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The River (1997)

He liu (original title)
Not Rated | | Drama, Romance | 7 August 1997 (Taiwan)
1:24 | Trailer

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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 & 7 nominations. See more awards »



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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 »






Release Date:

7 August 1997 (Taiwan) See more »

Also Known As:

The River See more »

Filming Locations:

Taipei City, Taiwan

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Dolby SR



Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


The director of the movie in which Xiao-Keng floats in the river is played by real-life Hong Kong director Ann Hui. 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 »


Follows Vive L'Amour (1994) See more »

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User Reviews

An undiscovered masterpiece
8 November 1999 | by DureeSee all my reviews

There is a great deal about this movie which is going to bother audiences with short attention spans. The director Tsai Ming-Liang has a trademark style that is not to everyone's taste: long, static scenes; no background music; and dark, unsentimental realism. All of these elements are present here as they were in his much better-known film "Vive l'Amour."

As fine as that film was, this one is even finer, and much more harrowing. An aimless young man runs into an old fling who happens to be working on a film set. He goes one day to watch the filming and the director, who is trying to film a scene of a corpse floating down a river, is having trouble with the dummy they're using to play the corpse. The director talks the young man into playing the corpse. He hesitates, as the river is clearly polluted to ridiculously toxic levels, but the desperate director is persuasive enough to convince him that everything is going to be all right as long as he takes a shower afterward.

In the days and weeks that follow, the young man develops a tic that steadily develops into severe spasms and partial paralysis in his neck and shoulder. Director Tsai presumes the audience is intelligent enough to see the connection between the polluted river and the sudden neurological catastrophe, and never makes the cause of the illness explicit.

The young man's life steadily unravels. He goes to Western-style doctors; he goes to Traditional Chinese Medicine practictioners who violently massage him, poke him with needles, force him to consume revolting medicinal broths, and perform various rituals to scare off the evil spirits. Nothing works, many of the healers are quacks, and the hopelessness of his situation settles upon the viewer like a radioactive cloud.

The rest of his family is only slightly better off. His father is a closeted gay who relentlessly cruises and constantly gets rebuffed. His mother, for obvious reasons, is sexually frustrated. They barely know how to communicate with one another and the son's worsening condition merely exacerbates the fissures that already existed in the family. One top of that, their house is leaking water and the ceiling is on the verge of collapse.

There are horror films which frighten us with supernatural forces and crazed psychos, frighten us with things that hardly exist or which most people never encounter, and then there those movies which present the far more terrifying horror of real calamaties that befall real people every day: chronic illness, environmental catastrophe, familial dissolution, hopelessness, depression. Such films are tremendously unpopular for one very simple reason: they tell the truth, a truth which practically everybody would much rather pretend doesn't exist. Even when such disasters are presented to us in film and literature, there is often a tendency to try to soften the blow by sugar-coating it with some kind of hope, redemption, turn-around, religious awakening, catharsis, etc. This film does no such thing: it tells a believable story and follows it through to its logical "conclusion"--the realization that there are some things from which one will never recover, that there are some cases in life where there is no hope. There are very few people who can stomach such a bitter truth, but that doesn't make it any less true.

Only a very brave and talented artist can present a story like this without descending into sentimentality on the one hand, or schadenfreude on the other. Tsai forces us to observe carefully, and observation is the first step on the road to compassion and understanding. He sees the pathos of the situation but also its black irony and humor. What's more, in this little story about a handful of ruined lives, he has found a parable that applies to the larger world, one which forever seems to teeter on the brink of destruction, most of the time at its own hands.

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