In an early episode in The Wayward Cloud, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) spends an aimless afternoon watching television news reports on the ongoing drought and the coincidentally timed falling market price of watermelons, leading the anchorman to jokingly remark that drinking watermelon juice has become more economical than drinking water. The theme of essential substitution proves particularly metaphoric (and revelatory) in light of Tsai Ming Liang’s own comments on the symbolism of water in his films (as transcribed in the Editions Dis Voir publication, Tsai Ming Liang): “…I always regard the characters in my films as plants which are short of water, which are almost on the point of dying from lack of water. Actually, water for me is love, that’s what they lack. What I’m trying to show is very symbolic, it’s their need for love.” It is within this context that the ubiquitous and often comical presence of watermelons in the film (used as sexual paraphernalia for an erotic film, a colorful recurring motif in an Umbrellas of Cherbourg-styled dream sequence, and a medium of polite exchange in a display of innocent, mutual affection) can be seen as a surrogate manifestation of the fundamental human need for connection.
The repeated image of elevators in the film provides another recurring element within Tsai’s oeuvre. Dynamic and transitory, the elevators (or as in the case of The River, escalators) in Tsai’s films recall the desolate, interior spaces of Chantal Akerman’s early structural films (most notably, the elevators of Hotel Monterey and the subway cars of News from Home that similarly reflect their role as impermanent vessels for transporting human souls – as commutative mechanisms. This image of mechanical transportation can be seen throughout Tsai’s body of work, from the literal vessels of the dead (the mausoleum in Vive l’amour and the cremation urn – and later, Ferris wheel – of What Time Is It There?) to the figurative vessels represented by the elevators. Rather than symbolizing an existential station as suggested by Jean Pierre Rehm in the Dis Voir book, the elevators instead seem to provide thematic parallel for man-made conveyances as a metaphor for the displaced physical body itself in contemporary (urban) society: a body that is subject to depersonalized, anonymous ritual and repetition – a phenomenon that becomes acutely evident in the joyless, mechanical, unrealistic, and de-eroticized sex scenes of Hsiao-Kang’s (Kang-sheng Lee) porn films. Contrasted against the effervescent – and equally artificial – stylization of the musical sequences, what emerges is a bracing systematic deconstruction of fantasy, role-playing, and illusion.
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