Common sense for writing a film review dictates that the critic should never spend more time than necessary describing the movie's plot. The reasons are obvious: the reader either has or hasn't seen the film, thus making plot synopsis redundant for one group and too-revealing for the other (though why people read entire reviews for films they haven't seen and subsequently bitch about even minor spoilers is quite beyond me). Also, the purpose of the review is to describe and analyze the film in one's own words, not to regurgitate what happens like the host of a personal Chris Farley Show. Some films are dense enough to require a bit more explanation before explication, of course, and frankly sometimes you just fall into the trap of padding, even if doing so unconsciously. Tsai Ming-liang's third feature, however, is a film told so lyrically that it becomes sorely tempting not simply to write down what happens scene-by-scene, confident that even separated from the images a synopsis would read more beautifully than any attempt to tackle the film.
Take the first half hour alone: The River opens with a low-angle shot of an escalator in a Taipei mall, clacking loudly as its stairs rotate. The shot holds until a young woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) rides down the escalator as a man, Xiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), rides up. They recognize each other and converse, and the woman takes Xiao-kang to a location shoot where a director -- real-life Hong Kong director Ann Hui -- fusses over a dummy meant to simulate a corpse drowned in a river. She asks Xiao-kang to enter the fetid, scummy water in the dummy's place, and he reluctantly agrees. Tsai moves from Xiao-kang, who cleans himself off in a shower and has sex with his lady friend, to a middle-aged man in a sauna attempts to solicit a tired young man who rebuffs him. Tsai follows this older man home, where he crosses paths with Xiao-kang, who develops a bizarre ache in his neck that cause him to crash his motorcycle. The older man rushes to his side, and we see that they know each other, and then realize that the man is Xiao-kang's father. Tsai cuts away from them both to a middle-aged woman (Lu Hsiao-ling), an attractive elevator operator who gets off work and heads home, where she sits at her bedroom mirror removing her makeup. Someone knocks at her door, and Xiao-kang enters asking for aspirin. The woman is his mother.
Even when trying to prove a point, I rushed to spare you any intricate, wordy detail, but just look at that pacing. That action takes you almost precisely to the 30-minute mark of a two-hour film, at which point do the nature of the three characters under Tsai's focus become sufficiently grounded and identifiable. By introducing each character separately and slowly working each into the company of the others, Tsai makes ostensibly arbitrary cutaways into expertly paced introductions. Furthermore, this structure, and the imagery already peppered within, outlines the emotions, themes and symbols of the film. The amount of time that it takes the director to establish the three characters as related, not in a cosmic sense but simply a familial one, emphasizes how distant they are from one another. This family is clearly dysfunctional, but not in the way that American films usually exploit for laughs at the expense of those who have it worse than "us," whomever that may be. No, this trio is practically inert: the son speaks to the parents occasionally, but the parents do not communicate with each other at all. The one time the father calls the mother, he gets her answering machine.
From their disaffected lives, Tsai charts three main concerns: the lack of communication in the modern world, the existential doubt that modern world imparts upon its residents, and the physical manifestation -- in body and environment -- of that spiritual corruption. The way that Hui and her crew debate the obvious falsity of the dummy, proposing futile solutions of smearing mud on it and weighing the feet down with rocks for more realistic effect, serves as a microcosm for Tsai's own preoccupations with human movement and behavior. His characters are apathetic and anomic; that the on-screen director would turn to someone like Xiao-kang, who often stands as motionless as an inanimate object and doesn't even register that Hui is speaking to him until she loudly repeats herself, makes perfect sense. He might as well be a wooden doll.
Tsai tracks the characters' listlessness with a detachment of his own: he only places the actors in shots from the medium range and beyond. Yet he still captures their eyes, the disturbingly similar looks of mall patrons gazing at tawdry attention-getters in shop windows that suggest just enough "class" to warrant their special placement, people absent-mindedly watching television, even the older men who wander the Taiwanese saunas doing some window-shopping of their own as they search each room for willing, nubile flesh. The same glazed look clouds everyone's eyes, blinding them to the rest of the world.
