An unemployed young man named Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) passes idle time at a local Taipei mall when he encounters an old friend (Chen Shiang-chyi) on the opposite escalator. With time on his hands, he agrees to accompany her back to the location shoot where she is working as a production assistant for a film. At the site, the director is displeased with the unrealistic appearance of a mannequin intended to represent a dead body floating on the river, and asks the aimless Hsiao-Kang to act as a stand-in for the shot. Despite his reservations, Hsiao-Kang acquiesces to float, face down, in the malodorous, contaminated waters of the river for the film. After the shoot, he checks into a nearby hotel in order to bathe and change his clothes, but soon realizes that the pollution does not easily wash away. Later in the day, his friend returns, and the two share a brief moment of intimacy before eventually parting to their separate ways. The film then cuts to the image of a middle-aged man (Tien Miao) at a bath house soliciting a somnolent patron in the dark, before being unequivocally rebuffed by the stranger. The film then shifts back to Hsiao-Kang, who begins to experience a sharp pain on the side of his neck, causing him to tilt his head sideways, and consequently lose his balance. He passes by the middle-aged man on his motorcycle, and only after his crash does it become apparent that the two people know each other. Later, it is shown that the man is his father. The film again shifts focus to an attractive middle-aged woman (Lu Hsiao-Ling) as she operates a commercial elevator, passes out discount coupons, takes home some leftovers from the kitchen, and meets her lover. The woman dines alone, then retires to her bedroom, and Hsiao-Kang’s polite knock on her door and inquiry for medication for his sore neck reveals that she is his mother. And so the austere portrait of Hsiao-Kang’s profoundly isolated homelife and emotional abandonment gradually emerges in The River, as his crippling affliction becomes a hopeless and desperate cause that binds together his splintered family.
The River is a bleak and austere portrait of urban alienation and emotional isolation. Through the recurrent imagery of water as a metaphoric medium for the process of human interaction, Tsai Ming-liang illustrates the societal malaise and impersonal nature of modern existence: the father’s frequent search for anonymous liaisons at a public bath house; the exposure to the polluted river manifests in a painful, physical malady for Hsiao-Kang; the persistent roof leak in the father’s bedroom that exacerbates as a result of inaction and deferred repair. Similar to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Hsiao-Kang’s sickness of the soul manifests as an environmental aberration that, in turn, results in a physical paralysis. Inevitably, like Hsiao-Kang’s mysterious, indefinable ailment, what emerges is a self-perpetuating cycle of incurable alienation and agonizing personal despair.
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