Vive L'Amour (Tsai Ming-liang)

Rating: *** (out of ****)

While the attention of world cinéastes shifts to Iran and Eastern Europe, terrific films from China/Taiwan/Hong Kong, the previous hot spot, continue to straggle across the Atlantic for decidedly belated North American release. Vive L'Amour, from Taiwan, for example, won the top prize at Venice back in 1994, but is only now turning up at a theater near me. (Unless you happen to live in one of the continent's largest metropolitan areas, it will probably not turn up a theater near you.) I'm perplexed by the delay; as foreign-language "art" films go, this one is really quite accessible. Those of you who hate reading subtitles will be delighted to know that a good 25 minutes pass before a single line of dialogue is spoken, and that the remainder of the film is almost equally terse -- it's very nearly a silent movie, in fact. (Hey, where's everybody going?) What's more, it's quietly effective in the same way that the best silent films are, telling its story via a distinct and rich visual language; director Tsai Ming-liang's use of the cavernous, spare apartment set, in particular, is beautifully evocative. The plot, which involves the various complications that ensue when three separate people find themselves with a key to the same empty luxury Taipei apartment, could easily be played as farce (I shudder to think of what the French would do with it), but Tsai chooses instead to emphasize the characters' chronic loneliness and desperation, highlighting the pain that's at the core of just about every great comedy. A few moments provoke a grin or a chuckle -- and welcome they are, too -- but on the whole the film is surprisingly subdued, given the potential for "Three's Company"-style shenanigans. Tragedy = comedy minus emotional distance. Consistently compelling throughout, it finally seems a bit less than the sum of its parts, perhaps because one of the three characters (all of whom are more or less equally prominent in the narrative) is explored in considerably finer detail than the other two. The final shot is clearly intended to be powerful and emotionally overwhelming, but I found myself strangely unmoved...mostly because I didn't feel that I knew, or understood, the character whose face fills the frame for several minutes. A remarkable work nevertheless.