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I could have sworn that the late Susan Sontag had labeled Tsai Ming-liang a fraud. I even looked up Sontag's New York Times piece "The Decay of Cinema," as well as the longer essay "A Century of Cinema" that was published in the 2001 collection Where the Stress Falls, for proof. But no such dismissal was to be found. And here I had formed a whole argument: "How ironic," I thought, "that an essay by Sontag about the demise of cinema disapproved of Tsai, and that around the time of her own passing Tsai would unveil perhaps the greatest film about the decay of cinema to date, 2003's Good Bye, Dragon Inn."
It turned out I misattributed the remark — in fact, it was a film historian who dismissed Tsai as "your archetypal pretentious festival fraud." Yet I wonder if Sontag cared as much for Tsai as she did, say, Hou Hsiao-hsien, since Tsai has participated in the very "internationalizing of financing" that she laments in A Century of Cinema, noting its destructive effect on her beloved Andrei Tarkovksy. Tsai's Taiwan-France coproduction What Time Is It There? (2001) might be the weakest of his works, yet there's still something to be loved about its presentation of Paris as a tourist's hell, even if Sontag might not have cared for such a treatment of that city.
But enough of Craig Seligman–<\d>style routines: I've come to praise Tsai, not to answer Sontag's erudition with casual conversation. Creating a follow-up to the majestic loneliness of Good Bye Dragon Inn could not have been an easy task, and yet Tsai has done just that with another Taiwan-France coproduction, The Wayward Cloud, a work that is as glaringly vulgar as Dragon was cavernous and shadowy, as sexually graphic as Dragon was furtive, as contemporary as Dragon was nostalgic, as disturbing as Dragon was melancholic, and as hilarious as Dragon was ... hilarious.
One of the first thoughts I had while watching The Wayward Cloud was this: Matthew Barney can eat Tsai's shorts.
A few weeks ago, a Guardian writer fantasized about a DVD box issue devoted to a pair of contemporary directors, and I thought, "It really has come to this: A devoted young movie lover can't even realistically imagine a rep house program devoted to the career of one of his current favorite filmmakers." The Wayward Cloud is about to play the palatial Castro — not the TV at the local video store or the flat-screen in someone's apartment — and I can't wait to be there. In fact, I will fantasize about a film series devoted to all of Tsai's movies to date, the kind that places like the Castro used to give to directors like Fassbinder. The type of event where a certain breed of celluloid-loving maniac could meet up every night and become friends over shared dark laughter, drugs, you name it.
I can't think of another contemporary director whose work would flourish so well with that type of presentation. Take Tsai's relationship to his muse, Lee Kang-sheng, who has starred in every one of his features to date as the character Hsiao-kang. In The Wayward Cloud, Hsiao-kang is dissolute, and there is something really disturbing and honest about his look, and the way Tsai in turn looks at it. There is something deep — not fraudulent — in the way Tsai has tracked this young man through passages of his life, in the way What Time Is It There? was built from Lee's grief and loss, for instance. There is something awesome I can't yet pinpoint about the way The Wayward Cloud, with its jaw-dropping (anti-) climax, manages to rhyme off of the crying-jag final shot of Tsai's Vive l'Amour (1994), the harsh porn appraisal of his follow-up The River (1997), and the musical, apocalyptic rains of the Tsai movie after that, 1998's The Hole.
Tsai's seven features may be a cup-and-ball game stretched over 12-plus hours. But you could say life is a cup-and-ball game too, and the harsh truth is that The Wayward Cloud, a major work by one of the best filmmakers on the planet today, does not have a distributor. It might not play anywhere in the Bay Area after it screens at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Tsai's movies sell tickets at festivals, but in commercial runs they result in the kind of empty house that he explored so tellingly in Dragon. Yes, Tsai Ming-liang is "the quintessential festival" genius, all right. See his movies while you can.<\!s><z5><h110>SFBG<h$><z$>
THE WAYWARD CLOUD
(Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 2005)
Sun/23, 9:30 p.m., Castro
Tues/25, 10:15 p.m., Kabuki
April 26, 3:30 p.m., Kabuki
April 28, 9:15 p.m., PFA