From the very beginning of his confused review Armond White reveals he has no idea how to process the bizarre, provocative experience of Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud. First off, he calls it a "porno musical," a misleading term since the film is a musical about pornography -- its participants, its viewers, and the society it influences with its images -- and not a musical featuring actual pornographic material. Then in the second paragraph he offers a series of contradictory statements:
These [musical] numbers occur in unexpected contrast to the humdrum dailiness that is Tsai's specialty. He introduces his characters as they wander the gray, dull, bizarrely empty city; sometimes walking past each other without recognition—almost refusing to communicate. This reticence is the exact opposite of what movie musicals are about.
Characters acting out fantasies in lavish musical numbers that allow them to express what they cannot in their boring, quotidian existences? Sounds in line with a particular strand of the traditional movie musical to us. But maybe we should wait for AW to explain what he means:
When Tsai follows this dysfunctional union with musical numbers, it demonstrates a changed perspective on human relations. Today, even the romantic fantasies of typical movie musicals are infected with pessimism. The Wayward Cloud isn't a deconstructed musical like the great postmodern Pennies from Heaven. Instead, Tsai reconstructs a classical genre to match the desperation of an era that has rejected musicals' implicit outworn utopianism. For some viewers this depersonalization will make Tsai's vision seem new, perhaps even radical, rather than simply depressive. But it's a coherent vision and unafraid of emotional affect. Tsai dramatizes a new approach to anomie. Linking private sexual thoughts is his way of giving shape to a pervasive loneliness.
Very, very odd. Initially White believes that Tsai "demonstrates a changed perspective on human relations." Then, all of a sudden, he doesn't, an idea implied in White's rejection of others' collective misperception of the film: "For some viewers this depersonalization will make Tsai's vision seem new, perhaps even radical, rather than simply depressive." But then, faster than you can say "muddled," Tsai's vision is new again: "Tsai dramatizes a new approach to anomie."
What in the name of watermelon fucking is going on here? Armond's flying contradictions might very well be unconsciously perpetrated, but judging by the next paragraph, they very well might not. After foolishly drawing a comparison between The Wayward Cloud and Three Times (why, because they're both directed by Asian art cinema faves? If so, that's a pretty weak link), White finally expresses his ambivalence about the film in direct terms, calling it "a self-conscious musical about dislocation -- an, at times ingenious, at times, enervating [sic] variation on Tsai's usual unhappy theme."
But why the reservations? Again the comparison to Hou Hsaio-Hsien's empty formalism, and thus this:
Unfortunately, after the heightened emotional quality of Tsai's musical numbers, he also retreats to distanced long shots and detached framing held so long it drains your involvement. The Wayward Cloud culminates in a marathon copulation scene that unites the three protagonists in desolate joylessness. It cannot be the fault of decadent western pop but of Tsai's own preference for pseudo-profundity. His anti-musical is, finally, equivalent to joyless sex.
"Pseudo-profundity"? That's it? That's all White can come up with in his criticism of the film's shortcomings (pun totally intended)? Can we at least get some reasons for this pseudo-profundity more substantial than "distanced long shots and detached framing held so long it drains your involvement"? (Waaaaaah, Armond's bored; Waaaaaah, Armond needs his fix of Hollywood "pop.")
Look, The Wayward Cloud is a difficult film. It's at once silly, beautiful, disgusting, obvious, moralizing, beyond moralizing, and frustrating. And it is most definitely challenging. One can either decline that challenge, as did Nathan Lee of The Village Voice in his (as usual) dismissive review, or accept it, as did David Wilentz of The Brooklyn Rail. Or one can, as did Armond, give equal consideration to the film's failures and successes. If choosing this last route one must be especially clear in describing one's mixed feelings about the film, as well as proving the ability to back up those feelings with insightful analyses and ideas that carefully weigh pros and cons. But Armond's review of The Wayward Cloud is full of ambivalent feeling without much thought behind it. There's no insight in what he has communicated to his readers about this film, just flailing musings and halfhearted praises and disapprovals. Even when limning the film's basic themes and structures AW contradicts himself. "I liked this but not this," Armond seems to be saying, without venturing far enough into what Tsai's trying to do, where he goes right and where he goes wrong. "Pseudo-profundity" indeed.