Three solitary strangers unwittingly share an empty apartment, crossing paths and even anonymously hooking up, in Ming-liang Tsai’s “Vive L’amour,” a Golden Lion winner at the 1994 Venice Film Festival.
Tsai’s second feature was his break-out film, leading to a career of exploring sex and loneliness in such films as “What Time is it There?” and “Goodbye, Dragon Inn.” A daring, painterly filmmaker with a taste for stories of sexual isolation — he even made a VR movie, adding modern tech to reasons for why we’ve disconnected (“The Deserted”) — the hallmarks of his style run through “Vive L’Amour.”
Dialogue is using sparingly. It takes nearly 30 minutes before we hear a character speak.
The jobs of the characters — one delivers food and menus via motorbike, one character is a real estate agent and one has some sort of importing business — underscore their disconnection from people.
Sex has an anonymous, Tinder-without-Talking hook-up quality.
And all of this creates an aching emptiness in the characters and the film, with one reduced to simply sitting in an empty stadium and weeping — for six and a half minutes.
Tsai’s films aren’t for the impatient. If he isn’t credited with inventing “slow cinema,” he’s still one of its undisputed masters.
There’s this lovely, luxe apartment that our harried, 30ish real-estate agent May Lin (Kuei-Mei Yang) is trying to rent out. But being “harried,” she leaves the key in the door after one showing, which is how young loner Hsiao-kang (Kang-sheng Lee) gains access. Hsaio-kang is an early example of the strains of the “gig economy.” He stuffs menus into mailboxes and is just starting work as a funeral crypt salesman.
He is suicidal. We see him check the bandage on his wrist as he overhears the hook-up (Chao-jung Chen) May Lin brings back to the bare mattress bed in the place for the first of several assignations. Hasaio-kang is also stealthy. He has to be.
That hook-up begins with a wordless roundelay, a simple exchange of glances at adjacent tables in the smoking section of a mall cafe, progresses to a “chance” second exchange at the mall cinema and climaxes until each good-looking person finishes sizing the other up and importer Ah-jung follows May Lin — no names are exchanged, yet — into the spacious, high end rental.
The only thing that can break the bleak spell these lives are lived under is connection. Long before we see anything of that sort, we sense the addicts’ withdrawal intensity of the simple need to be touched in each of them.
“Vive L’Amour” is a classic “This won’t be for everyone” drama. A film of banality-of-life longueurs and despairing emptiness, interrupted by the blackest of black humor — getting trapped under a bed during the cacophony of coitus — it feels self-indulgent and self-conscious, even in it’s most mundane moments.
But it’s also a classic “fall film,” a picture that reminds you throughout that you are watching a storyteller with a camera, a screen experience that takes the punchline of that old joke, “A ‘film’ is a ‘movie’ we don’t quite understand” and hits it hard, over and over again for a mesmerizing 118 minutes.
Rating: R, sex, nudity, smoking
Cast: Kuei-Mei Yang, Kang-sheng Lee and Chao-jung Chen
Credits: Directed by Ming-liang Tsai, scripted by Ming-liang Tsai, Yi-chun Tsai and Pi-ying Yang. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:58