Xiao-Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) rides complacently up an escalator. A pretty girl rides down a parallel one. She recognizes and stops him, invites him to spend the day with her. They take his motor scooter to the film set where she works. The crew and director are both at their wits’ end trying to get a shot of a dead body floating out of a storm drain. Their dummy looks fake. On a lunch break, the director sees Xiao-Kang sitting by himself, and perhaps she recognizes some innate similarities between him and the dummy. She cajoles him into playing the part. After lunch he wades out into the river and floats face down for the camera. The shot is a success. The pretty girl takes Xiao-Kang back to her hotel to dry off, and then she sleeps with him. He wakes up with a stiff neck, barely able to move his head, and only just makes it back to his neighborhood without crashing his scooter. Days go by. It begins to rain, the apartment where Xiao-Kang lives with his father and mother begins to leak, then flood, and as it does the pain in his neck becomes a stiffening that leaves him in constant misery.

Taiwanese (Malaysian-born) director Tsai Ming-Liang, one of the world’s great artists, uses exactly 22 shots, many of them minutes-long, to establish that much story. He moves The River (and all of his films) at a meticulous, deliberate pace, as if he is precisely stacking building blocks that will slowly form a shelter from all of the rain that hounds his characters. He is a calm observer of his own perfectly-constructed stories, and I would argue that he is cinema’s greatest chronicler of the places in life where sickness, sex and loneliness perfectly intersect.

From the establishment of Xiao-Kang’s raging pain in the neck, Tsai branches out, if only slightly, to follow the kid’s father (Tien Miao), a barely closeted homosexual who splits his time between devising ways to keep his apartment from completely flooding and cruising the McDonald’s at a Taipei mega-mall for hustlers.

Things are not going well for father and Xiao-Kang. Both have eternal stone-faces, maintained, most likely, to protect themselves from the constant boredom and inevitable defeats of their small lives in a giant city. Though he fails to stop his flooding problem, father’s new project becomes finding some way to cure Xiao-Kang of his stiff neck. They go to a doctor who injects the kid with something from a long, dripping needle. They take him to be slapped and tenderized by a masseuse. They go to an acupuncturist whose tiny tools cause Xiao-Kang more discomfort but do nothing for his neck. Finally they take a bus to a suburb of Taipei to see a religious figure (a monk? we’re not told) who douses the neck with incense and says he will await divine instruction on how to find a cure. They hole up in a cheap motel where Xiao-Kang can do little but lay in bed, too incapacitated to even kill himself (though he does half-heartedly try) and father spends a day in a bath house, looking for lovers. Meanwhile, Xiao-Kang’s long-suffering mother seems to be carrying on an affair with a porn producer, though mostly she works at a takeout restaurant and watches her home slowly fill up with water. She barely speaks a word.

It’s strange, almost masochistic, to write this, but despite the loneliness and desperation that Tsai mercilessly chronicles his movies are pure pleasure to watch. Despite his microscopically-watched people mired in a fight between apathy and desire, Tsai is a director of extremely dry comedy. He is also a formal master, and that extends beyond the rhythmic, almost hypnotic nature of his editing and shot construction to his delicate doling out of story information. Within individual shots (he rarely moves his camera) Tsai allows people to enter and exit at exact times, which reveals things about their personalities and mind-states that would otherwise have been lost.

For instance, The River features a number of similarly-constructed long-takes in which we see a male figure lying on a bed but we cannot tell who the person is. Tsai lights him with a single dark orange flood from overhead, so that the character could only be identified if he were to put his face into the light. In each of these shots, the sounds of moaning gradually become apparent, and from the shifting of the part of the figure that we can see, we begin to realize that another person has entered the room to lie in the bed. Knowing what’s happening between the two is a matter of paying close attention to the small lighted area of the frame and trying to match what can be seen with the type of sound that can be heard. In one shot, we realize the person is father, waiting at a brothel. In another, we realize that it’s Xiao-Kang, resting after wandering through the city. And in a third, at the climax of the film, Tsai allows us to realize that it’s both. Almost every shot in the film is constructed like this, as a still composition in which something gradually occurs and then builds. As we use Tsai’s subtle cues to figure out what that is, we add the information to what we already know about the story.

I first viewed The River seven years ago, on video, alone at night, and though I failed then to pick up on all of the cues and clues that are the only way to fully appreciate Tsai’s work, it left images and feelings with me that I’ve never shaken. Every Tsai film I’ve seen (by now almost all of them) leave me with the same sense. Re-viewing this one, I find that what’s usually true about films that have stuck in my mind for years is completely false with The River: my impression of my memories of the movie is deepened on second look. Xiao-Kang and father are connected by more than the fact that they’re family and have the same resigned attitude toward the world. They seem to be connected by every element Tsai has allowed into his story. Water, pain, sex, medicine, food, sleep, exhaustion, irritation, work, death. Nothing is out of place, everything that can be noticed traces back to the state of the main pair. Re-watching The River I feel I’m not reconnecting with the images I remember, but rather with the people, and with the way they seem to slowly realize that everything in the world is either a cosmic joke or a compassionate reflection of their state of mind.

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