A film crew is assembled at the bank of a river, struggling to make a mannequin look like a real dead body. The figure lies face-down in the grey water, but its imitation of human physicality is not quite right. The director, played by real-life Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui, gives instructions: it needs to look dirtier, and the feet need to be lower (its legs are stuck in an unnaturally straight position). Encountering Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng) by chance while the crew breaks for lunch, the director senses an opportunity to replace an unconvincing replica with the real thing and spontaneously asks the young stranger if he will float in the river for her. Hsiao-Kang is resistant, knowing that the water is unclean, but upon her insistence eventually agrees. This forms a prologue of sorts to He liu (The River, 1997), Tsai Ming-Liang’s third feature film and one of his bleakest. Eschewing much of the playfulness and gentle humour present in Tsai’s other works like Ai qing wan sui (Vive l’amour, 1994) and Bu san (Goodbye, Dragon Inn, 2003), The River centres on a deeply disconnected family who reside together but barely exchange words: Hsiao-Kang’s mother and father (played by Lu Hsiao-Ling and Miao Tien respectively, who also appear as the same character’s parents in Tsai’s first feature Qīngshàonián Nuózhà [Rebels of the Neon God, 1992]), sleep in separate rooms and only interact when it concerns their son. Riding on his moped after the shoot, Hsiao-Kang feels a twinge materialise in the nape of his neck, the furrow in his brow growing into a grimace as he lifts a hand to touch the site of discomfort. The rest of the film will document phenomena non-existent inside the mannequin’s inert interior – the body’s sensate core, its afflictions and desires.

The twinge develops into a severe pain enveloping the remainder the film, which chronicles in detail the array of treatments, both ancient and modern, Hsiao-Kang is subjected to by his parents in an attempt to relieve his affliction: medicinal spray, patches, an injection, massage, acupuncture, a provincial healer, and even a vibrator. Through inherently cinematic means, Tsai is concerned with documenting the sensorial discomfort of pain in an unflinching manner. The director’s signature long, static shots emphasise Lee’s physical gestures in the frame, allowing the materiality of his body to exist continuously in real time as we witness one remedy after another, many of which are painful themselves. A 132-second shot shows a pair of hands in shallow focus clinically inserting a series of thin needles into the tips of Hsiao-Kang’s fingers and palm. As they soundlessly penetrate the surface of his skin, the acupuncturist’s calm offscreen voice is contrasted with Hsiao-Kang’s tense breathing. In the same way that the close framing of Hsiao-Kang’s hand inflates its size in proportion to the rest of his body and surroundings, which are confined to the blurred backdrop, being caught in the grips of intense pain can pale perception of the external world, “swelling to fill [one’s] entire universe”1. The River’s portrayal of pain lingers within sensory experience. In its chronic and unexplainable nature, it cannot be contained within traditional causal narrative structures and ceases to be locatable only in the discrete materiality of the body. 

As Hsiao-Kang endures the isolation and torment of a seemingly incurable pain, the sexual frustrations of his parents, which leaves them both equally lonely, are slowly revealed. His mother pursues an unsatisfying affair with a distributor of pornographic videos, who is cold and irritable against her ploys for intimacy. His father seeks sexual gratification through visiting a gay sauna; the hesitating, anonymous encounters in its darkened rooms are often broken by conflicting desires or do not eventuate. The father’s failure to contain a leak in his bedroom echoes the persistence of his own necessarily hidden desires and the incurability of his son’s affliction. He tries several solutions – what begins as a single blue bucket catching one stream grows to include more buckets, pots, and towels distributed around his room, all of which struggle to contain the water’s relentless flow. He adjusts the position of his bed, enlists a plumber to examine the cracked roof, and develops an elaborate filtration system while the overflow wakes him up at night.

The bodily processes and sensations which Tsai’s work portrays with thorough detail – such as eating, sleeping, pleasure, and pain – most often belong to the director’s long-time muse, Lee Kang-Sheng, who has appeared in all Tsai’s feature films. Across a 30-year period, Lee’s real corporeal experiences have infused and shaped their work together. A prolonged muscular therapy session Lee’s character undergoes in Tsai’s most recent feature, Days (2020), was filmed while the actor was receiving real treatment for an illness2. Tsai describes how this symbiosis between Lee’s own body and the filmmaking process first took shape with The River:

After shooting the first film, Rebels of the Neon God, [Lee] got a strange illness. His neck was out of whack for nine months. That neck problem became part of the film, The River […] I felt I was responsible […] So I accompanied him to see doctors for nine months. Our relationship became very close.3

 In her influential study of bodily pain, Elaine Scarry describes how being an outside spectator to the painful sensations inside another person’s body “may seem to have the remote character of some deep subterranean fact, belonging to an invisible geography”4. The River is an earnest attempt to connect with Lee’s pain through cinema, to recreate his sensory reality. The deep love Tsai has for his collaborator is felt in the visual beauty of the images, even in scenes depicting excruciating pain: waking the day after his immersion in the river, Hsiao-Kang’s face and body contort beneath soft lighting, beads of sweat glistening atop his skin. The actor’s profoundly affecting, full-bodied performance is its own utterance; it renders Hsiao-Kang’s pain all-encompassing and emanates a corporeal knowing unattainable to someone without his experiences. He twitches, winces, squirms, twists his head back and forth in perpetual restlessness. The pain distorts his bodily comportment, diminishes his appetite, hampers his ability to travel safely and, at times, to speak. 

