This was the first Tsai Ming-liang movie I saw, 15 years ago. Back then, I had a hard time paying attention – it’s very slow, and very little happens. Over time, I saw some of his other movies and got more used to the style. The slowness has real purpose, and I haven’t seen a clearer case for this than The River. Add to it the cinematography – every shot uses an angle that looks just a bit off, without calling attention to it – and the way the characters behave – very precise movement, and very little communication – and you get a movie that’s more and more unsettling with each scene and eventually becomes nerve-racking. Tsai’s Taipei is a scary place to inhabit. Even before Hsiao-Kang falls off his bike I could already feel a sense of dread, even though nothing bad had happened in the movie by that point.
So even though this was not an experience I’d call pleasing, I was glad to finally appreciate this absolutely masterful work.