He Liu

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 11/14/01 19:51:36

"If you thought American Beauty was bleak ..."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Taiwanese director, Tsai Ming-Liangs sixth film, The River takes the viewer down the river of life within one family. As you travel deeper down this metaphorical river, you bear witness to increasing disintegration in their relationships, themselves and even the place they live. While we watch the events unfold, the metaphor becomes more poignant. The characters are not trying to understand what went wrong, they are just living their lives, reacting to outside forces, dealing with the unexpected and maintaining themselves in all the ways they have learned to cope with unhappiness and dissatisfaction. It is a very bleak but thoroughly engrossing film. There is nothing remarkable about the characters. They are an ordinary work-a-day family who live separate lives under the same roof.

In the opening scene a mannequin is unceremoniously thrown face down into a dirty river by a film crew. Upset that the mannequin doesn’t look real enough, the director asks a random stranger of the right build to get into the dirty water and float until he can’t breath anymore to get the shot. Xiao-Keng (Lee Kang-Sheng) had nothing else to do that day so he reluctantly agreed. And with his white clothes he waded out into the mire.

Like a very juicy soap opera, the facts of his life unravel as we follow his mother (Lu Hsiao-ling) to and from the restaurant where she works, spending all day going up and down an elevator and passing out coupons and greeting customers. Xiao-Keng himself as he idles away the day, apathetic and rebellious. And his father, (Miao Tien) who relentlessly pursues routine and struggles vainly to fix a constant leak in his room during the rainy season. I didn’t even know they were a family for some time. At first you are just presented with these three characters in separate circumstances and for some time the film seems to about all these disconnected people. But then you learn that they are a family and they live together, only because they cross paths at various points throughout the day. But they are like strangers to each other and painfully avoid spending too much time in each other’s presence.

When Xiao-Keng hurts his neck on his motorcycle, he is forced to spend more time with his father and the emptiness of their lives continues in routine and obligation culminating in an incestuous meeting at a darkened bathhouse. His mother lets Xiao-Keng borrow her vibrator to massage his neck and she ends up alone in her room watching soft-core porn listening to her “massager” humming away in the other room, far from where she wants it to be.

There is no hearth or center in this family home. The family lives off leftovers the mother is able to scavenge throughout the day at the restaurant and they eat separately, digging through the little red boxes in the refrigerator for their meal. Their attempts to find passion in other areas of their lives are frustrated as well. In another scene, the mother is visiting her lover only to be rebuffed by him as he naps on the couch while porn plays on the television.

Filmed in 1997, The River won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and features the untrained Lee Kang-Shen. Ming-Liang has built his last five films around Kang-Shen’s portrayal of desolate urban youth, propelling Kang-Shen into the Taiwanese spotlight as a promising young actor.

Tsai Ming-Liang says about The River, “I have always wanted to probe deeper into the roots of humanity. While shooting The River, I kept reminding myself to probe into the deeper , the darker half of ourselves. We don’t always live happily ever after. Materialism boosts human greed to an unglorious height. We have everything we ever wanted, yet there is something lurking in the dark to keep us from being really happy. ”

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.