The River is a tough movie to review, a stiflingly uncomfortable drama about a stiflingly uncomfortable way of life.
Released first in 1997 and written and directed by Tsai Ming-liang, the movie features no music and takes place almost entirely in static camera shots. It’s ‘Hanekian’ before Michael Haneke had even hit its stride.
Proceedings don’t start off so grim. In an almost comic sequence, lead character Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) runs into an old friend who is in town working on a film. Joining her for lunch, he is recruited to play a dead man floating in a polluted river, after the movie’s crew have trouble with their dummy body.
Soon after though Hsiao-Kang’s neck starts to hurt. Going to his parents for help, we learn they are estranged. Sleeping in separate bedrooms, his mother (Lu Yi-ching) is having an affair with a pornographer and his father (Miao Tien) is a closeted homosexual. Despite attending doctors, getting massages and acupuncture, visiting spiritual healers – no one can explain why Hsiao-Kang’s pain persists as it grows worse.
Mileage will vary with The River. It’s at times a punishing watch. We spend an agonising amount of time following this dysfunctional family intimately. This varies from watching them perform mundane tasks at length to them at their most personal. The latter includes witnessing the father have secret soulless casual sexual encounters at the bath-house he frequents. These characters are all deeply unhappy and despite very brief moments of warmth between them, the feeling of sadness which permeates from the film will rub off on the viewer.
That said, it seems like this is exactly what Tsai Ming-liang was hoping to achieve. Knowledge of the Tamsui River, the location which gives the movie its name, helps add some layers to the grimness. It’s waters are well-known for being polluted with raw sewage. It’s hard not to imagine the writer-director is making a link between the excrement we as humans collectively repress and move out of sight with the feelings and actions of which some do the same. The River can be read as a return of the repressed story with Hsiao-Kang’s pain a physical manifestation of all the feelings its lead character buries deep.
In confronting viewers with his depiction of the darker, transgressive side of life, Tsai Ming-liang has made a tough but brave film. It’s not enjoyable. But then those who gravitate towards both the extreme cinema of France or parts of Asia and the slower, enigmatic side of art-house cinema may have gotten a chance to discover something they can call a masterpiece.