(He liu / Tsai Ming-liang / 1997)
Something an acquaintance said after a Pedro Costa screening has always staid with me: that contemporary cinema seems content to press record and whatever is captured can be called poetry. While I disagree with this dismissal, there is a kernel of truth in his criticism. Part of what makes a film like The River (or Costa or Weerasethakul) is the dangerous act of discovery, of wonder. An essential part of this process is an unknowing (or non-knowing) engagement with a piece. There is a chance that what is being screened can never hold any significance to those who didn't make the images, but is this not how great poetry works? The more personal, the more subjective, the closer to the edge of the incompressible articulation of experience the artist gets, the greater chance there is of a individual being shaken by the work. But conversely, the chance of seeing nothing increases along with it (if you're bored, peruse the Netflix user reviews of any Min-liang film, particularly The Wayward Cloud).
But back to my acquaintance. His concern was likewise couched in a fear/rejection of the loss of formalism, which constructs a false dichotomy between DIY anything goes and learned structures of style. While Tsai Ming-liang's films give the appearance of pressing record and seeing what happens, the actuality is he couldn't be more formal and structured! And it is this bizarre recombination of digital experiment with classic structures that make his work (particularly The River) such a marvel to behold. The River plays like a Greek Tragedy and a meandering ethnographic study. The bizarre realities of the subjects takes up most of the frame, but every shot is bursting with queer desires and subversive political engagement.