Hsiao-kang is idly riding around one day when he runs into an old friend who invites him to a movie set. The film crew is trying to film a dummy floating in the water, with little success, so during the lunch break the director asks Hsiao-kang if he will be their body. At first he refuses to float in the polluted river but eventually relents. Later, Hsiao-kang begins to experience neck pain and spasms. He turns to his parents for help as the pain becomes more discomforting. They turn to traditional doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, spiritualists, to no avail. It could be the river that caused this problem, or it could be a symptom of disintegrating family, their home life a separated existence where each of his parents is carrying on an affair.
The only thing you really need to know is that The River (1997) is by Tsia Ming-liang and it falls under his stylistic pretense- very minimalist direction, long uninterrupted shots of the seemingly inconsequential, little dialogue, the camera mainly at a medium distance, and paced like somber sleepwalking through fresh mud. I like to call the style "anti-action" movies. You'll find it in other films/directors like Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, Antonioni's La Avventura, and Anh Hung Tran's Vertical Ray of the Sun. Instead of relying on elaboration (dialogue or complex scenes), the silences and the landscape of a flat room or a emotionless face are what is important. It is safe to say, this is a style that your average viewer will find tedious. The approach of letting scenes play out and unfold with little action, lingering on faces, in the shadows, or in the normal boring routine of everyday life will either lull you into boredom or lull you into a contemplative state.
I share in this love hate relationship with cinematic minimalism. While I'm always engaged by the style, as many times as I've loved a film executed this way, there is an equal number of times where I've watched a film and found myself yawning, squirming in my seat, and fast forwarding through scenes. Admittedly, there were moments in The River where I did find my eyelids getting heavy and my fast forward finger itching.. But, that has happened at some point with every one of his films I've seen, What Time Is It There? Vive L'Amour and The Hole. The fact that I continue to seek out his work, despite these lapses into sleepiness should say something. As a film maker Tsia Ming-liang hasn't completely won me over, but I always find his films interesting, interesting enough to keep returning to his work.
Anyway, I liked The River. Like his other films, Tsia Ming-liang explores alienation. The family barely speaks to each other and whe htey do it is matter-of-factly. There are several scenes involving eating, and whether they are alone or together, the meals are silent exercises. The father seeks out anonymous sex in gay bathhouses. The mother is having an passionless affair with a pirate pornographer. Any scenes of sexual intimacy are filmed in darkness, giving only a glimpse of detail, a hand here, a leg there, a back. Hsiao-kang's mystery ailment is a projection of the internal emotional disconnection that his family cannot cure. They try to, his father holds Hsiao-kang's head so he can ride on his moped and travles with him to visit a spiritualist, but nothing works. By the end, as Tsia Ming-liang's motivations become clear, it is a powerful and haunting work that will stick in the minds of those who can embrace his style of storytelling.
The DVD: Wellspring.
Picture: Widescreen 1.85:1, non-anamorphic. Picture is a bit grainy and hazy. Both the sharpness and color could be stronger. It is mediocre, certainly watchable and better than a vhs, but just not as good as the previous Ming-Liang release What Time is it There?.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Chinese (Mandarin) with optional yellow English subtitles. Well, in keeping with the natural style, the film has no soundtrack and has long stretches with no dialogue and little to no audio whatsoever. The film is more about silence, but the audio does adequately convey what sound there is, background noises and dialogue.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Filmographies for Tsia Ming-liang and the cast--- Mandarin Trailers for Flowers from Shanghai, The River, What Time is it There?, and Yi Yi--- Weblinks
Conclusion: Well, if you are any sort of Tsia Ming-liang fan, it is decent enough to pick up. Though, the quality is far from perfect, non-anamorphic, and the print could be much better. So, if you are looking for that introduction to his work, you may want to spare your cash and rent this, save your money for the better transfers of his films that are out there, like What Time is it There? or The Hole.