Film: A river of desire runs through it

Tsai Ming-Liang's take on modern Taiwan is a fable of repressed sexuality.
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A young man meets a woman he hasn't seen since schooldays; they have sex joylessly in a darkened room and don't encounter each other again. A middle-aged man cruises saunas for gay pick-ups and constructs a makeshift drainage system for the water that pours into his bedroom from the seemingly abandoned flat above. A woman, working as a lift operator in a department store, has an affectionless relationship with a man who pirates porn videos. Such are the joys of modern family life in present-day Taipei as depicted in Tsai Ming-Liang's The River.

The third film in a nominal trilogy about contemporary life in the Taiwanese capital, its predecessors being Rebels of the Neon God and Vive l'amour, Tsai's film won the Silver Bear at the 1997 Berlin Film Festival. Sharing characters and performers, themes and settings with his earlier two films, in The River Tsai continues to chart the personal odyssey of a young man, Xiao-kang (Lee Kang-Sheng). Drifting and without work, Xiao-kang finds a day job as a corpse. Or, at least, a one-off cameo role on a film shoot, where he's asked to float stiffly downstream in the heavily polluted Tanshui River. Thereafter, he develops an ache in his neck that simply won't go away. The narrative, such as it is, in The River concerns his mother and father's attempts to heal their son's complaint.

The River moves steadily and insistently through those moments that wouldn't normally constitute drama in narrative film. It's a film constructed from the moments in between action, of afternoons of listless domesticity in sparse apartments, of urban drift and significance that emerges from banal details. Tsai's camera style is relentlessly observational, locked-down and static, level-eyed and several steps back from the action. The film accrues its density and allegorical texture from a steady elaboration of specific symbols. Xiao-kang's increasingly agonising aching neck has a specific cause, but becomes more than merely a product of a dip in polluted waters. Tsai has explained it as "a projection of his rebellion" but it's also of a part with the film's other images of stultified desire. The water that pours into the father's bedroom becomes the chief image of desire denied and re-routed. The father constructs an elaborate system to divert the leak out of his room, without informing his wife or son. But sometime, inevitably, his little dam must break. Related in this way, the symbolism may appear trite and contrived - but Tsai knits it into the locations and everyday activities of his characters so that it becomes telling, forceful and satisfying. Likewise, the attempts to cure Xiao- kang of his aching neck prove useless, the ancestral remedies of acupuncture and the consultation of religious worthies come to nothing. It's tempting for western critics to see in this some comment on the incompatibility of the present with the past, of the modern condition being more than a match for ancient treatments. It's a conclusion borne out by Tsai's insistence on the environmental background to his story. "We don't always live happily ever after," he explains. "Look around us, our city is growing fast. Materialism boosts human greed to an inglorious height. We have everything we ever wanted, yet there is something lurking in the dark to keep us from being really happy."

While Tsai's work is largely unknown to western audiences its tenor is familiar. And if The River shares some of the themes of Hong Kong-based director Wong Kar-Wei, urban anomie and the being-alone-together of a seething metropolitan existence, Tsai's style is not the redemption through camera pyrotechnics that his Hong Kong colleague achieves in his collaboration with cameraman Chris Doyle. Rather, the comparisons might come from closer to home. The River might be seen as being the Taiwanese elaboration of art-cinema themes and characters recognizable from Kieslowski, Egoyan and even stretching as far back as Antonioni. But more than being a neon- lit La Notte, The River ups the sexual ante of art cinema by engaging fully and brutally with the consequences of sexual repression. When Xiao- kang is taken out of the city by his father to consult a faith healer, the pair independently wind up in the same sauna. The gay encounter that ensues is cross-cut with a scene of the mother alone in the apartment. The father's dam has finally burst and water surges into the room and under the mother's chair. It's the climactic image of the film, and as quiet and understated as it might appear, it gathers into itself all the force of the carefully elaborated symbolism that the film has developed. This river, one feels, will run on regardless, all the way to an emotional apocalypse.

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