The River

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Tsai Ming-liang

Written by Tsai, Yang

Bi-ying, and Tsai Yi-chun

With Lee Kang-sheng, Miao

Tien, Lu Hsiao-ling, Chen

Shiang-chyi, Chen Chao-yung,

and Ann Hui.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

It’s difficult to know how to approach a film as strange and shocking as The River–Tsai Ming-liang’s third feature, playing this week at Facets Multimedia. I want to start by labeling it a masterpiece, but in cases such as this that assertion seems more a gamble than a certainty, however much I’d prefer to pretend otherwise.

How to explain my lack of confidence? First of all, when encountering something as peculiar as The River, my first impulse isn’t to assert anything but to ask, “What the hell is this?” And to try to answer that question, I have to first analyze my experience of the movie.

I’ve seen The River twice, both times in less than ideal circumstances. I saw it two and a half years ago with German subtitles at the Vienna film festival, and I just saw it again with English subtitles on video–a copy of an English commercial video that a friend, Kent Jones, was kind enough to make for me when I discovered that there wasn’t any other way I could see this film again before reviewing it. Paradoxically, watching it with English subtitles was more problematic–because the image in all of Tsai’s features is immensely more important than the dialogue, which is minimal, and because the size and clarity of the image are essential to what Tsai’s doing. Jones, who’s also a critic, wrote about the film’s “monumentality” in the French magazine Trafic a couple of years ago, and the only reason I know he’s right is my memory of seeing the film in 35-millimeter in Vienna. Seeing it on video reminded me of all sorts of details, but it only confused and diluted my first impression.

That I regard The River as a masterpiece and the work of a master doesn’t mean that I consider it fun or pleasant–terrifying and beautiful would be more appropriate. It’s been a subject of dispute ever since it won the special jury prize in Berlin in 1997, and I can’t exactly quarrel with those who complain that it’s sick or boring; I can understand how one could have these responses, even though I don’t share them.

Tsai is a Taiwanese director who was born in Malaysia in 1957. He started out in TV dramas (1989-’91) and has made one TV documentary, about AIDS (My New Friends, 1995), and four features: Rebels of the Neon God (1992), Vive l’Amour (1994), The River (1996), and The Hole (1998). All of the features are set in Taipei and deal with loneliness and isolation; The Hole, a postmodernist musical of sorts, has also been seen on U.S. cable and elsewhere in a shorter version called Last Dance. The River, in some ways the most powerful and accomplished of the last three features–I still haven’t seen the first–has been screened the least, probably because people don’t quite know what to make of it.

The plot–what there is of it–begins with a young woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) who’s working on a film crew and runs into an old friend, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), whom she hasn’t seen in a couple of years, going in the opposite direction on an escalator in a mall. She invites him to join her, and they ride on his motorbike to the film shoot, where Hong Kong director Ann Hui, playing herself, is trying to get a fake corpse to float convincingly on the polluted Tanshui River. Complaining that the dummy’s feet look fake, Hui asks Hsiao-kang during a lunch break if he’d like to play the corpse, and after some hesitation he agrees. Later his friend takes him to a small hotel to clean up, and they have sex; this is the last we see of her in the film.

We also start following the separate daily activities of Hsiao-kang’s parents, who live with him, though they’re almost never seen together. His mother (Lu Hsiao-ling), an elevator operator, is pursuing a fairly apathetic affair with a man who sells pornographic videos, and his father (Miao Tien), apparently retired, cruises gay saunas in search of anonymous sex. Around the same time that the son starts complaining of a chronic and debilitating pain in his neck, clearly brought on by an infection he got from the river, his father starts noticing a water leak in his bedroom that’s gradually becoming more serious; rather than deal with this problem directly, he uses plastic sheeting to form a canopy over his bed and divert the water toward a drain.

