Vive L’Amour (1994)

10 01 2023

Early in Edward Yang’s 1985 film Taipei Story, one character makes an inquiry about another’s recent visit to Los Angeles. “LA is just like Taipei” we’re told, and the tone suggests neither disappointment or excitement, but rather a neutral observation. The beginning of a shift in global capitalism is relayed in the Taipei depicted in Yang’s earlier film, it is firmly entrenched by the time of Tsai Ming-Liang’s second feature length film, Vive L’Amour. Like Yang’s film, real estate and development figure into a main character’s profession. The high-rise apartments whose construction forebodingly linger in the background of that film become the site of the (in)action in Tsai’s film. Here, no one mourns the death of a national dream because our protagonists seem to have always been lost, and thus never privy to such a false promise.

Hsiao-kang stumbles upon a key left in the door of a luxury duplex. He impulsively steals it and returns to the building with the intention of squatting there. Unbeknownst to him, the key was left behind by a young real estate agent, May Lin, who picks up a sporty drifted named Ah-Jung. The two return to the same building for the beginning of their trysts. As a result, the building has three tenants, none of whom are actively renting the space. Hsiao-kang and Ah-Jung run into each other. The argument that follows seems to beguile the former and agitate the latter. The three visibly struggle to make connections in an increasingly modern Taipei, but they manage to have a formed a bizarre connection through pure luck.

In the popular critical evaluation of Tsai, there are few critics who fail to compare him to Antonioni. The focused and glacial poetry of the celebrated Italian undoubtedly informs Tsai’s visual syntax. Tsai’s first film, Rebels of the Neon God, maintains a kinetic energy relative to the rest of his filmography. Here, though, we are firmly in the cinematic territory that informed the rest of Tsai’s career. Indeed, the setup here of three lost individuals accidentally encountering one another seems to mirror the end of Antonioni’s masterpiece, L’Eclisse. In that film, the two would be lovers fail to reconnect in the alienated space of modernizing Rome. In this case, the distancing of modernization has malfunctioned to the point where it brings strangers together, but the result is neither encouraging nor invigorating.

Instead, the trio seem even more sad and more lost after their incidental contact. Ah-Jung and May Lin can at least distract themselves in the hour of carnal activity, but this physicality is fleeing. Instead of being nourished by their interaction, it’s another bit of personal maintenance to keep the capitalist project churning. The booty calls act as a temporal placeholder for May Lin in-between apartment viewings, they seem to provide as much (or as little) relief as the cigarettes she chain-smokes throughout the film. Both act as temporary distractions from an ever-present but benign personal pain, but nothing seems to bring her (or any of the other characters) any real pleasure, let alone fulfillment.

Unable to access the physical intimacy demonstrated by the other two members of the squatting arrangement, Hsiao-kang acts as the film’s ultimate loner. His behavior is that which is most intimate. After the film’s close-up opening of the apartment’s key, we switch to a shot of Hsiao-kang wandering a convenience store. The angle bears the resemblance of a security camera, and Tsai’s camera seems to operate with the same logic. I think it is less the static nature of his camera that trips up less attentive audience members, and more the fact that he is very interested in documenting rather mundane moment. It is in these mundane moments that the psychosexual tension present in all of Tsai’s collaboration with his muse Lee kang-shang, begins to boil to the surface, eventually reaching (to me) its ultimate climax in their greatest achievement together, The Wayward Cloud, which was still 11 years away at this point.

For all the very dense subject matters that Tsai expertly juggles in this drama, I think it is extremely important to emphasize one of the most neglected elements of his work: his humor. For as much as Antonioni is present here, so too is Tati. Where I might find Tati to be sometimes too silly and slapstick, one would be hard-pressed to make the same accusation of Tsai even as he is working under the same terrain. To me, the film’s most brilliantly hilarious sequence occurs when Hsiao-kang, in the process of a suicide attempt, stumbles through the hallways to watch Ah-jung and May Lin in the middle of intercourse. It is dark, of course, but Tsai manages to strike the ever-delicate balance, his gallows’ humor never backfires with emotional irresponsibility, and it is partly due to his incomparable patience behind the camera.

Vive L’Amour begins Tsai’s relationship with brilliant endings. Here, May Lin is stranded following another tryst when her car refuses to start. She walks through Daan Forest Park. The park’s construction began in 1994, fittingly after the eviction of longtime squatters. In the film, the park bears little resemblance to a place of tranquil beauty. Instead, piles of unattended dirt float above inhabitants. The sequence begins with May Lin walking through the space herself, and it feels completely alien to us. One wonders what the constant cycle of destruction and reconstruction of our surrounding space does to us. As the sequence continues, a wider shot reveals subjects more willing to participate in the simulation. Amidst an active construction site, people jog, walk their dog, and read the morning paper. They give us an insight into what park might one day resemble, but the juxtaposition feels preposterous. May Lin, meanwhile, sits down at a bench and cries. Tsai’s camera watches for 6 and a half minutes. The film ends.