Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Production: Color; running time: 115 minutes. Released in France, 27 August 1997, and in England, 20 March 1998; filmed in Taipei, Taiwan.
Producer: Chiu Shun-Ching, Hsu Li-Kong, Chung Hu-pin (executive), Wang Shih-Fang (associate); screenplay: Tsai Ming-liang, Tsai Yi-chun, Yang Pi-ying; cinematographer: Liao Pen-jung; editor: Chen Sheng-Chang, Lei Chen-Ching; production designer: Tony Lan; art direction: Lee Pao-Lin; set decoration: Cheng Nien-Chiu, Kuo Mu-Shan; costume design: Yu Wang; makeup: Yen Pei-Wen.
Cast: Chen Chao-jung (Anonymous Man); Chen Shiang-chyi (Girl); Ann Hui (Director); Lee Kang-sheng (Kang-Sheng, Xiao-Kang); Lu Hsiao-Ling (Mother); Lu Shiao-Lin (Mother's lover); Miao Tien (Father); Yang Kuei-Mei (Girl in Hotel).
Interview with Tsai, in Sight & Sound (London), March 1997.
Herpe, N., and M. Ciment, "Tsai Ming-liang," in Positif (Paris), no. 439, September 1997.
Roy, André, "Les noyés de Taipei," in 24 Images (Montreal), no. 90, Winter 1998.
Kemp, Peter, "Bodily Fluids," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 8, no. 4, April 1998.
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Tsai Ming-Liang is one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic of the younger generation of Taiwanese directors. So far, unlike his predecessors such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang, he's shown no interest in dealing directly with Taiwan's history; instead, he focuses on the outcome of that history, the youth of present-day Taipei—the disaffected heirs of a society that once set greater store by tradition, that held the spirits of the past in higher awe, than any other. Isolated, obscurely dissatisfied, unable or unwilling to form emotional connections with friends, lovers, or family, his young protagonists wander through a city that's bulldozed its past and jerry-built its future.
The River, the third in Tsai's Taipei cycle, shares cast, characters and motifs with its two predecessors, Rebels of the Neon God (Qing Shaonian Nezha, 1992) and Vive l'Amour (Aiqing Wansui, 1994). The lead is again taken by the pensive, delicate-featured Li Kangsheng, as before playing a youth called Xiaokang. He shares an apartment with an older couple, but so rarely do any of the three communicate with each other that it's a while before we realize they're his mother and father. (They're played by Miao Tian and Lu Hsiao-ling, who took the same roles in Rebels.) At one point when Xiaokang is sitting in a hospital corridor his parents, one after the other, walk straight past him without recognizing him. Xiaokang's sole evident emotional attachment is to his scooter; astride it he roams the Taipei streets with an air of obscure discontent, plainly looking for something but unlikely to know it when he finds it.
What he does find, unlooked-for, is pain. The agony that afflicts him, contorting his neck and reducing him to near-suicidal despair, seems on the face of it to result from his immersion in the noxiously polluted waters of the Tanshui river. But after his ducking and before the affliction strikes, Xiaokang has sex with an ex-classmate, Xiangqi; she's affectionate and gentle, but he remains blankly uninvolved throughout. His pain can be seen, not simply as the result of a viral infection, but as an index of his emotional denial; Tsai leaves us to make up our own minds. Still, Xiaokang's suffering at least attracts the concern of his parents, making them talk to him if not to each other. In a recurrent image, comic but touching, we see the father riding pillion behind Xiaokang on the scooter, holding his son's head upright.
As ever in Tsai's films, water represents an insidious and disruptive force. In Rebels of the Neon God a high-rise apartment is constantly and inexplicably flooded to a depth of several inches, with loose rubber flip-flops floating forlornly about the kitchen; the same watery theme recurs in Tsai's most recent film The Hole (Dong, 1998). In The River not only is Xiaokang possibly poisoned by his swim, but the father finds water seeping, then trickling, and finally pouring through the ceiling of his room. Rather than trying to stop it, he rigs up an intricate system of pipes and plastic sheets to deflect the flow out of the window. Since he too is an emotional amputee, estranged from his wife and seeking loveless sex in gay saunas, it's tempting to see this downpour as a symbol of the elements in his own life that he deflects but refuses to confront.
But water can also be taken as the metaphor of a society in a state of uncontrollable flux, where all fixed points have been abandoned. In this high-obsolescence city, where it seems that virtually every building is, or overlooks, a construction site, tradition can be of little help. Besides trying the regular hospital, Xiaokang's parents haul him round to a string of healers, but none of them does him the slightest good.
Tsai (who was born to Chinese expatriate parents in Sarawak) shows scant affection for his adopted city; his Taipei is a transient, comfortless place of drab apartments and hotel rooms, their walls painted in fecal browns and greens. His people occupy these spaces but scarcely seem to live in them, let alone personalize them with possessions or decor. Much of the film's action takes place in corridors—especially in the gay saunas frequented by the father, whose atmosphere offers rather less erotic excitement than the average supermarket. Even when a conjunction occurs, it's brief and joyless—no one speaks, let alone smiles, and only a muted shudder signals climax. Just once, after father and son have unwittingly coincided in an act of masturbatory incest, is there something more. When realization dawns, the father gives a groan of fury and slaps his son's face. Compared to the previous couplings (both gay and hetero), it seems almost like a caress.
All of which might sound terminally depressing. But there's a sly humor in Tsai's gaze, and a quiet, quizzical regard for his bemused wanderers, that rescues his films from misanthropy or facile pessimism. His aim in making The River, he says, was "to go as deeply as possible into the minds of the characters." Despite the laconic action and minimal dialogue, he succeeds in revealing them to us—and also, unexpectedly, in making them sympathetic.