Gifted Taiwanese helmer Tsai Ming-liang’s third feature, after “Rebels of the Neon Gods” and the 1994 Venice Golden Lion winner, “Vive L’Amour,” picks up some of the same characters from his earlier work and continues to explore his favorite themes of alienation and loneliness. Audiences tuned in to his very leisurely style and obsessions should enjoy his new film almost as much as his others; but for those not on his wavelength the ultra-long takes and slow pacing will be a pain in the neck. Pic is sure to play the fest route, and it probably won’t be long before Tsai’s films are cropping up in the world’s arthouse cinemas.
It isn’t necessary to have seen the earlier films in this loose trilogy to appreciate “The River,” but it’s worth noting that the dysfunctional family so rigorously examined here cropped up in “Rebels of the Neon God” with the same actors living in the same apartment. However, appreciation of “The River” hinges on the fact that Tsai tends not to spell out anything, but leaves it up to the viewer to connect the loose ends.
Lee Xiao-kang lives with his parents in a small Taipei apartment. They don’t get along, and hardly speak to one another. The mother, who works as elevator operator in a restaurant, has a lover who distributes porno videos; the father, whose bedroom ceiling leaks when it rains, is retired; he eats at McDonald’s, and regularly visits a bath house, which is used as a gay rendezvous.
A chance meeting with a girl he hasn’t seen for two years leads Xiao-kang into a fateful decision. The girl is working on a new film (being directed by top Hong Kong helmer, Ann Hui) and invites Xiao-kang to come with her to the location. Dissatisfied with a fake body the props people have supplied for a scene in which a corpse is found floating in the polluted river, Hui persuades Xiao-kang to play the floater, which he does, reluctantly. Afterward, in the hotel room the film unit provides for him to clean up in, he makes love to the girl.
But soon afterward he develops a terrible pain in his neck, which causes him to crash his moped. As the pain gets worse, his parents become concerned. His mother tries massage, to no effect. A visit to a doctor results in a painful injection, but no relief.
Xiao-kang’s agonizing pain is clearly a metaphor for troubles in his life, and especially his sex life. The river itself, far from being a source of life as it has usually been in films of the past, is a symbol of disease and even death.
As usual, Tsai takes his time to unfold this sad little story of people in pain, people looking for love. He holds on to shots long after most directors would have cut, and, indeed, sometimes too long even for his own purposes. Dialogue is minimal and action, in the strictly conventional sense, is pared to the bone.
The climactic scene, though dramatically highly effective, is likely to raise the ire of some moralists and could possibly pose a challenge for TV networks with its reasonably frank depiction of a gay sexual encounter. Film concludes with a typically open-ended, unresolved situation, a bold conclusion to a bold and challenging film.
The three principal actors fit their roles like gloves, and the handsome camerawork (by Liao Peng-jung) is a major asset. There’s no music, just natural sounds on the track. Except for a shot in which the microphone boom is clearly visible, the film is highly professional in every aspect.
The end credits amusingly misspell “foley” as “folly”, and helpfully record the film’s correct aspect ratio and running time.