Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lee Kang-sheng, Miao Tien, Lu Hsiao-ling, Chen Shiang-chyi, Ann Hui
Written by: Tsai Ming-liang, Yang Bi-ying, Tsai Yi-chun
Directed by: Tsai Ming-liang
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 115
Date: 08/27/1997

The River (1997)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Somewhere Down the Crazy 'River'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It was released in many other countries in 1997 and the famous French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema voted it one of the ten best films of the 1990s. And now, after four years, Tsai Ming-liang's The River finally opens in the Bay Area. It's time for rejoicing.

Tsai was in San Francisco a few weeks ago promoting his newest film, What Time Is It There? (which opens November 30), and he admitted to me that The River is his personal favorite of his films so far. It's also his most difficult film to sit through, and hence the most rewarding.

Tsai's regular leading man Lee Kang-sheng plays his regular character named Hsiao-kang. In the first shot, Hsiao-kang rides up an escalator and runs into an old girlfriend (Chen Shiang-chyi). She brings him to a movie set where the real-life Hong Kong director Ann Hui (The Spooky Bunch, Song of the Exile) is busy trying to shoot a scene where a dead body floats down a river. The dummy doesn't look at all real, so she cons Hsiao-kang into playing the stiff.

After climbing out of the horribly polluted water, showering and making love with the girl (who we never see again), Hsiao-kang develops a horrible pain in his neck, presumably from "foreign elements" from the river. He spends the rest of the movie with his head cocked to the side, bobbling around like a baby bird, trying to make the pain go away.

Meanwhile, Hsiao-kang's father (Miao Tien) has trouble with a leaky roof in his bedroom. Instead of trying to fix the problem, he sets up an elaborate system of plastic sheets and pipes to divert the water away from his bed. The father also enjoys going to steam baths and indulging in anonymous homosexual encounters. The mother (Lu Hsiao-ling) pursues an affair with an apathetic man who seems to dub and sell porno videos. Their one scene together shows her unsuccessfully trying to wake him up for an afternoon tryst.

That's about all there is in the way of plot, except to say that Hsiao-kang and his father end up in the same dark room in the same sauna at the same time, each unbeknownst to the other. (If you know what I mean.) And Hsiao-kang's mother has a very funny scene when she tries to discover the source of the leak in her husband's bedroom.

Director Tsai shoots everything in long, wide shots with little in the way of moving cameras or close-ups. Most films choose for us what we're meant to look at by way of close-ups and cuts, but Tsai wishes us to join in and look where we want to look. This distancing effect also allows us to laugh at some of the proceedings -- we're not physically close enough to do anything else.

But Hsiao-kang's neck pain becomes difficult to watch. He can't even straighten his head out to eat properly, and food falls off his chopsticks before he can get it in his mouth. No relief ever comes for the poor fellow, even after visiting a mystical monk. Ironically, it's the first time Hsiao-kang actually feels something, anything at all. He's normally a character who acts on blind instinct rather than logic or emotion, blundering his way through life without a thought.

It all goes back to the river, or water in general. Tsai loves to play with water and he includes it prominently in all his films. Normally the source of all life, Tsai likes to twist it and make it an enemy -- a source of disease and discomfort. More so than any other filmmaker I can think of today, the more Tsai films you see, the more you'll enjoy each individual one: they all seem to be linked by common themes and ideas.

Of course, The River doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs, but it is a brilliant, multi-layered work by a true artist of the cinema. Anyone looking for a real challenge should give it a try. When Tsai's new film What Time Is It There? opens in a few weeks, you'll be more prepared.

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