THE RIVER

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

***1/2



Until now, THE RIVER, made in 1997,  has been a missing piece of the Tsai Ming-liang puzzle, at least for New Yorkers. The Walter Reade's current Tsai retrospective, which includes a half-hour video made earlier this year and other video and documentary work (although not his latest feature, WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?), should help fill in the pieces. Even in his first feature, REBELS OF THE NEON GOD, the director's voice seemed remarkably assured, and his subsequent films have all taken place in the same world: a Taipei of isolated, alienated characters who speak little and stand around posed in master shots. Yet for all the gloom of Tsai's work, he  indulged in slapstick sex farce in VIVE L'AMOUR and musical numbers and a sci-fi premise in THE HOLE. Why has THE RIVER taken 4 years to get a single New York screening? Maybe because it offers Tsai's vision at its darkest, foregoing the relief of humor, the tentative ray of hope that closes THE HOLE or even the ambiguous emotional release at the end of VIVE L'AMOUR. Terror stalks his characters, but they rarely reach boiling point. In THE RIVER, they come closest, without achieving any real catharsis.

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 miserabilist.
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.