Wednesday, May 31, 2017

THE RIVER (1997)


Director Tsai Ming-liang's 1997 feature THE RIVER took a few years to find its way to American audiences, only appearing in New York in mid-2001. It's kicked around on muddy home video ever since, but tonight I got to see a vibrant 35mm print of the film courtesy of the Chicago Film Society.

The film tells the story of a young man named Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) who takes a quickie job on a film set, floating as a dead body in a filthy river for about a minute. Soon after that, he develops a mysterious pain in his neck. The pain gets progressively worse, until pain becomes the dominant force in his life.

We meet his parents. His father hangs out in bathhouses, seeking anonymous sex with young men. His mother is having an affair with a pornographer. They sleep in different rooms in their home. Tsai has an elliptical style that refuses to explain things to us. The isolation of these three people from one another is so complete that it takes us a while to link them to each other. I think it was nearly an hour into the film before I understood how the stories of these three people connected.

Many people read THE RIVER as an allegory about urban loneliness and isolation, or they read it as a political statement about environmental issues like pollution and public health. I don't disagree with these readings, and I think the film is smart enough and deep enough to support them.

For me, though, THE RIVER is about mostly about the body. We think of ourselves as distinct from our bodies when in fact we are not. (I say "my body" as if the implied "me" has some existence removed from the body which is thinking these words and typing them on a computer keyboard. I am nothing but a body.) THE RIVER is a film that unfolds with very little dialog. We are mostly watching bodies in motion, and those bodies, in one way or another are tending to their needs and desires. We see people eat, clean themselves, have sex, attempt to endure or alleviate pain. And we don't just see a bit of these things. These things are what the movie is about. (Tien Miao, as the father, gives a performance utterly devoid of self-consciousness: devouring bowels of food, pissing, masturbating. He surrenders his body to the director.) 

When we meet Hsiao-Kang, he is young, healthy and handsome. He runs into a pretty girl he knows, and she's the one who takes him to the film set. After he's washed himself multiple times, complete with scrubbing his skin with a toothbrush, he and the girl have sex. Sex in this movie emerges suddenly, the body asserting itself without a connection to character or plot. The shocking sexual encounter that concludes the film has been read by some as a comment on character, and I suppose it must be, but I experienced it as a culmination of the film's emphasis on the body. Scene after scene has a physical manifestation. The characters debate no ideas, seem to have no thoughts. Life is reduced to the desires and needs of their bodies. The more Hsiao-Kang is consumed by pain, the less he seems connected to anything else. (It is fitting that his ailment is neck pain, which is as maddeningly indistinct as it is excruciatingly painful. If he was covered in sores, for instance, it would be grosser, but it would have less impact. This crippling pain in his neck seems to be inside of him. Which, indeed, it is.)

THE RIVER is the best film I've seen in a long time. It shows a director fully in command of his craft and fearless in the execution of his vision. Unsettling, terrifying, and even, at times, mordantly funny, it culminates in a perfectly ambiguous ending. It is a film to seek out.

Note: THE RIVER is something of a sequel to Tsai's first feature REBELS OF THE NEON GOD, which features Hsiao-Kang and his parents, though does not focus on them exclusively. 

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