Tsai Ming-liang's Vive l'amour: Taipei's lonely souls

David Walsh


The Taiwanese cinema is one of the most interesting in the world. It seems to be as lithe and graceful as Hong Kong filmmaking, without the commercial constraints, and as serious as Chinese cinema, without suffering so much from the dead weight of an often mythological past.

Tsai Ming-liang's Vive l'amour examines the lives of three people who live in Taipei, Taiwan's capital. The city's densely crowded metropolitan area has a population of more than six million. It experienced a real estate boom in the 1980s and now has one of the highest ratios of unoccupied houses, apartments and offices in the world.

May (Yang Kuei-mei), a woman in her thirties, unmarried, sells real estate. Her day begins before dawn delivering advertising inserts to newspaper vendors. She spends her mornings and afternoons showing potential buyers and renters around empty apartments and business premises. She has short abrasive conversations with her boss over a portable phone. She stands around, bored, waiting for clients, chewing distractedly on watermelon seeds. This is her life.

May meets and sleeps with Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung), a young street vendor, in one of her empty apartments. They never say a word to each other, much less express an emotion. Ah-jung displays his wares--women's clothes, bought on trips to Hong Kong--on the sidewalk at night. He is sleek, attractive and cold. The director comments: "Most of these vendors have an easy life; they have a carefree life with few obligations. They can sleep late, stay up till dawn and make frequent trips to Hong Kong. As an observer, I think living like this is taking its toll, bit by bit."

The third figure in the film is a young gay man, Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), who sells burial plots for a living--actually wall space in a so-called Memorial Home. Taiwan's graveyards are also overcrowded and land is valuable. He is, in Tsai's words, "so directionless, scared and in pain that he wants to kill himself.... He is always in a state of great loneliness. Home is anywhere he stays." Hsiao-kang makes himself at home in the empty apartment after finding a key left in the door.

The film is virtually without dialogue. But what would these people have to say to each other? They come into contact, but never make any kind of emotional impact upon one another. This is what Taiwan's "economic miracle" has made of those who have enjoyed its benefits.

Tsai Ming-liang was born in Ku Ching, Malaysia in 1957 and graduated with a degree in drama and film from a Taiwanese university. He has worked in the theater and in television. His first feature film, Rebels of the Neon God (1993), a study of disaffected Taipei teenagers, won a number of international prizes.

Fortunately, Vive l'amour is naive enough not to consider alienation and loneliness the natural state of affairs. Ah-jung, to a certain extent the object of both May's and Hsiao-jang's affections, seems unreachable. But the other two at least register the effects of anomie.

In one memorable sequence, Hsiao-kang is forced to hide under the bed in the apartment while May and Ah-jung make love. In the morning the saleswoman takes off for work, without a word. Hsiao-kang crawls out from his hiding place and slowly, slowly inches his way across the bed toward the sleeping man. He plants a kiss on his face, before withdrawing.

In the lengthy final scene, May walks through what is apparently a newly-opened park in Taipei. But a park which is not a park. There are no trees, no grass; it looks like an abandoned construction site. She sits, facing the camera, and begins to cry. She cries for minutes on end. She lights a cigarette. She cries again. The film ends on this note.

"I deal with people who are on the fringes of society"

Interview with Tsai Ming-Liang, director of Vive l'amour

DW: My impression is that you both care for the characters, and yet at the same time are critical of them. I'm wondering if that is correct.

TM: I'm generally very sympathetic towards them. Most of the time I must admit I don't even understand them. So my attitude in treating them is very objective. I'm making an attempt to try to get close to these people.

DW: This is not a social milieu which you're part of.

TM: Actually, it is. In all of my work I deal with people who are on the fringes of society. My father was a farmer and later he had his own little stall. So I feel very close to the common person. I'm not interested in people who are rich. So whenever I shoot something, whenever I get close to people like those in the film, I feel very good. At the same time, I have a very strong belief that every individual is very hard to understand.

DW: In the film, you paint a very critical picture of the city, Taipei. The impression that one gets--money-conscious, alienating, emotionally-starved. Are those terms accurate, is that an accurate description of your views?

TM: I think so, the terms are very appropriate. But I would also like to say that there are many facets of Taipei that I haven't of course dealt with. And Taipei is a very complicated city. I think everybody is struggling within their own minds. In actuality, it is a city with a lot of genuine feeling.

DW: I thought the character of the woman was the most interesting. And I wonder if you could first speak about the actress and then about the character of the real estate agent.

TM: Concerning the actress, I think she's quite unique in Taiwan. In earlier Taiwan cinema the female leads would all be young and beautiful. Very few women at her age would have had the opportunity to play such a role. But it's funny, because she's in most of the well-known films made in Taiwan made this year. I think this shows that Taiwan audiences are looking at the films themselves, instead of stars. I wanted a woman of thirty or so, a working woman in Taiwan. Her profession is selling "second hand" real estate, in other words, not new real estate. Actually this profession is very common, because Taiwan is small in area, and therefore real estate becomes a very, very hot item. And it's a potentially very lucrative profession. In a way, the way I've treated this female character is more like the normal treatment of a male. In other words, there's not that much of a difference between men and women in the profession.

DW: I thought also the last sequence--of the woman crying--was extraordinary. It was very moving. It does, in a sense, come as a fairly logical conclusion, but I wonder how you decided upon it.

TM: Thank you. When I originally wrote the script, I wanted a ray of hope at the end. And so the original ending of the film was, after walking and walking and walking in the park, the woman decides that yes, she would like to extend her hand and ask for love. So she goes back to the apartment and waits for the sleeping man. That was the original ending. Then I waited for the new park to open in Taipei. And when it opened, I saw that it was the same as a few days before, nothing had changed. It was in no shape to open, but it opened. And with that disappointment in my heart, there was no way I could shoot the original ending. And so this is how the ending came about.

DW: I'm curious if there are any other filmmakers in Taiwan or elsewhere that you admire.

TM: Very many. There are the Chinese film directors from the 1930s, realistic directors. European directors from the 1970s: Truffaut, Antonioni, Fassbinder in Germany. I don't feel fettered though by these influences. When my friends see films, they remember all sorts of images from them; when I see films, I really don't. And so when I shoot, I shoot from my heart.

DW: Could you tell me something more generally about the situation of Taiwan filmmaking?

TM: Creatively, we're at a very high point. But the environment is still very poor. This poverty is long-term. Taiwanese film began to develop its own style without any political influences with Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, all the way to us. Now that it's come to us, we feel strongly that film is something very much from our personal heart. Of course, we have never forsaken the audiences. I think we're searching for a narrative style that is different from Hollywood, different from Hong Kong and different from our predecessors in Taiwan cinema. It starts with me saying I want to give the audience not what they want, but something different.