Quick! What's Mandarin for "butt-numbing bore"?
In Taipei, there lives a family. Mother (Hisao-Ling Lu) is having an affair with a notorious pornographer. Father (Tien Msao) favors the gay spots in town. Their son, Xiao-Kang, rides off with a female friend and takes dips in a heavily polluted river in town. It turns out the boy genius becomes infected and is in chronic pain. The father begins an obsession over the river, culminating in trying to prevent a leak from getting worse.
At least that's what I think this mess is about. I had the damndest time trying to keep track of everything between yawns.
The River is a cinematic cesspool of unpleasant happenings. While director Tsai Ming-Liang may have had noble intentions of trying to display the plight of this segment of Taipei society, there is no excuse for the exploitative feeling in which the film wallows. But he wallows in the seamy and raunchy areas far too much for my taste. This is repugnant garbage disguised under the "art film" label. I have no problem with unpleasant material, as long as there is some redeeming value. Ming-Liang seems content just to use this material for shock purposes.
Even worse than that is Ming-Liang's static storytelling style. He favors the kinds of shots favored by such overpraised directors as Abbas Kirostami (The Taste of Cherry) and Theo Angelopoluos (Eternity and a Day, which aptly describes what watching that film feels like). Those men favor a style that consists of extended takes, composed in either long or medium shot, that go on and on with no end in sight. They also love to include sequences that have nothing to do with the main plot, other than stretch out their thin stories to ungodly lengths. Ming-Liang includes several such strands, such as the director trying to shoot a fake corpse in a polluted river. It has nothing to do with the main story, resulting in a tedious, boring film.
I understand that criticizing a film for its pace may be hypocritical. God knows that some of my favorite films are deliberately paced. But there is a difference between a slowly paced film (Death in Venice or any of Visconti's work) and a tedious one. My problem is when it doesn't lead anywhere rather than just end up in a circle again. Few directors can pull this off, and Ming-Liang is not one of them.
Wellspring presents the film in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. However, it is non-anamorphic. I still do not understand the reluctance that some studios have about this subject. The print used for this transfer wasn't very good to begin with. The colors are washed out and dull. There is that persistent grain factor that is beginning to drive me nuts regarding new releases. There are scratches and specks, which just shouldn't be for a film that is only seven years old.
Audio is allegedly in stereo. I say allegedly because it doesn't sound like any stereo mix I know. The overall mix is a muddle. Sound effects are hard to decipher. The music is muddy and shallow sounding. Dialogue is difficult to understand, so those of you who understand Mandarin are in big trouble. To clarify it even further, anyone who doesn't understand English is in trouble, as only English subtitles are offered here.
The sole extras are a trailer gallery and some select filmographies. In a way, I was grateful that this disc was lacking in extra content. It meant less time I had to devote to this junk.
If you have even the tiniest notion of renting this fiasco, please don't. Instead of wasting 115 minutes of your life, do something constructive like reading a book or solving a puzzle. At least then your brain won't be hurting in the end.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
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