The River

There's a danger in being too literal-minded when viewing Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's The River, because the story, as far as it goes, doesn't yield many revelations that aren't apparent in the early going. As a simple tale of family dysfunction, no one should be congratulated for knowing where it will wind up, even though that inevitability carries with it a distinctly unsettling sense of dread. But what makes the film so mesmerizing is Tsai's command over the vagaries of texture and tone: Through long takes, deliberately somnolent performances, and the careful placement of characters within the frame, he captures the intangible mood of modern alienation. The third in Tsai's interconnected trilogy on Taipei (the others are 1992's Rebels Of The Neon God and 1994's Vive L'Amour), The River opens with the youthful Lee Kangsheng cruising the streets on his scooter. He stops to talk to a former classmate who invites him to visit a movie set, where the director is dissatisfied with the look of a dummy floating down the Tanshui River. Lee reluctantly agrees to take the dummy's place in the polluted water, but later experiences crippling pain in his neck and shoulders. The injury forces him to join his father (Miao Tien) in receiving a series of hapless medical treatments, but the pain only sharpens. Like the bodily mutations in David Cronenberg's horror films, Lee's ailment is just a physical manifestation of much deeper psychological trauma. He lives in a dilapidated high-rise apartment with flooding problems (tainted water is a recurring motif), his father frequents gay bathhouses, and his mother (Lu Hsiao-Ling) is having an affair with a pornography dealer. Tsai expertly evokes the drab tension that rules their existence; there's not a word spoken among them that isn't prompted by obligation. The only moment that counts as real confrontation is similarly unavoidable; it's shortly followed by a return to the old habits of repression and denial. The River is difficult and unpleasant at times, but as a somber metaphor for contaminated lives, it's masterful.

Filed Under: DVD

More DVD Review