Three young adults in Taiwan are living together under one roof, one of whom is completely unaware that anyone else is in the house. The first is a female real-estate agent trying to sell the luxurious apartment; one is a male “street vendor” who occasionally sleeps with her; and one is a columbarium salesman who has no other place to live. These three individuals living entirely alone, yet literally within feet of each other, sets the basis for Tsai Ming-liang’s exploration in his second film.
When watching Tsai Ming-liang’s first feature film, Rebels of the Neon God, it was clear that he set out to create a broad picture of societal decay in modern urban life. The film took this broad scope and looked at the hopelessness of contemporary life in this type of setting, but did not specifically focus on each reason why these characters lacked purpose. Instead, he created a number of hypotheses, briefly touching on each of them. Now, in Vive l’Amour, Tsai Ming-liang grasps at one of these hypotheses for why this sense in his first movie may have come about: loneliness.
No matter which scene you watch – whether the characters are alone or together, speaking or in silence – there is a total sense of isolation. May Lin, the real-estate agent, sits in a beat-up apartment calling prospective buyers to come to see the place. She is sitting distraughtly and practically begging them to show up. Her voice and expression portray something deeper – the need for someone to come to talk to her, whether she admits that’s her reason for calling or not. Even when the viewers arrive, she runs up to them and asks for their names almost indifferent to their thoughts on the apartment.
Ah-jung, the street vendor, finds his solace in sleeping with May Lin (and at times she finds it with him as well). His nights are spent alone on the street, illegally selling clothing to passersby. He tries to make the best of his situation usually seeming happy, yet his constant calls to May Lin, trying to sleep with her again, give light to his longing for company even if just for a night. When he enters the apartment to live there (unknown to her) it is unclear why, but it seems that he is holding onto that first night they had together to instill some sense of togetherness.
Hsiao-kang, the columbarium salesman (and one of the characters from Ming-liang’s previous film, later in his life), attempts suicide in one of the opening scenes. He proceeds through his workday always coming back home to the apartment. Through the creative mind which often stems from boredom (another facet of loneliness) he invents games with a watermelon and by that is discovered by Ah-jung. After this discovery that both are living under the same roof, there is no friendship that evolves, no path towards the solution to their problems. Instead, they continue to live closely but may as well be miles away.
This barrier of loneliness cannot be broken by them. They are all always a word or a touch away and there is some unexplainable force that does not allow them to ask for help. Hsiao-kang lies under the bed as the other two have sex. After they are done, Ah-jung stays in bed, not asking May Lin to stay with him but letting her leave again, unsure if she will accept another call from him. When she has left, Hsiao-kang lies next to Ah-jung, touching and kissing him in his sleep, all to feel what a real embrace would be like. Finally, May Lin walks alone through a park, sitting down a few seats away from another man, and cries until the credits roll.
The characters all sought some form of companionship in everyone except those both literally and figuratively close to them. It is unclear if they even realize the solution to their problem, or if they realize it is a problem at all. As in his first movie, we see the characters meandering along in their daily lives, suffering through some horrid modern decay that cannot easily be fixed. They are stuck because they are experiencing what they have always been used to. There is no solution because to solve it would be to bring about something unheard of. So instead, they lie underneath beds, kiss closed eyes, cry for help, and remain alone and unheard.
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