Ai qing wan sui
Review by Andrew Schenker
Posted on 10 June 2008
Source Fox Lorber DVD
For that handful of fortunate viewers who caught Tsai Ming-Liang’s Vive L’Amour back in 1994, it must have seemed rather extraordinary; certainly not without precedent, but decidedly singular in its conception of alienation as chiefly an aesthetic problem. True, Tsai’s feature debut, 1992’s Rebels of the Neon God had introduced much of the filmmaker’s cinematic template – his static, long takes, his youth-centric Taipei milieu, the wordless interactions of his characters – but the earlier film was still reliant on a musical score – a robotic, bass-heavy throb repeated ad nauseum – and Tsai was still willing to treat young adulthood as a not entirely anti-social state-of-being. Hence that film’s settings take in the familiar congregating centers of youth culture – the video arcade, the skating rink, the café – while the musical interjections neatly fill in the work’s “dead spaces,” absolving the viewer of the need to experience the full weight of empty duration.
By the time of his second feature, Tsai’s stripped his setting down to a single, antiseptic apartment, the film’s central locale, and a handful of public places where he frames his characters in mostly solitary poses, while the absence of any extra-diegetic music and (largely) of any on-screen dialogue reduces the soundtrack to a series of silences punctuated by the odd noise from the periphery—a passing car, footsteps, Lee Kang-sheng biting into a melon. The result is the presentation of a world so strangely depopulated – both of actual human presence and of any signs of life in the several people that actually do exist – that the few attempts the characters make to reach out to each other or to express emotion register with unusual force; they take on the unexpected pathos of the impotent, but deeply felt gesture, the desperate cry into the abyss.
Chief among these characters is Tsai’s perennial lead, Hsiao-kang, introduced in Rebels and present in each of the director’s subsequent features. As played by Lee Kang-sheng, the figure, who rarely speaks, may be more presence than conventionally defined character but, at least in the early films, he’s able to project a certain youthful sense of yearning, which gives way to a more marked cynicism in his later roles. In Vive L’Amour, the character’s sexual desires are complicated in ways that aren’t present in Tsai’s other films since they’re juxtaposed with a certain religious conviction – lightly hinted at – that gets displaced on to the mother character played by Lu Yi-Ching in the filmmaker’s subsequent work. Working as a sales rep for a company that provides storage for the ashes of the dead, Hsiao-kang treats his mission as an act of high seriousness, even taking a friend to see the facility, where a tour guide speaks of the mystical post-mortem communion of his clients. Hsiao-kang also pointedly refuses the consumption of alcohol. So, when we read the character’s unfulfilled sexual yearnings, expressed principally through masturbation and his spying on a copulating couple, against this undefined religious conviction, the result is an odd confluence of spirituality and fleshiness that, while not insisted upon, makes something more out of Hsiao-kang’s antics than the base desires of an undersexed twenty-something drifter.
In Vive L’Amour, the object of Hsiao-kang’s desires – though not definitively confirmed until the film’s conclusion – is Ah Jung, a young man who sells goods on the black market and fancies himself something of a lady killer. After picking up a young realtor, May Lin – in one of the least emphatic courting scenes in cinematic history, the two exchange no words and only the occasional glance as they sit at adjacent tables in a cafe – they head back to an apartment that she’s showing for an unappetizing round of sex (Tsai focuses principally on a close-up of May Lin licking the man’s nipple). Both Hsiao-kang and Ah Jung come across keys to the apartment and throughout the film, all three characters periodically visit the setting to bathe, nap or eat. If the apartment represents something of a retreat from the hectic urban life that Tsai’s camera occasionally takes in, then it’s a distinctly modern retreat, a mostly unfurnished bit of minimalist chic that’s a natural correlative to the dehumanized interactions that define the filmmaker’s conception of contemporary life. Despite the clinical flavor of their surroundings, the characters manage to come together in different ways in the film’s central space, Ah Jung and May Lin through intercourse and, more significantly, Ah Jung and Hsiao-kang through a platonic friendship fraught with unexpressed desire; but whether these interactions offer any hope for a redefinition of the characters’ existing circumstances is a question that, while ultimately left open, is one it would take a decidedly optimistic viewer to answer in the affirmative.
If the film’s final two scenes – both among the most extraordinary and indeed, moving that Tsai’s ever achieved – find the characters attempting to reach for something beyond the boundaries that the filmmaker’s set for them, then it’s no surprise that they both come across largely as acts of futility. In the next to last scene a near-nude Ah Jung enjoys a post-coital sleep, while Hsiao-kang, who had been hiding beneath the bed during the now-concluded sexual act, emerges and takes his place next to his would-be lover. As Tsai fixes the two men in a close two-shot, Hsiao-kang inches closer and Ah Jung, still asleep, turns towards him and places his arm over his body. Hsiao-kang responds with a lightly placed kiss, as close to a romantic consummation as Tsai’s willing to allow. Inspired by Ah Jung’s automatic gesture (in his sleep, he’s clearly put his arm around any number of indistinguishable women), Hsiao-kang’s bold maneuver is only granted its measure of success due to the other man’s unconscious state. In Tsai’s films, sex is ubiquitous; a genuine connection – whether between the two men in Vive L’Amour or between Hsiao-kang and Chen Shiang-chyi in many of the director’s other works – is often suggested as a possibility, but is rarely achieved. Even here, a gesture so fraught with meaning for one participant fails entirely to register with the other.
The kiss having been firmly planted, Tsai then cuts to May Lin who he follows in a long tracking shot as she traverses the perimeter of a park. As she comes to rest on a bench, he fixes her face in a static medium close-up that lasts for the film’s remaining six minutes. Locked down by Tsai’s camera, the actress Yang Kuei-mei struggles to emit a series of gasping sobs. Straining for the release promised by a fully-appointed crying jag, she proves incapable of entirely letting herself go. What I read on a first viewing as a final assertion of self, an attempt at a humanizing gesture that’s been denied by the film’s emotionally repressive program, I had to conclude on a second viewing was a mere continuation of that anesthetization of feeling that marks the state of humanity across Tsai’s work. In Gunter Grass’ classic novel The Tin Drum, characters convene at a bar called the Onion Cellar where instead of drinks they’re given an actual onion so that, in the wake of the dehumanizing horrors of World War II, they’re permitted to cry. In Tsai’s film, with no corresponding expedient to counter the similarly dehumanizing horrors of post-modernity, all May Lin can do is struggle to emit a tortured sob. Finally tiring of the effort, she lights up a cigarette and, nearing the butt end, redoubles her vain efforts before Tsai mercifully cuts to black and rolls the credits. For the home viewer, the television can now safely be shut off; for Tsai’s characters, release is far more difficult to come by.