Only when people engage in sex do they even seem to notice anyone else, yet Tsai undercuts any potential gratification the numerous sex acts might give the characters -- or audience -- with his lighting. The director obscures the copulating bodies in shadow, allowing only one small beam of faint light in nearly all of the scenes depicting sex; only when pornography is shown does any sort of sex appear in full light, but it is either scrambled or, as when the mother watches it with her smut-dealing lover, made a tiny blip in the background or in a reflection. We see only Xiao's back and his lady friend's hand as they wordlessly, almost statically, exhale and shift; the young man who first turns down the father is almost completely covered in shadow save for his stomach down to his calves, an area that is itself covered up by a towel. Rather than portraying sex as dirty -- though the pitch-black, deeply unsettling saunas are the most recurring of sexual images, he does not differentiate between these seedy, literally steamy hookups and those of the heterosexual ilk -- or shadowing as a precautionary method against censors, Tsai's lighting suggests the anonymity and detachment in even the most physically intimate of acts. Sex does not serve to dull their pain because pain is a sensation and thus not felt at all.
Which is what makes the strange nature of Xiao-kang's ailment all the more striking. Visits to doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, even faith healers do nothing to ease Xiao-kang's pain. Indeed, his neck ache only becomes more excruciating, to the point that he suffers a breakdown about halfway through the film in which he frantic hits himself and cries for death to end this suffering. His predicament comes to resemble Carol's strange, incurable affliction in Safe; it doesn't make a great deal of sense that scummy water, dangerous as it may be, would cause the sort of ache that plagues the boy, and perhaps its development is as psychological as it is physical. With his ever-titled neck, Taipei becomes even more of an alienating oddity, not only cold in its modernity but canted as if in a fun house, an alteration both comedic and -- like any good fun house -- more than a bit terrifying. Tsai teases the audience with the possibility of Xiao-kang's sickness bridging the broken family, but the despair simply runs too deeply. When the poor kid suffers his mental collapse, his mother rushes to his side, only to chastise him for his agony; "Haven't I done enough pampering?" she cries, focusing the attention back onto herself, while the father keeps his distance, looking perplexed and uncomfortable as if merely struggling with a tight suit. At times, the director employs abysmally dark comedy upon this family that links their collective disengagement with their individual, sexual indifference: in one scene, the mother sits in her bedroom alone and puts on a porno tape with a look of arousal mixed with frustration. She just sits there watching it as if something's missing for her to get off, and Tsai then cuts to Xiao-kang massaging his neck with a vibrating rod that his mother gave to him. When the boy hops on his motorcycle to meet with the first doctor, his father will not allow him to ride with his twisted neck, so he sits on the back of the cycle and holds his son's head straight. It's likely the closest and most intimate moment they've shared in years, only to form a sharp contrast to a later, horrific event between the two in a sauna.
Like a similarly styled film from the same year, Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, The River occasionally loosens its grip too much and allows an otherwise gently wafting film to stagnate. But Tsai Ming-liang displays an extraordinary ability to place his narrative, themes and symbols completely out in the open while structuring them in such a way that the finished product always manages to slip just out of reach. The prominent imagery of The River is, as you may have guessed, water, the symbol of life. Yet here it is a destructive force, ostensibly causing Xiao-kang's illness, fogging the hellish world of the saunas in the form of steam and leaking through a roof in the father's bedroom until neglect and delayed repair cause a full flooding of the family's apartment. Water indeed represents life, and if the first shot of it in the film is a disgustingly contaminated river, what does that suggest about life in the modern age? By the end of the film, Xiao-kang learns to live with his pain, to cease searching for a cure and to accept his condition as just something to work around rather than confront. He learned this lesson near the start of the film, when he showered after his stunt work and found that the stench of the river, of life, cannot be washed away lest one scrubs to the bone. So, he perpetuates the cycle of disenfranchisement and displacement that consumed his parents, and it may be only his crippling pain that gives him any sense of self in this world. Sleep tight, kids.