While there are no explicit conclusions as to the origin of Hsiao-Kang’s pain, it first appears following his contact with the Tamsui river. Located in northern Taipei, the Tamsui River was once a scenic body of water that afforded navigation upstream to fishing and recreation grounds. Since the 1950s, however, the appearance of thousands of shops and factories along its banks have polluted its water with human and industrial waste5. A clean-up program established in the 1980s by the Environmental Protection Agency in collaboration with the Taipei City Government has had minimal impact; the river’s use as a garbage dumping ground for the metropolitan area causes it to remain heavily polluted6. Indeed, our glimpse of the river at the beginning of the film is of murky water, its bank lined with sludge and plastic waste, and its flow confined to a concrete tunnel to make way for a road. To scar the natural world through pollution is also to blight the source of human health and sustenance. While technologies of urban modernity – roads, elevators, televisions, Hsiao-Kang’s moped – exceed the body’s physical limitations, we are still inescapably bound to the matter of these same bodies. Tsai recounts: “During those nine months, I realized the body could be out of one’s control. I saw the vulnerability of the body. I felt that’s a powerful subject that I should be concerned with.”7

For Tsai, pain and desire are both matters of the body which yearn for expression and recognition. They are afflictions which seek relief, but falter at the prospect of linguistic expression. Release cannot occur through traditional avenues offered by society – no sought methods free Hsiao-Kang of his pain, and his father must engage his sexuality in dimmed, private rooms with anonymous partners. The characters’ emotional isolation is reflected in physical divisions between figures in space: doors, walls, partitions. The sensations felt within individual bodies, which can’t be shared through conventional avenues, signal failed attempts at intimacy that permeate Tsai’s work. Hsiao-Kang’s parents witness his pain, but their calm and systematic response to their son’s suffering speaks to how profoundly isolating the experience of physical pain can be in its impossibility of being felt by others. When Hsiao-Kang’s father cruises for a sexual partner outside a McDonald’s, he must interpret the invisible internal geography of a stranger’s body – does this man desire him? – and, in trying to discern the sensations happening inside another’s body, finds himself in a situation not unlike being confronted with another’s pain. 

In the film’s denouement, father and son visit the same gay sauna independently while travelling together to visit a healer for Hsiao-Kang. In the darkened space, they unknowingly have sex with each other as the water pushes loose the plastic roof sheeting containing the leak back home in the father’s bedroom. Repressed desire finally breaks out in a torrent, finding its release only in the realm of the severest taboo. The separation of family and sexuality is undone, making way for both characters’ highest moment of intimacy in the film and, for Hsiao-Kang, a flicker of pleasure amidst unrelenting pain. The portrayal of incest is challenging in its tenderness, momentarily loosening the characters’ physical, emotional, and sexual afflictions. But this does not last long – the trauma of recognising each other quickly retracts father and son’s fleeting moment of connection. The film’s final shot finds Hsiao-Kang on the balcony of the hotel room they share, looking offscreen, hand still clutching the nape of his neck.

He liu/The River (1997 Taiwan 115 mins)

Prod Co: Central Motion Picture Corporation Prod: Chiu Shun-Ching, Hsu Li-Kong Dir: Tsai Ming-Liang Scr: Tsai Ming-Liang, Tsai Yi-Chun, Yang Pi-Ying Phot: Liao Pen-Jung Ed: Chen Sheng-Chang, Lei Chen-Ching Prod Des: Tony Lan

Cast: Lee Kang-Sheng, Tien Miao, Lu Hsiao-Ling [Yi-Ching], Ann Hui, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Chen Chao-Jung


  1. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985, 35.
  2. Daniel Kasman, “Trapped Bodies: Tsai Ming-Liang Discusses “Days”,” MUBI Notebook (28 February 2020): https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/trapped-bodies-tsai-ming-liang-discusses-days.
  3. Asia Society, “Filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang on Actor Lee Kang-Sheng (at Asia Society NY)”, YouTube (6 April 2010): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBEsAcchLlo. Filmed November 2009 at Asia Society’s New York Center. See the section between 3:20-3:52.
  4. Scarry, 3.
  5. Kuang-Tien Yao, “Commentary on the Marginalized Society: The Films of Tsai Ming-Liang”, Globalizing Taipei: The Political Economy of Spatial Development, ed. Reginald Yin-Wang Kwok, New York, Routledge, 2005, 234.
  6. Yao, 234.
  7. Asia Society. See the section between 3:53-4:07.

About The Author

Alex Williams is a PhD candidate in Screen and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, where their research focuses on pain and the body in contemporary art cinema. They are a member of the senior ticketing team at ACMI and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque.

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