In the world of Taiwan’s New Wave of film directors—a movement which began in the early ’80s and is still going strong—if Hou Hsiao-hsien is its documentarian and poet, and Edward Yang its humanitarian, then Tsai Ming-liang is its postmodern malcontent. Yang’s Yi Yi proved to be an international success, breaking through to a wider audience more so than any Taiwanese film before it. In retrospect, that breakthrough is understandable; Yi Yi is, primarily, a film about universal characters and themes. It’s so relatable that it brings to mind Stanley Kauffman’s review of Tokyo Story where he said “[the film] encompasses so much of the viewer’s life that you are convinced you have been in the presence of someone who knew you very well.” Hou, however, has always remained distancing because of the depth at which his late ’80s and early ’90s masterpieces were entrenched in Taiwan’s history (their lack of availability on DVD doesn’t help either), while his later films refrain from overt drama and characterizations, making even Ozu’s observations of everyday life seem opulent by comparison. But Tsai is certainly the most alienating of the three. He’s the most abstract, the most minimal, the most hermetic, the most unforgiving toward viewers unprepared for an almost completely visual form of storytelling.
In his review for What Time is it There?, Roger Ebert compared Tsai to the likes of Ozu, Bresson, Antonioni, Tati and Keaton. In a way, that comparison is unfair because Tsai is less accessible than any of these directors, though their influence can be found in his work: Tsai has Ozu’s sense of visual formalism, frequently using static frames that aren’t tied to the movements of his characters. He has Bresson’s painterly eye and ability to focus on the microcosmic actions and interactions of people. He has Tati and Keaton’s sense of visual humor, though Tsai does through stillness and small gestures what the other two do through movement and grand gestures. If Ebert had reviewed Tsai’s The Hole or The Wayward Cloud he might have thrown Minnelli in there to represent his propensity for musical numbers, or David Lynch for his dark, perverse depictions of sexuality. The most apposite comparison is with Antonioni because Tsai is able to transform architecture and nature into expressive images that symbolically reinforce his themes of existential anxiety, ennui, the vacuousness of modernity and disjunction between individuals. But Antonioni doesn’t sacrifice all vestige of traditional cinematic narrative and character to the extent that Tsai does.
The River was Tsai’s third feature film after Rebels of the Neon God and Vive L’Amour. While both films feature many of Tsai’s trademarks—including his frequent collaborator Kang-sheng Lee who always plays a character named Hsiao-kang (whether it’s the same character is debatable)— The River definitely feels the most indicative of the direction that Tsai would go with his next several features, eventually culminating in his masterpiece What Time is it There? Here, Hsiao-kang is a young man who lives with his father (Tien Miao) and mother (Yi-Ching Lu) but almost never communicates with them. One day Hsiao-Kang is asked by a film director to play a floating corpse in a nearby river and, though reluctant, he agrees. Thenceforth he finds himself plagued by a bad neck (“Postmodernity is a Pain in the Neck” as one IMDb review wittily quipped). Though he goes everywhere and tries everything to get relief (hospital, acupuncture, spiritual healer, chiropractor); nothing helps, and his life begins to become unbearable. His parents have problems of their own: his father frequently, but secretly, goes to the local gay bathhouses while his mother is starved for sexual attention.
The River contains many of the director’s trademarks alluded to above, but it’s less rigorously formal than the films that followed. Here, Tsai’s camera is still mostly tied to its characters, panning, tilting, moving, tracking to follow them. His long take aesthetic isn’t as extreme here either, and while scenes still usually play out in single takes, the scenes aren’t quite as elongated. These qualities give The River a looser aesthetic and greater dynamics. Tsai makes excellent, and often quite disturbing, use of juxtaposing short scenes of movement with long scenes of stillness. That stillness is especially potent inside the bathhouses, which are swimming in darkness with just a small light illuminating the bodies of the figures inside. Tsai stays with these sexual encounters for an uncomfortable amount of time, never blinking in order to catch every undulation, every hand movement, every orgasmic exultation. This motif culminates in the film’s most devastating scene where father and son accidentally “meet” in the same bathhouse.
The River also marks Tsai’s first extended use of his continual visual motif of water, and it’s never been more apropos than here. Most crucial is the scene where Hsiao-kang agrees to play a dead body in the local river, but not before stating, “that river’s filthy.” In his later film, The Wayward Cloud, Tsai used water as a symbol for something organically essential to life. The water shortage in that film, combined with the substitution of watermelon juice, seemed to suggest the substitution of pornography for real human connection. Here, the pollution of water carries the disease that will afflict Hsiao-kang throughout the film. That disease seems to be the erosion of human connection and communication. The fact that Hsiao-kang plays a corpse, floating aimlessly in a polluted river, surrounded by a film crew seems to suggest a multiplicity of artificial layers surrounding individuals, infecting their humanity to its very core.
It’s telling that Tsai returns to the (rather humorous) image of the leaking roof inside the family’s home, tracking their efforts to keep water out by any means necessary. Water is also intricately connected to the film’s obsession with sex and bodily fluids considering that the father goes to the bath houses to court his homosexual liaisons. Early in the film a sex scene between Hsiao-kang and an old girlfriend is preceded by her insistence that he turn off the lights and close the windows so she can pee. This early scene itself is connected to the film’s opening scene, which features an up-and-down escalator where Hsiao-kang and this girl first pass each other. The encounter is indicative of the film’s concern with the autonomous movement and separation of individuals, and is especially funny when Hsiao-kang turns around and tries to go down the up-escalator but finds himself unable to make any progress.
Tsai’s wickedly biting and absurd humor is pervasive in the film though many seem to miss it, perhaps because of a natural tendency to take such obvious art-films so seriously. One perfect example finds Hsiao-kang’s mother giving him an “electric massager” to help ease his neck pain. The next scene finds her alone in her room, watching a porno film and visibly lamenting the lack of her “massager.” All of the “healing” scenes take on a kind of satirical quality with Tsai mocking the scam artists who are obviously powerless to help Hsiao-Kang. Another funny scene finds the father riding with Hsiao-Kang, holding his head upright so he can drive his motorbike. If anything saves Tsai from the accusation of artsy-fartsy pretentiousness, it’s his sense of humor that suggests he probably doesn’t take himself as seriously as his fans do.
While The River isn’t as “silent” a film as Goodbye, Dragon Inn where Tsai managed to reduce the film’s dialogue down to less than 10 lines, it’s certainly pointing in that direction. Most of the film’s best scenes play without any dialogue, and what dialogue exists seems utterly banal and almost inconsequential. Tsai is already forging his unique visual style, but he hasn’t yet achieved that pristine sense of metaphysical mystery that will pervade What Time is it There?, or that sense of architectural abstraction that will pervade Goodbye, Dragon Inn. The River still feels rough and a bit juvenile. Its frames are opaque and muddy, almost echoing the idea of the dirty river itself. But if this isn’t Tsai at his most pure or most profound, it’s probably Tsai at his most depressively powerful. This is a film that will probably leave you feeling as unclean as that titular river, and it’s guaranteed to be a film that will grime and gunk up your subconscious.