The River

(He liu, Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 1997)


Some films begin casually, innocently, but end in a place that is far from innocent; Tsai Ming-liang knows the secret of this inner transformation.


The River starts with a chance encounter between a young man, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng) and the famous Hong Kong director, Ann Hui. It involves an offer of work, money in exchange for something so simple it is almost comical: to float in the river like a corpse, the kind of thing extras do in movies every day, somewhere in the world.


But this encounter, and this action, will turn out to be almost a death sentence for Hsiao-kang. Like in a horror movie by David Cronenberg, our ordinary hero seems to be infected by some awful germ or virus. He begins to twitch, to feel a terrible, pinching pain. Nothing can ease this stress. And the pain is, in an emotional sense, contagious: as a malaise, it infects both his father (Miao Tien) and his mother (Lu Yi-ching).


But, as always in Tsai, external triggers merely reveal what is already lying dormant inside these fragile creatures: their deep dissatisfactions, their restless desires, their discomfort within the everyday, industrial world. Tsai is the poet laureate of modern alienation; he is able to find a strange, bewitching beauty in it.


The River is tough and demanding to watch. We see its characters connect and separate and re-connect, wordlessly; we feel every spasm of agony in the young man’s diseased body. Tsai sticks, in a masterful way, to his style, his gaze: long takes, largely static camera, geometrical compositions inside the fateful architecture of present-day Taipei.


The film inexorably builds to a scene which – I can testify from my years of using it (with some bravery on my part) in university classrooms – is deeply shocking to some sensitive viewers. It involves the father and son, meeting – without, at first, realising it – in a gay bathhouse. And it shows a sexual act which breaks one of society’s most enduring taboos, yet – and this is the profundity of Tsai’s vision – it also registers, for anyone who can remain open to it, as one of the most tender, compassionate acts ever shown or imagined in cinema.


But The River does not end in positive revolution. Its characters withdraw from the astonishing truth that has been revealed to them (and to us), drift from each other again, and return to their solitary pain. Tsai refuses to relieve our tension – but he has already changed, in the course of this extraordinary film, our moral, ethical and aesthetic perspective.


MORE Tsai: Journey to the West, Stray Dogs, What Time Is It There?, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone

© Adrian Martin July 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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