DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
VIVE L'AMOUR (Aiqing wansui) (director/writer: Tsai Ming-liang; screenwriters: Yang Pi-Ying/Tsai Yi-Chun; cinematographer: Liao Pen-jung; editor: Sung Shia-cheng; cast: Yang Kuei-Mei (May Lin), Lee Kang-Sheng (Hsiao-kang), Chen Chao-jung (Ah-jung); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Hsu Li-Kong; Strand Releasing/Fox Lorber; 1994-Taiwan, in Mandarin with English subtitles)

 
"An engaging mixture of bizarre wit and eroticism and heartfelt sadness."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

"Vive L'Amour" won as Best Film at the Venice Film Festival in 1994. It's an intense film that I fell madly in love with and wholly embraced for the pleasure it gave me, as I was resourcefully led to where the film's heart lies by the director's skillful low key approach to the story line. Writer/director Tsai Ming-liang ("Rebels of the Neon God"-92) was born in Malaysia in 1957 and graduated with a degree in drama and film from a university in Taiwan. He now works in Taiwan and has created in his second film a masterful work reminiscent of the great Michelangelo Antonioni. Vive L'Amour is a stunningly delicate portrayal of urban alienation and loneliness. The number one curse of modern mankind might be loneliness, and Tsai's take on it is nothing short of extraordinary. "Vive" tells of three diverse characters who are linked by chance to an empty high-rise luxury duplex-apartment in Taipei, which is used as an escape from the antiseptic outside world. In the apartment furnished only with a bed, the three characters escape from reality by daydreaming, fantasizing about sex or indulging in sex. 

The ironically titled, "Vive L'Amour" is a visual masterpiece almost devoid of dialogue that is an engaging mixture of bizarre wit and eroticism and heartfelt sadness. The film's slow pace works to its advantage, as it allows the characters to be drawn out from their pent-up thoughts so that we can see them thinking. Also, the viewer is not distracted by the story turning into a  'bedroom farce' -- a way the film would have almost certainly turned out if made in Hollywood. Instead the film gets past the quirky sex scenes and the ribald comedy, and moves onto its more ambitious intentions. In one oddly amusing scene, a man is masturbating while hiding under the bed where another man and woman are making love. The solitary act has the same emptiness and self-satisfaction as the shared act. The film builds to its serious climax revealing the hurt inside the female character that can't be covered up anymore by cosmetics. By the conclusion, all three characters have been sympathetically developed.

Taipei is a densely crowded booming modern city with a population of more than six million. It experienced a real estate boom in the 1980s but in the 1990s had one of the highest ratios of vacant houses, apartments and offices in the world. This real estate problem serves as the backdrop to the odd love triangle story.

The film opens with Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) stealing a key that opens a vacant spacious high-rise apartment.  He is a timid young man, who is later revealed to be gay. For Hsiao-kang, who probably just left his parents' house, the space becomes a refuge from working as a salesman of burial vaults. Hsiao-kang' job is buzzing with activity because the Taipei cemeteries are so overcrowded and space is so limited and expensive, that wall space becomes a sensible alternative.

We observe the homeless Hsiao-kang make himself comfortable in his new home, and after his bath we see him slit his wrist in a half-hearted suicide attempt. It was puzzling to figure out why he's suicidal, as I thought it might be related to angst over his inclination to be a transvestite or maybe because he was still in the closet. In the director's words "Hsiao-kang is 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." The beauty of this story line, was that you didn't have to take the director's word as gospel.

The film's centerpiece character is a thirtysomething, stylish and sensuous, unmarried woman, May (Yang Kuei-mei), who sells "second hand" real estate. The apartment Hsiao-kang is occupying is the one she is desperately trying to sell. Her long day begins before dawn delivering advertising inserts to newspaper vendors. She then posts real estate posters along choice street spots. She spends the rest of the day on the phone with potential buyers, as she is only too eager to show them the empty apartment. She smokes a lot, as do all three characters, and most of the time stands around bored while waiting for clients or when frustrated chews on watermelon seeds. Her life is lonely and not fulfilling. 

May meets a young street vendor named Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung) in a luncheonette and sleeps with him soon after in the same empty apartment where Hsiao-kang has made himself at home. May and Ah-jung never converse, much less convey any emotions. Though May never meets Hsiao-kang, Ah-jung does. Ah-jung also becomes the object of Hsiao-kang's affections. In a tender scene near the end, Hsiao-kang crawls into bed with Ah-Jung and finally gets up enough nerve to kiss the soundly sleeping hunk on the lips without awakening him. 

Ah-jung displays his upscale women's clothes, bought on trips to Hong Kong, on the sidewalk at night. He is cocky, sleekly attractive and cold. The director remarks: "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." 

For May, the apartment becomes a place to take men for sex that she wants to keep at a distance and expects no serious relationship to develop. May's sex with Ah-jung lacks intimacy, it's just a way for her to relieve her sexual appetite. While Ah-jung is not capable of loving anyone, nor does he feel any need to be loved. He's the scariest of the three, as he might be perceived as the city's future. The three reside in a city dying from inside because it is consumed by materialism. Hsiao-kang is screwed up, but he's harmless and there's some hope that he can change. Life scares Hsiao-kang more than death. In one of the film's strangest scenes, Hsiao-Kang is so hungry for love that he's caressing and kissing a melon. May Lin is the one most affected by a lack of love. After making passionless love with Ah-jung and then finding her car won't start, she finally breaks down. 

The film ends when May walks through a muddied desolate new park (the hope for the city) and sits on a bench. She can't control herself anymore, as she sobs for a few minutes. It seemed as if she would never stop crying, and when she does it is only to light a cigarette. The film then turns black and ends on that bitter but very moving note. Tsai frames May in a medium close-up shot that must have lasted for five minutes without changing. All three characters end the film just as alone and as uncommunicative as they were at the film's start.

The lesson Tsai leaves us with is that whatever hope there is for the future, can be found only if those set in their ways can change their bad habits (quit smoking (?), love one another and light the city up with a warm glow).

REVIEWED ON 4/1/2003     GRADE: A +

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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