Venice Film Festival: Tsai Ming-Liang’s enigmatic Vive L’Amour, which won the Golden Lion in 1994, turns 25

Baradwaj Rangan

Aug 29, 2019 13:53:07 IST

Tsai Ming-Liang likes watermelons. In The Wayward Cloud (2005), which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, the fruit is used in a sex scene. In Vive L’Amour (1994), its appearance is far more benign, at least at first. A young salesman named Hsiao-kang buys a melon at the market. He’s after something very specific. He picks one up, taps it with his fingers, close to his ear, and rejects it. Then he picks up a second… We don’t see the actual purchase, but a little later, the fruit is in a plastic bag that he places on the bed in the place he’s at. I won’t call it “home”. It isn’t. It’s an empty Taipei apartment (it’s for sale) he’s let himself into, and because no one seems to be in a hurry to move in, he’s moved in himself.

You can see he’s lonely. Perhaps he’s gay, too. Through the course of the film, Hsiao-kang finds out that there’s another squatter in the apartment, another young man, named Ah-jung. They become friends. Towards the end, Ah-jung has sex with the real-estate agent in charge of this property. Her name is May Lin, and she is, in a sense, a squatter, too. She keeps returning to the place. We find her in the bathroom, in the bedroom… Anyway, back to the sex scene. Afterwards, May Lin showers and leaves. Ah-jung falls asleep. And Hsiao-kang emerges from under the bed they were just having sex on. Yes, under — where he was masturbating. He now looks at Ah-jung. He lies on the bed, crawls closer and closer to Ah-jung. He kisses Ah-jung on the lips. Is he gay? Or is he just lonely?

Is companionship what he wants? Or even just communication? The house is as empty as his life. It’s also as big as the world — it’s huge. At first, you wonder if the premise is like that of a revolving-door farce, with Hsiao-kang and Ah-jung and May Lin slipping past one another as they use the house that isn’t theirs, keeping us wondering if they will be found out. (But of course, Tsai doesn’t make revolving-door farces.) The film, after all, is about communication breakdowns and urban alienation, and where better to depict these distances than in something as contained as a house? So near, yet so far… The house seems alienated, too. Apart from a plant near a jacuzzi, another plant near a French window, we only see sofas and beds and centre tables. We only see things. We don’t see evidence of a personality, say, art on the walls, or a throw pillow with an eccentric pattern.

Tsai’s films, though, are filled with eccentricity, with his peculiar personality. A 2015 Reverse Shot interview referred to his characterisation of Stray Dogs (2013) as a film that “has no beginning and no end.” The interviewer asked Tsai if it was important that the film be watched start to finish, or if he believed that people could come in and out of it as they pleased. Tsai replied, “How does one enter into a life that has no beginning or end? When we are discussing matters relating to the audience, we tend to substitute the masses with ourselves — the audience is each of us and none of us. You can only represent yourself, me myself, and he himself. In fact, there can be no ‘collective audience’, the audience is one person because one can only truly represent oneself.”

It’s not exactly an answer to the question, and yet, it is. With art-house cinema, the question of a “generalised” viewer response becomes even more suspect. Tsai continued, “Last year in Vienna, I put on a theatrical production called Xuanzang (The Monk from Tang Dynasty). Someone in the audience told me he came back three times. Each time, he sat in a different seat and felt he saw an entirely different play. There were also a lot of walk-outs. Each of them saw a different play too. Some critics wrote that it felt like the walk-outs were part of the performance.” When I read this, I thought of the characters in Vive L’Amour, “walking in” and “walking out” of that apartment in Taipei. Make of it what you will.

This enigmatic film co-won the Golden Lion at the 1994 Venice Film Festival, with the Macedonian drama Before the Rain, by Milčo Mančevski. Pawel Pawlikowski, director of Ida and Cold War, voted for it in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll for The Greatest Films of All Time. But let’s get back to the watermelon. Hsiao-kang tosses it up and catches it, like a ball. Then he sits on the edge of the bed and examines the fruit, as though he’s realised it’s shaped like a human head. He strokes it. He raises it, with both arms, to eye level. He brings it closer and kisses it, over and over. He takes out his Swiss knife and carves three holes, two of which look like “eyes”. I thought he was doing what the Tom Hanks character would do many years later, in Cast Away, making a “person” out of a volleyball. But Hsiao-kang inserts his fingers into the holes and transforms the melon into… a bowling ball. It hits a wall and goes splat. Make of it what you will.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Aug 29, 2019 13:53:07 IST