The River is made by Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang and tells the story of a family unit which is seemingly in tatters from the start of the film until the end.
The inciting incident which the audience comes into the film is when Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) through a series of events begins to develop a pain in his neck. As the film progresses you learn this is the core of the film. His parents trying to figure out what is wrong with their son.
From the start of the film, I was transfixed with the narrative of The River. You’re not sure what is going on as there is minimal use of dialogue so you have to piece together what is going on with this family unit. For example, the cast is quite intimate there are only three cast members and they comprise the mother (Lu Yi-ching), father (Miao Tien) and Hsiao-Kang himself.
The plot of the film at first seems quite straightforward. Hsiao-Kang has seemingly contracted some kind of illness due to pretending to be a corpse in a film that he happened to come across after meeting with an ex-girlfriend. This illness is affecting his body and it’s all centred around his neck. However, nothing is working and his body and statement of mind are rapidly deteriorating.
This is all on the surface though. If you dig deeper you will begin to see a fascinating look at the family dynamic which has fallen apart because as the story progresses you learn that the mother and father are cheating on each other and he has a poor relationship with his father. There’s no respect. You never learn why but it can be surmised that the son know’s the family is falling, that the relationship is strained and he hates his weak father for it. It’s here that you can begin to see a parallel between the strain on Hsiao-Kang’s neck and the strain on the family within this story.
It’s symbology that is quite disturbing and I was fascinated by it throughout the entire film. The River is such a quiet film but there are such impactful elements to draw from it all because the director and his cast know how to draw you into this story. So little is said but so much is insinuated in The River and this is thanks to the level of acting and directing. It comes from the look someone gives, the stance they take and where the camera has been placed to either give or take away power from them.
Though I have been speaking about the silence and the sombre theme of the film when the second act of the film hits there is an explosion of emotion and it’s phenomenal. This is all due to how well everything is earned earlier in the film.
Now onto the final act and what comes across as something I’m not sure I’m comfortable talking about. Something quite taboo happens in the third act and it’s built up throughout the course of the film and when it happens it’s disturbing and this is likely due to my upbringing and my beliefs so I can’t properly comment on what it adds to the narrative and because of that, the film lost me there.
The River is a story about a man having to deal with simple neck pain but there is so much more underneath the surface and I appreciated that.