I’ve always seen Taipei as a city of togetherness. To me, it is an abode of extended family, a lively retreat from the banality of suburban California, and place for holidays and discovery. Stifling humidity aside, Taipei occupies a relatively positive and nostalgic place in my heart. Tsai Ming-liang’s 1994 film Vive L’Amour does not share my perspective. To say the least, its Taipei is a horribly lonely place.
Tsai is one of Taiwan’s most renowned directors. Although born in Malaysia, he studied in Taiwan and made his 1992 feature film debut with Rebels of the Neon God, a story about alienated Taipei youth. Urban isolation and realistically bleak portrayals of those on the fringes of society characterize Tsai’s work, which exists within Taiwan’s New Wave Cinema movement. New Wave Cinema began around the 1980s during Taiwan’s economic miracle, continuing through the 1990s alongside the island’s democratization. Thus, work from New Wave directors like Tsai oftentimes reflected this rapidly evolving social context, telling down-to-earth narratives about Taiwanese life and struggles for identity.
Vive L’Amour is Tsai’s second full-length feature, and it fits firmly within both his overall repertoire and New Wave Cinema. The film stars three flawed characters who unwittingly share the same empty Taipei apartment. It begins with Hsiao-kang (played by Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng), a troubled young gay man who stumbles upon the apartment’s keys. By day, he sells columbarium slots at one of Taiwan’s most famous cemeteries; by night, he retreats to the apartment to satisfy his mental and sexual impulses. Then there’s Mei (Yang Kuei-mei), the realtor who lost the keys that Hsiao-kang found. She’s trying to sell the apartment, but only “gets lucky” in other areas. Namely, she manages to pick up the leather-jacketed street vendor Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung) for casual sex, and the two have their trysts in that same apartment.
On that note, Vive L’Amour has a fantastically ironic title; it’s got plenty of lust but absolutely no love. For the most part, its three characters exist in separate spheres—Mei never stays long with Ah-Jung, Ah-Jung ends up stealing another key and using the apartment for his own purposes, and Hsiao-kang hides under the bed when the couple are going at it. Furthermore, their activities in the apartment bring only temporary release at best. In the end, all three are still alone, marooned within Taipei’s urban desert.
As is the case with Tsai’s other films, stylistic elements deepen this sense of isolation. Vive L’Amour is mostly silent, offering little dialog and virtually no music. Long takes and tracking shots proliferate, as if the camera is a languid companion on the characters’ descent into nothingness. There is little action in the movie; even when police are about to crack down on Ah-jung’s street stall, it displays little urgency. Thus, Vive L’Amour is very much an art film, providing little for entertainment but much for contemplation.
The film may be somewhat dull and slow-paced, but I deeply appreciated its depiction of Taipei. My earliest memories of the city start a couple years after 1994, so the film provides images of a Taipei I barely experienced and have only heard about through secondhand accounts. Characteristic of New Wave Cinema pieces, it also finds a place for themes from Taiwan’s modernizing milieu. Mei and Hsiao-kang both grapple with overcrowding in their jobs, her for the living and him for the dead. We see a brief shot of Ah-jung in the airport, bringing back clothes from Hong Kong to sell. The film’s poignant final scene deploys a powerful visual metaphor for urban displacement and desolation; it occurs in a still-incomplete Da’an Park, which was built in 1994 after the controversial eviction of longtime squatters and is a centerpiece for Taipei’s gentrification.
But really, this film could be set anywhere. Loneliness, and the cities that cause it, are universal. There’s a heavy silver lining to its silence—you could watch it without knowing Mandarin or having subtitles, and still come away with the same sense of utter soulless devastation. In this sense, Vive L’Amour is ironic in more ways than just its title; it’s a piece about unanchored souls on which anyone who wants (though few probably do) can anchor.
Vive L’Amour (Chinese: 愛情萬歲)—Taiwan. Directed by Tsai Ming-Liang. First released September 1994. Running time 1hr 58min. Starring Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Chao-jung, and Yang Kuei-Mei .