There is an irony in the fact that somehow, despite being surrounded by hundreds of human beings, one can feel bitterly alone. Tsai Ming-Liang understands this loneliness, appropriating it to shine onto our beloved cinema screens. In Taiwanese filmmaker’s 1994 work, Vive L’amour, or in English, Long Live Love, a youthful sidewalk vendor (Ah-jung), a promiscuous real estate agent (Mei), and a timid salesman (Hsiao-ang), are all “alone together”, as they say, ignorantly occupying the same Taipei apartment. As in life, not much happens in the film. Rather than an epic, traditional plot, Tsai-Ming Liang practices perfect minimalism, composing magnetic long shots of seemingly mundane moments that illustrate peerless portraits of the average urbanite condition.
The screenplay’s limited dialogue portrays the three character’s inability to communicate their sorrows and failure at self-awareness, only relieving their inner turmoil through actions of intimacy and exercise, no matter how bizarre. The unrequited looks and odd gestures, perfectly replace the words that would attempt but ultimately fail to do justice to portray the character’s tragic solitude. This film is nothing less than an essential lesson on what it means to see; a lesson on seeing and doing, rather than saying. To quote from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, The Mirror, “Words can’t express everything. A person feels. Words are flaccid.” His films help us understand the importance of prioritizing images over conversations; his films help us appreciate the poignancy of silence, that the utilization of visuals is just as productive as dialogue, if not more so.
The film’s glacial cinematography only further reveals humanity’s quotidian alienation, as the characters reflect their bleak surroundings. Scathing hyperrealism is back dropped against soft-hued beiges and greens, lit up by low lights. A frame by frame creeping onslaught of the melancholy atmosphere found within vacant, clean living quarters. In the city’s silent apartments, the softest sounds are amplified, only echoing these lonely character’s aloof lifestyles, as they do pushups in drag or chuck fruits against walls. While withholding lengthy, static shots of characters committing prosaic acts, motivated by the ennui lifestyle pressured onto them by their contemporary society, Tsai Ming-liang teaches a cinematic language all his own. I don’t think there are any better methods of depicting a persistently ensuing societal isolation than by stretching out a long take, far past the point where most filmmakers would have cut.
This film is tremendously personal for me. I recognize with the longing for that one individual to come in your room and save you and the futility of searching for places to occupy as still mediums in a world constantly moving. During a time of my life when I felt like I was dying, that I would die from being alone, this film came to save me. It validated my loneliness during the holidays, as I was surrounded by joyful lives that made me feel even more alone, unable to relate to everyone’s happiness. But this film made me feel not so alone, mainly because of my intense empathy for Hsiao-sang, the salesman. He drifts along idly, passing time by lying on beds awake in exhaustion, putting on dresses, and exercising his suicidal tendencies. But most of my empathy was found in his unrequited love for a heterosexual man. Hsiao-sang is in love with Ah-jung, the daring street vendor in a leather jacket, who regularly has sex with Mei, the real estate agent. At one point in the film, he witnesses their acts of lust, exactly under the bed as it happens, hearing and seeing who he wishes was his, become someone else’s. Just like me, Hsiao-sung has fallen in love with a man who he rarely talks to, and rarely even makes eye contact with, unsure about his sexuality. Towards the end of the film, Hsiao-sung gets as close to a love with him as he is able to get.
Ah-jung is sleeping on the bed that he just made love with to Mei on, who has left the apartment. Hsiao-sang crawls out from under the bed and stares at him longingly. He lays on the bed with him, slowly inching closer to him, while Ah-jung’s nudity is only covered by his leather jacket. Hsiao-song’s eyes express even more desolation. Slowly, Ah-jung’s arm is around Hsiao-sang, while still asleep. He admires him with utter admiration and desperation, his breathing intensifies, his eyes widen, Hsiao-sang kisses him, then slowly pulls away, continuing to lay on the bed. Throughout the entire film, no mention of Hsiao-sang’s queerness is made, until this scene. His repression of his homosexual feelings only leads to the intensification of his social dysfunction and disjointed life. I would rewatch this scene over and over, and I’d continue to cry as much as my anti-depressants would let me. Not a week passes by where I don’t think about this film.
The final scene is perhaps, the most memorable. It is a seven minute, one shot crying scene. And it was brutal. Mei, the floating real-estate women, walks to an unfinished park, sits on a bench alone, and sobs uncontrollably. She cries for her loneliness. I could almost physically feel her crying. We’ve all cried that cry; when your throat closes up and you feel like you can’t breathe; when your wet face strains, wet from the salt of your tears. We’ve all cried like Mei cried. Mei, just like the two other silent protagonists, were victims. They were victims of the deceptive allure offered by the urban metropolises of worldly recognized cities. They were victims of Taipei’s grandly gentrified museum of hyper-stimulation and psychological myopia. They were victims of the city’s big open spaces and big open rows of people, overflowing with pure materialism and sensualism. They were victims of the wandering people that they loved, who left the rooms before they had the chance to truly meet them. They were victims of loneliness. It is easy to die from it; that loneliness.
Tsai Ming-liang’s filmography features numerous long takes as impacting as the ones previously mentioned. To devote your time to a Tsai Ming-liang film is to practice escapism and the virtue of patience. It’s about learning to love contemplative cinema and seeing the value in slow pacing, time, and the subtext behind laconic conversations. I encourage you to take the time to watch his films, especially if you are bored with contemporary cinema’s overwhelming films lacking in artistic integrity, to relieve and validate your loneliness. It is lonely to live alone, but it is less lonely with cinema. With contemplative cinema, the viewer draws away dramatically from conventional, insistent genres, in order to find meaning in the mundane reality of life. We must find beauty in subtle societal decay, in emptiness, in boredom, and most importantly, in the substance of silence. Silence is a language all its own, as are Tsai Ming-liang’s films.