrow that he was simply using her as a receptacle? Ming-liang does not make it easy on you, and many more hours could be spent debating the ideas and merits of "The Wayward Cloud" than are actually spent watching it.