Vive L’Amour (1994)

Dir. by Tsai Ming-Liang

Images: Congested and noisy exteriors contrast sharply with starkly decorated (or empty) interiors. Very little dialogue — perhaps ten minutes total in two hour film, the majority of which is built from long takes, often shots of solitary characters suffering in silence. Favorite images: Hsiao-Kang carressing and kissing a melon; Ah-Jung sillhouted against a large apartment window overlooking Taipei; May Lin looking down a stairwell, where Hsiao-Kang hides unnoticed; Ah-Jung emerging slowly from underneath a bed on which May Lin is sleeping.

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Vive L’Amour ends with two stunning sequences. In the penultimate scene, Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a closeted and suicidal young man, crawls into bed with Ah-Jung (Chen Chao-jung), an acquaintance who is sleeping soundly. Tsai’s camera lingers on the two men for several minutes, allowing us to watch — trapped in a moment of almost Hitchcockian suspense — as Hsiao-Kang leans closer and closer, finally kissing the other man on the mouth without waking him. It’s a remarkable performance. Lee’s face is written with conflicted emotion: curiosity, terror, longing, shame, joy.

Tsai then cuts to his heroine, May Lin (Yang Kuei Mei), who is now walking quickly and alone through a park that is muddied by construction. She wants only to put some distance between herself and Ah-Jung’s bed, from which she has recently escaped quietly after another night of anonymous sex. Lin finally rests at an outdoor amphitheater, where she sits and begins to cry. Typical of the director’s style, Tsai frames her in a medium close-up, then simply allows the camera to run. The scene lasts for five and a half minutes, during which May Lin struggles to find composure. But she is able to do so only temporarily before surrendering, again and again, to the sobs. As Dennis Lim has said of the scene, Tsai fades to black “just as you’ve convinced yourself she could go on weeping forever.”

I recently read an essay by Walker Percy in which he characterizes (somewhat glibbly) the 20th century American novel as a recurring investigation of “the essential loneliness of man.” It’s hardly an original conceit, but I was reminded of it constantly yesterday as I watched Vive L’Amour, a film that represents the alienation of modern life as effectively as any of our great novels. Tsai’s Taipei borders Hemingway’s Paris — both are worlds populated by frightened individuals unable to connect meaningfully with anyone around them. So, instead, they turn to temporary, unfulfilling escapes. One of the most memorable scenes in Vive L’Amour comes just before the two described above. Hsiao-Kang, hiding beneath their bed, masturbates while May Lin and Ah-Jung have sex above him. Their act, though shared, is no less self-satsifying and empty than Hsiao-Kang’s. All three characters end the film as they began it: alone, homeless (literally or figuratively), and incapable of communication.

This preoccupation with communication — or, more precisly, the failure of language — is another interesting affinity shared by Tsai and Hemingway. Someone (and it may have been Hemingway himself) compared the author’s dialogue to an iceberg: what we read is only 10% of the message; 90% is hidden beneath, left unspoken. His characters don’t communicate, they trade in banalities, because what they refuse to share is too personal, too painful, or too frightening. A reader who fails to seek that subtext is missing the point entirely. The same could be said of Vive L’Amour, a film that, when reduced to a simple plot synapsis — two homeless men move into a vacant apartment, where one of them shares romantic encounters with the apartment’s realtor — sounds like an episode of Red Shoe Diaries (and a really slow, unerotic episode at that). But in Tsai’s hands, the story serves a profound meditation on our inability to connect: May Lin and Ah-Jung sit beside one another, sharing glances, but never speaking; Hsiao-Kang hides at the bottom of a stairwell, unwilling to reveal himself to May Lin; Hsaio-Kang closes his door to Ah-Jung, refusing to answer the other’s questions.

I now wish that I had seen Vive L’Amour before watching The Hole, Tsai’s most recent release. For whatever reason, I lacked patience for, and interest in, that film. But I now see the end of The Hole — when one of the two main characters quite literally reaches out to the other — as a moving portent of optimism and human triumph. Quite a step beyond May Lin’s endless tears.