Released in 1997, Tsai Ming-liang’s The River extended what would become a de facto family trilogy in which the same actors reprise identical roles within a particular domestic structure, with Rebels of the Neon God as the first entry and What Time Is It There? as the last. Both elaborating on and diverging from the themes laid out in Rebels, The River depicts domestic connection and abandonment within a skewed world with more focus and force; the family unit is less distant yet more embattled by an outside world that no longer has the capacity to excite, and only nurses a sickness that can be passed on. As in every entry of the trilogy, The River follows Lee Kang-sheng’s Hsiao Kang, opening with the character meeting an old friend (Chen Shiang-chyi) whom he helps travel to the production site of a film she’s working on. There, he is pressured by the director (a cameo from Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui) into substituting for a mannequin, the film crew having been unable to make it realistically float like a dead body in the Tamsui River. Following the job (which he accepts, despite protesting the dirtiness of the water) and after having sex with his friend in a nearby hotel, Hsiao Kang develops an escalating pain in the neck that soon debilitates him, beginning a series of trips with his mother and father to various religious and medical institutions for a set of treatments — none of which appear to work. As with Rebels of the Neon God, the motif of water is ever-present: The River recalls the symbol in yet another stagnating, flooded apartment, but it goes further, conveying the sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the water, this awareness reflecting the pain and desire that flow throughout the film.
Whereas Rebels of the Neon God found meaning in seeing the drama of families in the heavens playing out again on the earth…The River finds only abandonment and silence.
There is a certain mystique here, for Tsai never elaborates the concepts at work in his films. And yet, insofar as pain and desire are conveyed by this overflow of water, The River also seems to be exploring the distortion of each, as if refracting both modern society and the family unit through an aquatic prism. While Lee is rendered a near inert mass of nerves, his parents (father, Miao Tien; mother, Lu Yi-ching) express similar non-functioning tendencies as, respectively, a gay man who craves youthful contact in spas and massage parlours (a need shockingly realized in a climactic incestuous encounter), and a woman aroused by even the sound of sex due to the lack of fulfilment her pornography-peddling lover offers. This overwhelming state of want is startlingly conveyed during a scene in the film’s final third where the male occupants of a hotel shuffle mindlessly around its spa, opening and closing doors, their gestures echoing with unspoken implication. In The River, Tsai adopts an increasingly abstract mode of filmic language, his concerns forcefully coalescing around the base hollowness of existence, while traditional drama beats a retreat. The River is at its most idiosyncratic is in its final moments, when it elaborates on Tsai’s view of the human condition in relation to the gods. Whereas Rebels of the Neon God found meaning in seeing the drama of families in the heavens playing out again on the earth — it imagines Hsiao Kang to be a reincarnation of the god Nezha, famed for warring against his patriarch and heavenly order — The River finds only abandonment and silence. Hsiao Kang is failed not only by medicine but is conclusively rejected by the temple and left to his pain, consigned to a world of corruption, as sickness burrows deeper and his living essence drains out.