Dir/scr: Tsai Ming-Liang.Fr-Tai. 2005. 111mins.

Taiwan auteur TsaiMing-Liang revisits all his favourite themes in The Wayward Cloud, hiseighth feature. There's his water obsession - here figured in a nationwidewater shortage, which leads to a run on mineral water and watermelons. There'shis exploration of lonely characters lost in a big but strangely empty city.There's the ironic homage to Chinese and Taiwanese culture, both historic(bamboo screens, Chiang Kai-Shek) and pop-modern. What is new in The WaywardCloud is how sex - a marginal activity in Tsai's previous outings - is nowthe main focus of the film; though it does nothing to dispel the isolation anddetachment that envelop the characters like bubblewrap.

Also new is the feeling thatTsai is beginning to parody himself. And while this makes for more laughs, ornervous giggles, than his films generally provoke, it also has the effect, inthe end, of suggesting that those yearning, held images of lost people thatturned on a generation of cineastes to the director's work may have been nomore than mannerisms.

Like Tsai's previous films, GoodbyeDragon Inn and What Time Is It There', The Wayward Cloud willplay most strongly in territories like France with a strong arthouse sector anda small but muscular Tsai fanbase, heartened by its Silver Bear at Berlin foroutstanding artistic contribution.However, all but the most diehard fans are likely to come away feelingshort-changed.

In the opening shot, thefixed camera monitors a pedestrian underpass intersection. For ages, nothinghappens. Finally a woman comes into view; we follow her nervous, clacking walkall the way down one arm of the tunnel and down the other, where she crossespaths with another woman dressed in a nurse's suit, carrying a huge watermelon.It's like a film-school satire on the opening of The River, with itsinterminable fixed shot of elevators. Then the sex kicks in, featuring thenurse, the watermelon, and Tsai's male muse Lee Kang-Sheng in an unusualthreesome.

Gradually, some strands ofplot appear: Lee, the watch salesman from What Time Is It There' nowappears to work in porn while the "nurse" is a Japanese sex actress (SumomoYozakura) who spends most of the film naked and moaning. And Chen Shiang-Chyi,whose "relationship" (if you can call it that) with Lee was the main focus of WhatTime Is It There' once again drifts in and out of an anonymous, almostunfurnished apartment, in which she hoards bottled water and drinks gallons ofwatermelon juice.

Eventually, she and Lee meetup, and in her only line of dialogue - one of the few in the entire film - sheasks him "Are you still selling watches'".

As in The Hole, theaction is broken up by lavish, kitsch song-and-dance sequences which have onlya tenuous connection with the story. In one, set in a public toilet, Lee wearsa huge penis costume; in another, simpering dancers rub themselves up against abronze monument to Chiang Kai-Shek, the founding father of Taiwan.

Tsai has a droll, deadpansense of humour, and there are several hilarious moments - as when the Japaneseactress misplaces a bottle-top while pleasuring herself with the bottle it hadbelonged to. And the director's trademark long- and medium-shots, held forminutes on end, once again allow wry little dramas and connections to unfurl,once we have learnt to watch at their pace.

But in the end TheWayward Cloud uses these tricks and tics fraudulently, trying to impose anemotional closure of the boy-girl dance which has not been fully earned. Still,the film will make watermelon farmers happy by suggesting new and unusual usesfor this versatile fruit.

Prod cos: Arena Films, Homegreen Films, Arte France Cinema
Int'l sales:
Wild Bunch
Bruno Pesery, Vincent Wang
Liao Pen-Jung
Prod des:
Lee Tian-Jue
Chen Sheng-Chang
Main cast:
Lee Kang-Sheng, ChenShiang-Chyi, Lu Yi-Ching, Yang Kuei-Mei, Sumomo Yozakura