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The River (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on June 13, 2015

Ming-liang Tsai has directed 10 feature films.  The four that are available on Blu-Ray — his three earliest and his latest — are all among the bottom half of his work, by my reckoning.  While I’m not going to complain about Tsai getting the hi-def treatment, I sure do wish they’d get some of my favorites out there (Visage hasn’t even shown up on DVD yet).  Still, it’s great to see this in a beautiful presentation.  The screenshot above is from the old DVD because I don’t have the ability to play Blu-Rays on my computer, but trust me — the image quality is vastly improved.

As always, I feel the need to clarify that just because this isn’t one of my favorites by Tsai doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing.  It demonstrates a gradual development in his style and his talents, which would come to full flower in his next feature, The Hole.  To those unfamiliar with the film, it concerns Hsiao-kang (Kang-sheng Lee), a nondescript young man who bumps into an old friend or old flame, played by Shiang-chyi Chen.  The girl takes him to a location shoot where she is a production assistant.  The director (Ann Hui, presumably playing herself) is trying to shoot a corpse floating face down in the river, but it isn’t convincing enough.  She talks Hsiao-kang into doing it, and soon after he develops a chronic neck pain.  Meanwhile, his mother (Yi-Ching Lu) is carrying on an affair with a pornographer, and his father (Tien Miao) is cruising gay bathhouses.

Such is the story, as it unfolds in long, extremely patient takes.  Tsai’s pet themes are everpresent: emotional repression, joyless sexual encounters, urban alienation, isolation, water as both a lifeforce (or perhaps, as Jonathan Rosenbaum postulates, sexual desire) and an uncomfortable intruder.  It also showcases some of Tsai’s typical deadpan humor, which typically involves watching the characters stumble their way through awkward or difficult situations.  But the lightness here is no match for the bleakness, and I think this stands as Tsai’s most cynical film.  Perhaps that’s why it isn’t one of my favorites, despite such refined style and expression.  There is no ray of hope at the end, only a sense that things aren’t going to get better, and have probably gotten much worse.  Hsiao-kang’s lingering on the balcony certainly suggests a fleeting suicidal impulse, echoing back to the previous film, Vive L’Amour.

So disconnected is this family that Hsiao-kang’s parents walk right past him in the hospital corridor, oblivious to his existence.  It’s also one of the very few moments where the parents are seen together, though the mother follows at such a distance that they might as well be strangers to each other.  Tsai gives us no impression that there is any love lost between them.  As far as we can see, they have always been like this, living their lives apart, seeking fleeting sexual satisfaction elsewhere.  As for Hsiao-kang, the first time we see him with his father is a random encounter on the street, and they show no signs of recognition, much less familial relation.  It should be noted that Lee’s physical performance is masterful.  Never have I felt such sympathy pain for a character, a pain that goes entirely unrelieved, even during orgasm.

There’s one curious thing I noticed for the first time.  The first line of dialogue is Shiang-chyi Chen addressing our hero as “Lee Kang-sheng”.  The actor’s name, not the character’s.  It wasn’t just a subtitling error, I listened three times myself to confirm it.  I thought at first it was an indication that the person who gets in the river is Lee and the character with the neck pain is someone entirely different.  Which would have been an intriguing twist, but my theory was deflated when Hui distinctly refers to him as “Hsiao-kang”.  So what is Tsai playing at here?  Is it some meta- game here, or is it simply a dialogue flub that slipped through the cracks?  I presume the latter, but it’s an interesting tidbit that highlights how closely Lee is identified with the recurring character (or recurring name, anyway).  Rating: Very Good (86)


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