Vive l'amour

Kirk Hostetter


Vive l'amour (aka "Aiquing Wansui") was produced in 1994 in Taiwan and released in the United States in 1996. It is the second film (Rebels of the Neon God, 1992, the first) from director Tsai Ming-liang.

Vive l'amour sets its sights on two men, one woman and one apartment existing in Taipei, Taiwan. The apartment sits empty but minimally furnished as a property for sale by the woman's (May Lin/ Kuei-Mei Yang) real estate company. One young man, (Hsiao- kang/Kang-sheng Lee), in the film's first shot, steals an apartment key left in the lock and proceeds to move in. The second, (Ah-jung/ Chao-jung Chen) steals a key from the woman after a night of wordless sex (in the room she utilizes for such activities) and eventually moves in as well (unbeknownst, at first, to the other male). Hsiao-kang spends his time smoking, peddling crematorium urns, healing his slashed wrist, bathing, and dressing up. Ah-jung spends his time smoking, reading porn, peddling clothing and drinking Budweisers. May Lin spends her time smoking, peddling empty homes and apartments and wandering the streets. They all spend their time passing time.

For Hsiao-kang, isolation and boredom breeds a deviant and narcissistic self-examination. In his first scenes he is shown slashing his wrist with a pocket knife. We are given these suicidal tendencies before anything else, and this decision underlies all that the young man does, as we are constantly reminded of his fragility. Ah-jung and May Lin are less inward, but no less lonely. We first witness them in the same shot, random finders of one another (or have they gone through this rite before?) in a mall food court. What follows is animal-like, ritualized preying with May Lin leading her partner to the apartment. At no point in the film do these two ever utter a word towards one another, theirs is a purely primitive and physical attraction void of any emotional pulse. If all of this sounds like static non-progression, it is; if it sounds difficult to watch, it is; if it sounds boring, it may be, but it is not without (an uncomfortable) payoff.

Everything that director Tsai Ming-liang offers in Vive l'amour is drowned in bleak isolation: the empty spaces, unresponsive and self-absorbed people and unrelenting silence (there is not one note of a musical soundtrack). He is so consistent with his vision that the film becomes not about isolated and lonely characters, but about isolation and loneliness itself. The cinema fully supports its themes. The camera keeps an objective, level and static distance from its subjects, sitting on formal compositions for noticeably long periods of time.

The audience, too, is kept at a chilling distance. We never see the actual sex-making (in its two screen instances), the soundtrack supplies the grunts and moans. During the first, the camera sits outside of the bedroom door, during the second, it is fixated on Hsiao-kang hiding under the bed, his silence having been interrupted by the couples sudden need to fuck. Additionally, in a decision furthering detachment, during all phone conversations (which comprise over half of the film's dialogue) we are given only one side of the conversation. Throughout, director Tsai Ming- liang makes all attempts to reduce point of view and depict singularity and separation in both subject and audience. He has, without a doubt, disaffected many viewers; but he deserves commendation for his unyielding vision. His bifunctional distancing makes Vive l'amour the most purely effective and deeply felt journey into loneliness and alienation in memory. The film world (specifically Hollywood) would be a much more vital one if all directors followed Tsai Ming-liang's lead.

Many films previous have held urban alienation as a theme, but it is a difficult subject to investigate and a more difficult one to sell; therefore these films are rare, especially in American cinema. Hollywood's deepest dive into the subject came in the hey day of film noir which often depicted characters being beaten down by the filth, gloom, industrialization and crime of large cities. These characters became slaves to the evil urbanity, cultivating deep cynicism and immorality. This attitude was commonly revealed (given an outlet) through any number of deceitful murder narratives. Vive l'amour's agenda is different, it offers no reasons for its lost individuals as it depicts (observes) strictly isolated people, exhibiting, again, not the result of isolation (i.e. noir's selfish schemers) but the isolation itself.

Vive l'amour relates mostly, then, in subject and style to much of the work of Michelangelo Antonioni (specifically L'eclisse and L' avventura). He employs a similar detached, cold and observational camera, presenting his characters lost and unable to relate in and to the sterility of Modernism and the modern Italy. Antonioni's cinema, though specific to the contemporary Italian experience, can be said to depict universal issues of its time (i.e. L'eclisse's nuclear threat). Similarly, though obviously wholly Taiwanese, Vive l'amour (by going beyond theme) hits home and is more accessible because of its incessant character observation and the manner in which it patiently forces the audience to watch, participate and inevitably feel. In this way, ironically, it is a very human film.

This method is no better exemplified than in the films final ten minutes, comprised of maybe four shots (Vive l'amour's final sequence, more so than any previous section of the film, requires a difficult patience). The camera follows May Lin as she walks from the apartment (on the morning following her second session with Ah-jung) through what appears to be a large park under construction (depicted on screen as a barren landscape of mud and gray). She arrives at her [destination?], a bench amongst a series of rows, and sits down far from a man engrossed in his newspaper. Cut then to a close up of May Lin, and with all of the film's weight finally taking its toll, her only option, her only means of expression, is to spew tears. This final image is the film's silent exclamation point, leaving a profound mark on all who have bared the pressure of sitting through it.