Monday, November 2, 2009

Review: The River (1997)

The River (1997, Tsai Ming-Liang)

Xiao-Kang, played by Kang-sheng Lee, is a young adult drifting aimlessly through life, just like a dying leaf lying on a pond with a slight breeze whisking it along the water. The opening scene of the movie makes this abundantly clear, whereupon an old acquaintance of Xiao-Kang asks him what he is occupying himself in life. All the young gun can provide are bashful replies of 'nothing' and 'not much.' She invited Xiao-Kang to join her on a movie set where she currently works. Fate has it that the director needs an extra to play the role of a floating corpse in a Taipei river, but this seemingly inoffensive act ends up having significant consequences for our protagonist. Shortly after this brief introduction into filmmaking, Xiao-Kang begins to experience an steadily growing pain in his neck, one that plagues him for the remainder of the film.

The River
's DVD cover features several quotes from various critics who shower the film with praise, saying it is an honest depiction of modern Taiwan. The synopsis on the back of the DVD cover reads how the film is a brilliant snapshot of the modern, increasingly fractioned Taiwanese family structure. I discovered Tsai's skill as a director at the tender age of 1 year ago, when I saw his 1994 effort Vivre L'Amour. It was therefore with a sense of anticipation that I borrowed The River from my local library. By the end of the film, I had the same feeling when I have finished eating a plate of fresh fish which is lacking some correct spices. It's certainly good, but I wanted a little bit more.

First and foremost, I want to applaud the performance given by Kang-sheng Lee. As his character's neck experiences increasing levels of pain, Lee must continuously act out an awkward tick by jerking his neck to the left. It may not sound like much, but pause and reflect about that for a moment. You are an actor and the director asks you to perform this annoying tick through most of the shoot. Scenes need to be shot, then re-shot, and re-shot again until they are perfect. There are also some lengthy scenes in the film as well! It seems to me that would get frustrating really quick. Not only must that be difficult work after a while for the actor involved, but ironically enough the growing annoyance works well within the story itself on many levels. At the beginning of the movie, Xiao-Kang was already a young man alienated from his mother and father, both an elevator operator and a bum/closet homosexual respectively. Their family unit, in this modern and late 20th century world, is rapidly falling apart, no longer tightly knit with the traditional elements of love and respect which typically bond us to our own families. Family, if you will, has sort of become a 'pain in the neck' for Xiao-Kang if you know what I mean. His meandering lifestyle, which resulted in his earning a severe neck pain, has forced him back together with his father most, the latter whom brings him to various doctors and healers. It's a complicated relationship, that between Xiao-Kang and his father. One of the best scenes in the film, and the type of scene I had hoped would feature more prominently throughout the movie, has Xiao-Kang and his father eating at a restaurant. The young man's pain seems to be 'eating away' his appetite, as he refuses to eat the food his father has ordered. After a few honest attempts at getting Xiao-Kang to take some bites, his father receives a harsh reply from his son. The father then continues to eat his own dish, but only now he is facing the other way, avoiding eye contact with his impolite son.

It is also interesting to note how each subsequent doctor and healer that Xiao-Kang visits practices more and more unorthodox methods ('unorthodox' when compared to how we generally expect patients to be treated). Painful massages, the good old 'plenty of needles sticking out of your hand' treatment, etc. With each new treatment comes a new sense of hope, although that hope for a return to normality my already be quickly fading, just like the hope to return to the older days when their family happenings were healthier as well. Xiao-Kang tries everything to rid himself of this horrible pain, but all attempts are futile. Sometimes you just have to live with the pain. 'No pain, no gain,' as the old saying goes.

There are a few too many scenes that, to my mind, indulged in themselves. One of the themes of the film, connected to that of the crumbling family structure, is that of loneliness and a lack of human communication. The scene I briefly discussed above between Xiao-Kang and his father at the restaurant, exemplifies this brilliantly, but there are others that feel a bit too 'on the nose' and seem to exist only to pad on the running time. I understand that to feel the theme of loneliness and tediousess one should experience it with the characters, but sometimes I just wasn't into it. One scene occuring just outside a MacDonald's with two characters walking past each other about 5 billion times is a good example of one I felt the film just didn't need. The scene near the beginning where the viewer learns that the director's fake dead body is unsuitable for the scene seems to take forever to finish, even though I'm sure in actuality it only lasted about 3 or 4 minutes.

An intriguing tone, a brilliant performance by the leading man, Kang-sheng Lee and handful of great scenes make The River a worthwhile experience for fans of recent Taiwanese cinema, although I woulnd't consider this a perfect film by any means.

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