Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
Written by Tsai, Yang Bi-Ying, and Tsai Yi-chun
With Lee Kang-sheng, Tien Miao, Chen Shiang-chyi and Lu Hsaio-ling
Distributed by Leisure Time Features and Kimstim
Opens in New York July 13th
Meeting a female friend (Chen), Xiao-Kang (Lee) takes her up on her request to appear as a corpse floating in a river, in a film being shot by Hong Kong director Ann Hui. After he sleeps with her, she disappears from THE RIVER. Unfortunately, pollution in the river leads to agonizing neck pain, apparently caused by an infection. His father (Tien), a closeted gay man who spends a lot of time cruising in bathhouses, is simultaneously going through his own problems created by water: his bedroom becomes drenched by a leak in the ceiling. At first, a bucket in the middle of the bed takes care of the hole, but the whole ceiling eventually looks like it's about to cave in. Both his father and mother (Lu) take their son to various forms of treatment - many of which look more painful than the neck infection itself - to no avail. Eventually, he goes on the road with his father to a Buddhist temple in search of a cure.
THE RIVER could have been designed to counter stereotypes about Asian family togetherness. Its family may live in the same apartment, but they treat each other more like distant roommates than flesh and blood. Rarely do all three appear in the same shot. Even when the father and son grow closer physically, this doesn't equate to a breakdown of emotional barriers: in fact, their most tender scene turns out to be their most disturbing.
It would be easy to say that Xiao-Kang's physical pain is a manifestation of his family's emotional emptiness. Ditto for the leak in the roof, which also makes a handy symbol of his father's discomfort in the closet. However, one could flip this analysis and say that the characters' alienation is a manifestation of an environment of their physical ills. Water crops up as so often in Tsai's films that it has the force of an idee fixe, but not necessarily one with a fixed meaning. In THE RIVER, it may represent chaos. At the same time, it's also a part of our own bodies - cue several urination scenes - and domestic life. Fish float placidly in a tank in the family's apartment, while a flood fills it with empty water bottles.
Tsai's master-shot compositions, long takes and elliptical narrative - father and son don't meet for half an hour, and at first they appear to be strangers - are on the verge of being a cliché in Asian cinema. Nevertheless, David Cronenberg's THE BROOD is the film THE RIVER reminds me most of. In many respects, it's a horror film without being a genre film. Once he begins suffering from neck pain and constantly tilts his head to one side, Lee Kang-sheng's physical presence begins transforming: his anxiety seems to stem as much from discomfort with his body as any other source. While THE HOLE describes a city beset by a virus in which people transform into insects, the roots of this notion may already be present here. Cronenberg has said that he wanted the Mantle brothers' apartment in DEAD RINGERS to look like an aquarium: the world of Tsai's films often does.
Although Tsai is openly gay, his conception of homosexuality here, including
one of the most Miserable Arthouse Sex scenes ever filmed, seems
a little blinkered. (That said, sexuality of any kind is rarely a cause
for celebration in his work.) Taken on its own, THE RIVER might seem overly
But it forms the most extreme point on a cube. Recycling many of the same actors and imagery , Tsai's work is testimony to an obsession that may surpass any particular setting or subject matter. Unlike his compatriots Edward Yang and Hou Hsaio-hsien, politics have rarely been an overt concern for him. (What would Yang or Jonathan Nossiter would make of the scene in which the father tries cruising outside a McDonald's?) Even so, VIVE L'AMOUR takes a rather gloomy view of Taipei's capitalist boom and ecological concerns hover underneath THE RIVER and THE HOLE. On top, there's an evocation of depression, a style that takes its cues from the characters' gloom (while acknowledging their rarer moments of levity and hope) and, at best, a struggle to work through all this to the other side. What would this other side look like? So far, his films don't offer too many clues, but maybe we'll found out when WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? arrives stateside. In the meantime, THE RIVER plumbs the soul's depths further than any of his other films. As a result, it may be a bit one-dimensional, but it's no less powerful than REBELS OF THE NEON GOD, VIVE L'AMOUR and THE HOLE.