Monday, March 19, 2007

Review of Vive L'Amour

Tsai Ming-Liang’s "Vive L’Amour" (1994) tells the non-story of two young men and a young woman who have in common empty lives and an empty apartment. Hsiao-Kang sells crematorium slots, Ah-Jung hawks knock-off clothing in the evening and May Lin is a real estate agent. All three spend the vast majority of their time alone and adrift even when they are technically sharing an apartment. Their “relationships” are so tentative that they hardly meet the definition. For instance, May Lin never finds out that Hsiao-Kang lives in one of her unsold apartments where she occasionally meets Ah-Jung for wordless, semi-anonymous sex.

Vive L’Amour is vintage Ming-Liang in its grueling detached long takes, minimal dialogue and uncompromising pacing that straddles the fence between art and torture. Working with a scant mise-en-scene focused around an apartment with little more than a bed, a rug and a tub, the director manages to create a sense of place and mood that owes a lot to his skill with lighting, composition and staging. Particularly noteworthy is the way that the male characters sneak, creep and hide as they secretly dwell in the unsold building, reacting to the changes in sound and lighting that signals the presence of another occupant. Hsiao-Kang’s reactions, initially comical (bowling with a melon, silently crawling out from under a bed right next to May Lin’s exhausted legs) eventually become both more disturbing and more sad.

With the extremely minimized dialogue and distant camera, it may initially seem like the film relies very little on the strength the acting, however the body language and lack of expressivity in the characters is a key factor. When the camera finally gives up a close-up for the final image it is shocking; uncomfortably intimate after a pattern of detached emotional repression and made more so by the extreme shot length.

Vive L’Amour is not a particularly easy movie to like, owing not just to the pacing and minimalism: the film finds its emotional peaks and most powerful impact by reveling to a degree in the awkwardness and pain it reveals in the vacuous lives of its lonely characters. Ming-Liang maintains a pseudo-realism of seemingly minor events that doesn’t try to be particularly clever, hilarious or momentous, but instead, invites us to analyze our own emotional reactions to progressively more revealing moments. By the time we see the shy Hsiao-Kang masturbating under a bed or Min Lin unable to recover from uncontrollable, unmotivated crying, we realize that Ming-Liang has dredged up something truly profound from the emptiness of their lives.

Vive L'Amour is neither the best Tsai Ming-Liang film nor a particularly good place to start with his work. My favorite is "The Hole" (1998) which is both more interesting and more accessible. "The River" (1997) is similar to "Vive L'Amour" but provides even more disturbing impact and a bit more stylistic edge.

Walrus Rating: 6

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

I love the way a good review can share a lot about a movie - maybe more than I would have even seen in it. I like being able to hear about them without seeing them, especially in cases like this, where...yeah.