Tsai Ming-liang's "The River" in One Shot

Tsai Ming-liang's rhythmic portrait of urban malaise encapsulated in a single shot.
Theresa Wang

One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie. The River (1997) is showing November 14 - December 13, 2020 on MUBI in the US and Canada in the series Double Bill: Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng.

Seated alone in a humming McDonald's, an older man (Miao Tien) gazes at a younger man (Chen Chao-jung) posturing against the window. Miao’s furtive eros is kept in plain sight, clandestine in the fringes of a crowded place. By the day, he is a father and husband to a man and woman with whom he is sharing a roof. But he hasn’t been a father nor a husband in a long time, and it’s not clear whether it’s from estrangement or indifference. Drifting into an empty, neon-lit corridor, Miao and Chen ponder cautiously at opposite ends of the arcade, speaking a language of inaction. Then, cautiously, they sway—walking in unison from their respective corners, pressed close to the walls. They linger as they pass one another, only to glide back. To and fro. In Tsai Ming-liang’s films, the camera often aches in forlorn stasis. Slow and heavy with time protracted, the stationary camera builds a looming density over the confines of interior spaces. As Miao and Chen walk back and forth along the enclosures of the corridor, where two strangers' breaths share the same air, they delineate a restrictive rhythm. The movement of one is in relation to the movement of the other. Like a pendulum swinging back and forth, the chiastic structure signals repetitions of movement in space by considering how one informs the other in reverse parallel. This repetition of redirection and reversal appears when Miao’s son (Lee Kang-shen) is on an escalator and crosses paths with an old friend: he moves upwards, she descends, they cross paths, and she briskly follows up after him. Or when Lee is sent to the hospital by a mysterious affliction: paralyzed in pain, he is unable to call out to his mother and father, who rush past him failing to recognize their own son and ashamedly run back to him minutes after. For Tsai, characters trace the bounds of the spaces they occupy only to be further compressed in the suffocating air of the frame, surrounded by everything but suspended in silence. 

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


ColumnsOne ShotNow ShowingTsai Ming-LiangQuick Reads
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.