Meanwhile the father and mother alternately try to find cures for the son’s neck, taking him to different doctors who try out various therapies, none of which appears to work. The leak in the father’s bedroom begins to flood the apartment, prompting the mother to climb through a downpour to the empty apartment above to turn off the kitchen faucet. Meanwhile the son is masturbated in one of the dark saunas by an older man, who turns out to be his father. As soon as the father recognizes his son, he slaps him. Father and son sleep in the same bed in a hotel room in a Taipei suburb. In the morning the father, pretending nothing has happened, phones a religious leader, who advises him to return to Taipei with his son and see a doctor, saying they no longer have to visit his temple. The father goes downstairs for breakfast, and Hsiao-kang, before joining him, steps out onto the sunny balcony.

Stylistically, Tsai favors filming most action in medium or long shot, in extended takes, and with the camera planted in the center of a room–a fairly cool and detached way of dealing with the sadness and isolation of his characters, whether they’re alone or not. (No one ever seems to get much enjoyment out of sex or any other kind of social interaction in a Tsai Ming-liang movie.) Most of the settings occupied by these characters are new and relatively anonymous; when the father gets cruised by a young gay hustler in an extraordinarily and beautifully developed long take early in the film, it’s at a McDonald’s.

Ever since I first encountered Tsai’s work, when I saw Vive l’Amour, I’ve tended to regard it as a kind of update on the urban melancholia Michelangelo Antonioni used to specialize in, especially during the 50s and 60s. Using Antonioni as a reference point can take one only so far, and the same is true when he’s used as a reference point for another Taiwanese modernist, Edward Yang. One of the main differences may be that Antonioni is a master of alienated moods, but atmosphere tends to be more a given than a creation in Tsai’s movies, which conjure up more mysteries about subjects the characters tend to be inarticulate and confused about–sexuality most of all.

An obsessive filmmaker, Tsai has used the same lead actor playing virtually the same character in all four of his features to date. He used the same actors to play the mother and father in Rebels of the Neon God and The River, and he used Chen Chao-yung in central roles in Rebels of the Neon God and Vive l’Amour and in a minor role (as the gay hustler at McDonald’s) in The River, and Yang Kwei-mei as the female leads in Vive l’Amour and The Hole and in a bit part in The River. Add to this an ongoing obsession with water as a symbol for sexual desire–which is no less central in The Hole–and one might say that Tsai has a cosmology that’s every bit as fixed and narrow as Leos Carax’s.

The parallels between the father’s sexual desire and the leak in his bedroom, developed concurrently, are as much a part of this cosmology as the parallels drawn between water as a life force and as the cause of the hero’s nearly constant pain–which persists even in the final shot and which is one of the factors that makes the film so unsettling.

The urban alienation that seeps into virtually every shot also affects the film’s narrative structure, so that at least half an hour passes before it’s clear that the son and the parents are even related. The pervasive alienation also makes it seem both logical and inevitable that the friend on the film crew with whom Hsiao-kang has sex simply disappears. And, as Berenice Reynaud notes in her excellent recent book, Nouvelles Chines, nouveaux cinemas, the first time the son crashes offscreen on his motorbike because of his neck injury and the father, who’s standing nearby, goes to help him, Tsai ambiguously shows their interaction as if they were absolute strangers, something that makes their later accidental sexual encounter seem a lot more plausible.

Tsai’s poker-faced distance from his characters may make one think of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati, as Kent Jones suggests, but the occasional comic inflections may not always be intentional. In one interview Tsai mentions that when the father rides behind his son on the motorbike en route to the hospital, holding his son’s head in his hands, this is based on something that really happened when Lee hurt his neck during the shooting of Rebels of the Neon God. “I thought the image had a lot of pathos,” Tsai says, “but to my surprise everyone seems to find it funny.”

Squaring Tsai’s acute grasp of the contemporary with a particular intentionality may ultimately be beside the point, especially for work that’s coded and inflected in so personal a manner. The characters and their repressions and longings are so palpably realized that one simply accepts all sorts of improbabilities. Sex and plumbing, seduction and infection, a river and a spray of steam and a torrent of rain are all part of the same inexorable flow.