May love live forever
Tsai Ming-liang’s movies bring to mind the semi-lucid state of waking up in the middle of the night, or the last few moments of consciousness before you fall asleep. There’s a dreaminess to them. Languid, maybe. Plot isn’t important. Dialogue is minimal. Character doesn’t even seem to be that significant — at least in the sense of character arcs and drama, the things in movies that typically define the people who inhabit them.
Humanity is important though, the subtle ticks and behaviors shown through understated acting, and tempered by the very specific (yet, fractal-like, universal) cultural and political climate of Taiwan.
Tsai is probably most known for his first feature Rebels of the Neon God — which rules about as much as its title would indicate — and his erotic romance The Wayward Cloud. There’s something really captivating about the way Tsai mingles the profane with the serene. Almost all of his movies have prominent and kinky sex or masturbation scenes even though otherwise they’re mostly made up of slow scenes of people being listless in subtly oppressive settings. Sexuality is very fluid and overt. They’re all anchored with a lead performance by Lee Kang-sheng, whose boyishly sad features — deadpan yet evocative, vulnerable both physically and emotionally (typically naked or in underwear at least once in each movie) — seem to capture all the vibes that permeate Tsai’s movies.
Vive L’amour, Tsai’s second movie, concerns loneliness, longing, and modernity, the subjects of nearly all his movies. (I promise I won’t always cover the second, less popular movie of an auteur filmmaker from the early 90s. This and No Fear, No Die just happened to be the two I’ve been thinking about lately. One day I might even feature movies that aren’t difficult to access!)
Stopping here a moment because I’m thinking about that word, “concerns.” At first I wrote down “is about.” But I’m not sure if this movie can really be described as “about” anything? It shows things. Sets a mood. It isn’t starting a dialogue. Maybe I should say it “captures” or “depicts” loneliness, longing, and modernity. The Art(s) of Slow Cinema describes Tsai’s later movies, though not Vive, as photographic, but I think applying how we examine photography to Vive helps make more sense of it too. Like we’re seeing a series of snapshots with connections between them, rather than a narrative.
Vive is about three young people in Taipei whose lives intersect in an unoccupied apartment they all sneak into “for its restorative potential,” according to Luke Gorham. It begins with Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng, with a name nearly all the characters he plays share in Tsai’s movies) taking a key left in the lock of the apartment door, seemingly on a whim. We later find out he is an ossuary salesman — selling the boxes in which people’s cremated remains are stored. He first goes into the apartment in an attempt to commit suicide, but he is interrupted when our other two protagonists, May Lin (Yang Kuei-mei) and Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung), meet up to have sex. Accidentally but imperceptibly intruding on this tryst seems to do… something emotionally for Hsiao-kang, and he patches up his half-slit wrists.
“Tsai presents Taipei as a soulless, ultra-modern labyrinth where individuals cannot communicate other than in one-night stands or business transactions,” Jonathan Crow describes. “The film’s style is masterful in both economy and emotional power. With very long takes, little narrative tension, and almost no dialogue, the style reinforces the cold, alienating world in which the characters live. Yet, as in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, the very austerity of the style makes the film’s quiet drama all the more affecting.”
May Lin is the real estate agent trying to sell the apartment. Ah-jung is a street peddler who sells women’s wear. We get to know Ah-jung the least of the trio, and May Lin perhaps the most. We see her pitching a home to a seemingly disinterested client, who never says a word. We see her waiting around for clients in wide open, spare hallways and vestibules. We see her walking the streets of Taipei, putting up advertisements for the properties she sells.
Ah-jung also starts sneaking into the apartment after their hook-up, and eventually runs into Hsiao-kang. At first they’re standoffish toward each other, but a surprisingly humorous later scene in which they both have to hide from May Lin and escape unnoticed puts them on equal footing. Hsiao-kang seems to develop romantic feelings toward Ah-jung.
“In crucial ways, all three characters are not what they seem,” a New York Times review by Stephen Holden explains. “Ah-jung tells Mei-mei [sic] that he works ‘in imports and exports,’ which seems like stretching things for an unlicensed street peddler who has to hide from the police. Hsiao-kang, when alone, acts out an elaborate autoerotic fantasy of himself as a woman. Mei-mei, who seems crisp and tough throughout most of the film, is ultimately revealed to be seriously depressed.”
The title Vive l’amour approximately translates to “Long live love” or “May love live forever,” which must be a semi-ironic observation on how bereft of deep intimate connections our main characters are. Ah-jung is unlikely to return Hsiao-kang’s feelings — it’s not even clear if Hsiao-kang is actually in love with Ah-jung or just projecting feelings onto him because he’s the only person the lonely salesman has even marginally connected with in a long time. May Lin and Ah-jung’s fling seems to be just that, a fling. The movie’s heartbreaking final scene shows May Lin, after sleeping with Ah-jung again, leaving the apartment, sitting down in a park and sobbing uncontrollably. We don’t really know why, but we assume it has something to do with her isolation from others. That even something as intensely personal as sex can’t free her from it.
One of the most charming things about Vive is its depictions of the selves we inhabit when we’re alone. Our characters do weird, nonsensical things that are somehow very relatable. My favorite of these is Hsiao-kang sneaking into the apartment with a melon, practicing kissing it (Melons as a sexual tool will be played out even more explicitly in The Wayward Cloud), then cutting finger-holes into it and bowling it into the wall. Or a scene later, as alluded to by Holden, when he wears one of the dresses Ah-jung sells and does push-ups in it. Or Ah-jung sneaking into the apartment to look at porn magazines. Or the scene when Mei Lin is at home, stuffing her face with an enormous slice of sponge cake right out of the fridge. Thy way these scenes are presented show them not as perversity but as ordinary life. Undignified actions presented respectfully.
Not everybody was happy with this movie. Variety critic Derek Elley called it a letdown after Rebels of the Neon God, a “posey” and “anti-dramatic” movie that will probably be lost on all audiences except maybe some gays because of the homoerotic undercurrents. Which is honestly fair enough. It’s probably not as cohesive as it could be. But Elley also claims it is “mostly maddeningly mannered and empty,” which I feel like is a misunderstanding of the difference between actual emptiness and a movie that depicts emptiness. He also says that it evokes “little sympathy or engagement with the characters,” which feels like more of a failure of sympathy on Elley’s part. But the points are taken well enough. It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. And there are aspects that feel too underplayed, like Hsiao-kang’s gay longing (Or even possible trans identity? We never get inside Hsiao-kang’s head enough to know. Though maybe we shouldn’t have to?).
I do love one observation from Elley’s review though: Highlighting the class aspect of Vive that partly informs why the three are so drawn to this apartment.
“Though far from the bread line,” Elley writes, “all are ‘homeless’ in their own ways, living off the rump of an affluent society but not a part of it.”
While Vive never goes into the characters’ backstories, this underlying condition unifying all of them is very clear in the movie. They’re all suffering some kind of existential ennui — though manifesting in different ways — because of the experience of living in Taipei in the 90s.
The Art(s) of Slow Cinema review notes that poverty is often a central subject in slow cinema, but that Tsai’s movies are instead “an illustration of how cramped urban spaces encourage anonymity and solitude instead of social living” that nevertheless still make people pine for connection. I think that’s right, but the review also doesn’t see the whole picture. Elley’s observation fills in the gap here, showing how Vive compares economic class distinctions — if not outright abject poverty — to the sort of spiritual or emotional poverty that lingers in an ultra-modern urban society.
Bryan Cebulski tweets at @BryanOnion.