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The River (He
The River, a 1997 film by director Tsai Ming-liang, is only
now getting belated distribution in the United States and for that serious film lovers may
be grateful. Tsai's most recent film, What Time Is It
Over There?, was screened at this year's New York Film Festival, and, indeed, is
making the rounds of the festival circuit, but it does not appear to have found a U.S.
distributor as yet. It's a sad, if understandable, situation that fine, thoughtful art
films have such difficulty reaching their public. As Francois Truffaut followed the life of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) through a series of films (The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board and others), Tsai, an admirer of Truffaut, is
following the journey of Xiao-kang (Lee Kang-Sheng, who appears in all seven of Tsai's
feature films to date). In The River, Xiao-kang is spontaneously recruited by a
film director to play a scene of a corpse floating down a river. The river is polluted and
makes Xiao-kang ill, giving him a debilitating pain in the neck.
The River is not for multiplex audiences. Stylized and
essentially nonverbal, it requires patience and an openness to a highly individualistic
mode of expression. Such patience is amply rewarded with a deeply affecting film
experience that will linger in the memory long after the commercial drivel has faded into
the oblivion of the ordinary.
The polluted river, of course, is a metaphor. Literally, it's the
contaminated environment giving back in kind, but it takes on a broader resonance when the
ailment itself turns out to be mysterious and indefinable. Neither a medium, nor an
acupuncturist, nor a spiritualist, nor modern medicine seems able to find a cause or a
cure. This river is the flow of unhealthy life.
It's interesting that Tsai doesn't bring psychiatry into play as well,
since the malady seems a manifestation of the profound anomie from which Xiao-kang
suffers. Drifting, unconnected, noncommunicative, he resists interpersonal connections.
Living with his retired father and working mother, the three pass through their apartment
like ships in the night, barely acknowledging one another, eating their fast-food takeout
meals in silence. The father (Miao Tien) patronizes gay bathhouses, the mother (Lu
Hsaio-ling), an elevator operator, is having an affair with a pornographer. But her affair
is clearly unsatisfying and the doors to the rooms in the bathhouse open and close with
the father equally unfulfilled.
They're not so much a dysfunctional family as a group of three
individuals who happen to be related, their only connection the accident of blood
relation and some long forgotten liaison that resulted in a marriage. They each seek to
fill the emptiness of their lives with sexual contact, which, even when attained, does
nothing to remedy their extreme existential isolation.
Tsai uses long takes, often with a completely still camera, in which very
little happens. The accretion of small incidents subtly builds to the perception of a
silent scream of angst. It is a bleak and despairing view of the human condition,
expressed paradoxically in both direct and oblique ways.
In particular, the central symbol of the river is just one of the water
images that Tsai uses throughout. The ceiling of the father's bedroom has an ominous and
growing leak which ultimately floods the apartment; there's never anyone at home in the
apartment above from where the leak originates. There are rain showers and bathing showers
and baths at the sauna. The mother brings water to her ill son. There's an aquarium in
their apartment. Notice is taken even of watermelons.
And mirrors--Mother removing her makeup, Xiao-kang having sex,
Xiao-kang dressing, numerous scenes seen through their reflection in a mirror. Vanity,
perhaps, but also a reality one step removed. Opening with images of empty up and down
escalators, the film also has images of the mother's (mirrored) elevator going up and
down, of long institutional-looking hospital halls, echoed again in the darkened hallways
of the sauna.
There's an ordinariness in all this detail, but it is presented with
unique style and restraint which, combined with Tsai's focused and penetrating viewpoint,
add up to a painfully incisive portrait of the contemporary human condition. If, at the
end, there is a faint gleam of hope, it is little comfort after what has come before.
- Arthur Lazere