The people of Taiwan have been searching for an identity for a long time. When martial law was lifted over the People’s Republic of China in the 1980’s and shifted to a more democratic form, the people have increasingly wanted their own identity and no longer to be known as a part of China. Sure, they might maintain the status quo and appear to work with China (which hasn’t been exactly the case lately), but they strive to be known as Taiwanese, separate from the mainland influence. Our film today, Vive L’Amour, takes place in the 1990’s Taiwan, where life was extremely hard for the average young adult. So hard that many of them didn’t even have a permanent residence.
We open to see a key is left in the door of a dwelling. Nearby a salesman named Hsiao-kang (played by Lee Kang-sheng) finishes up a door-to-door sales call and after a few moments decides to take the key. He goes to the convenience store, grabs a water, and sees a camera where he adjusts his hair. The next scene, he is driving on his motorcycle and arrives at the location where he grabbed the key from. He starts to unlock the door, hears sounds from inside, and quickly leaves.
Hsiao-kang comes back later and looks around. He also checks the upstairs. The place is relatively bare; even the bed has no sheets. He fiddles around with a broken boom box but can’t get it working. He then proceeds to draw a bath, and before we know it, he tries to drown himself in the rising water. (Which never works, by the way, unless you are sufficiently drunk or drugged).
In the next scene, we see Ah-jung (played by Chen Chao-jung) smoke a cigarette and drink a coffee. A girl named May Lin (played by Yang Kuei-mei) sits down with a green drink. He looks at her when she’s not looking, but she gets up to go to the bathroom. Eventually he leaves as well. We catch May Lin at the movie theater looking at the various posters (Pelican Brief and On Deadly Ground are featured). Ah-jung sees her again.
This coincidence of meeting each other doesn’t stop there, as they meet again at a clothing store and then a payphone. Meanwhile, we rejoin Hsiao-kang, who has given up his drowning and soon decides to slash his wrists instead (which is actually a lot harder than it looks). As he bleeds from one of the bedrooms, May Lin and Ah-jung, who are apparently much more acquainted with each other, bust into the loft and start having an intimate encounter in one of the other bedrooms. Hsaio-kang does his best to stop the bleeding so he can listen to the fervent moaning and pleasure sounds.
A little background here: Hsiao-kang is a salesman who sells space for ossuaries, or boxes for your bones to be in when you die. Ah-Jung is a street peddler of “fine” dresses and other merchandise, and May Lin is a real estate agent. May Lin sells million-dollar homes and living spaces, actually, so you might begin to understand of how this situation came to be. They are also part of a phenomenon indicative of Taiwanese culture in this time period where people of their age and standing did not have a permanent residence. So therefore they either lived together, in the street or situations like this where they can secure a place to live that isn’t technically owned by anyone (well, except perhaps the bank/owner trying to sell the property).
Anyway, this film has its share of issues. Sure, it’s fascinating that situations like this exist and interesting to make a film about it. Except this film is pretty much the equivalent of watching paint dry. The movie goes the route of a “black comedy”, which makes a lot of sense given the pretense. However, it’s not that funny, and most of the scenes go by without so much as a word, and we are left to interpret a lot of what’s going on by ourselves.
A lot of the film is based on the concept that all three of these characters are alone even though they all “live” in this loft together from time to time (or participate in relations together). It’s just not that interesting. I think from a subject viewpoint, it was important to bring this concept to film, but they could have spiced it up a bit. From reading the reviews online, they describe the intense imagery of the film, but goodness, it needed some darn dialog beyond what we got.
Perhaps I’m biased, because some of my favorite films are some very heavy dialog films. (Looks no further than my recent review of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) With that said, I will admit that the three principal actors and actress are good at expressing themselves without words. They each have their own distinctive character, and if the story actually had something to it, I would be more intrigued for sure. As it stands, I just didn’t have the patience to really appreciate or understand how it played out.
This movie is presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen format (it says 1.85 on the box, but I’m not seeing that tiny slip of black on the top and bottom, so I imagine this was cropped slightly). I will say that this video presentation looks very organic, and everything is very natural to what I would expect Taiwan to look like in the 1990’s. Seeing many of the open dwellings that May Lin is trying to sell is very fascinating. The night scenes don’t suffer either, as darks are highlighted correctly, and I didn’t have much trouble trying to tell what was going on. The cinematography is very pleasing, and Film Movement does a fine job here of preserving the original print.
The sound to this film is presented in DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio Mono in Mandarin with English subtitles. It is very hard to grade this, since as expressed above, there is very little dialog during the entire course of the movie. There are environment sounds and everything sounds OK for the most part; it’s just very basic. There are no problems when the characters do feel like talking, but it’s neither bad nor good. Basically, it will do the job.
16-Page Booklet with New Essay by Film Critic Nick Pinkerton
Tsai Ming-Iiang on Vive L’Amour Featurette 28:49: This was actually very entertaining as the director talks about his movie and how much freedom he had to make it. He talks in depth about the choices he made with the film and how he cast the three main parts. It’s really good, and even if you don’t care for the film, this is actually one of the better director talks you are going to find.
Vive L’Amour Trailer and other Film Movement Trailers : Also includes trailers of Pushing Hands, Shanghai Triad and Center Stage. I actually bought Shanghai Triad along with Heroes Shed No Tears in a recent Film Movement sale. I really need to take a moment and actually watch them.
Vive L’Amour has received a lot of praise. It won three Golden Horse awards, for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Sound Effects (I did say the environment sounds felt authentic). It also won the Golden Lion award at the 51st Venice International Film Festival. Critics seem to love this movie. However, I feel honestly that this film was made for critics, meaning it’s so different that it’s honestly going to leave a lot of casual fans completely asleep at the wheel. It’s anything but exciting, and not that funny either despite its intention of being a black comedy.
The video is well done and, well, what sound there is, is fine. The extra interview with the director is still probably the highlight of the disc in my honest opinion. From my standpoint, I cannot give this film a solid recommendation. I need some meat on the bone, and this is a load of artistic drivel. I know many others out there, especially in the film community, will feel differently, but this is a hard pass for me. If you do want to take a chance, I do hope you enjoy.