A young man develops severe neck pain after swimming in a polluted river; his dysfunctional parents are unable to provide any relief for him or themselves.


Ming-liang Tsai
6 wins & 9 nominations. See more awards »





Complete credited cast:
Tien Miao ... Father
Kang-sheng Lee ... Hsiao-Kang
Yi-Ching Lu ... Mother (as Hsiao-Ling Lu)
Ann Hui ... Director (as Anne Hui)
Shiang-chyi Chen ... Girl
Chao-jung Chen ... Anonymous Man
Shiao-Lin Lu Shiao-Lin Lu ... Mother's lover (as Long Chang)
Kuei-Mei Yang ... Girl in Hotel


In Taiwan, Xiao-kang, a young man in his early 20s, lives with his parents in near silence. He is plagued by severe neck pain. His father is bedeviled by water first leaking into his bedroom and then flooding the apartment; rain is incessant. Xiao-kang's mother is overcome by sexual longing for her son, sometimes making seemingly incestuous overtures. They try virtually every intervention for Xiao-kang's neck: Western medicine, a chiropractor, acupuncture, an herbal doctor, and a faith healer, Master Liu. Are the family's silent dynamics and Xiao-kang's neck pain connected? And what about the body floating in the Tamsui River: is everything dead? Written by <jhailey@hotmail.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Drama | Romance


Not Rated | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

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Did You Know?


On the set of Vive L'Amour, whose production immediately preceded The River, star Lee Kang-sheng dealt with chronic neck pains which inspired this film. See more »


Girl: Hsiao-kang, I want to go pee. Could you turn off the lights?
[Hsiao-kang turns off the lights]
Girl: The curtains, too.
See more »


Referenced in The Movie Show: Episode dated 2 March 1997 (1997) See more »

User Reviews

Disturbing depiction of emotional disconnect
14 October 2002 | by howard.schumannSee all my reviews

In The River (1997) by Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, Xiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), meets a young woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) on an escalator in a downtown Taipei mall. The woman introduces him to a film director (Ann Hui) who recruits him to play a corpse floating down a polluted river. Shortly afterward, Xiao-kang mysteriously experiences severe neck pain. Although he receives medical, chiropractic, and acupuncture treatment, his condition worsens and he spends most of the film groaning in pain and holding his neck. As in Todd Haynes' Safe (1995), another film about illness that worsens despite treatment, it remains uncertain whether the cause is physical or psychological.

There have been many films about the failure of modern society to provide a coherent set of values for people, particularly Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas, and Michael Haneke's Code Unknown, but none convey the feeling of emotional deadness and isolation more effectively than The River. It is so alienating in its lethargic pace that it makes Andrei Tarkovsky look like Michael Bay. With no close-ups, no soundtrack other than environmental noises, minimal dialogue and plot, and long takes that focus on objects for minutes at a time, the film challenges us to stay tuned in.

Relationships in The River are cold and impersonal, and Xiao-kang's family is about as profoundly isolated as can be imagined. All we see in the beginning are three individuals going their separate ways, performing most of life's routine chores exclusively by themselves. It is well into the film until we even know they are a family unit. They never speak to each other, sleep or eat together. The father (Miao Tien) is a retired, dumpy-looking man who frequents the Gay saunas. Xiao-kang's mother (Lu Hsiao-ling) is an elevator operator who watches pornographic videos that she obtains from her secret lover, a seller of such material. Xiao himself has a brief affair with the young woman he met at the beginning of the film.

There is no emotion in the film. Only the brief, anonymous sexual encounters provide any form of intensity. All of these scenes, however, are shot almost entirely in the dark with only little snippets of light showing parts of trembling bodies. This technique creates a sensual but rather unnerving and distancing experience. Water is a prevalent thread throughout the film -- in the polluted river, the leaking ceiling of the father's bedroom which ultimately floods the apartment; rain showers, bathing showers and baths at the sauna. It plays a central symbolic role, perhaps as a metaphor for the flow of life. As Jonathan Rosenbaum concludes: "Sex and plumbing, seduction and infection, a river and a spray of steam and a torrent of rain are all part of the same inexorable flow."

The River says a great deal about people thrown together in big cities, living in close proximity, and yet emotionally and psychologically distant. They live an existence surrounded by silence, unwilling or unable to reach out to each other, handling problems with inaction and patchwork solutions. I found The River to be a very unsettling experience, unpleasant to watch but very powerful in its dark message. In a shocking scene towards the end of the film, father and son meet in a sauna at a gay bathhouse but fail to recognize each other. In this tender but disturbing depiction of emotional disconnect, the film is succinctly summarized.

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Release Date:

7 August 1997 (Taiwan) See more »

Also Known As:

The River See more »

Filming Locations:

Taipei City, Taiwan

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Dolby SR



Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »

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