As these three desperate souls seem either destined or determined to keep themselves apart, Vive L'Amour works not only as an unromantic character study but also as a critique of capitalist Taipei--a city whose overpopulated streets only enhance its empty, isolating vibe, and whose identity crisis as neither China nor the West seems to mirror the characters' own indecision. Lacking meaningful personal lives, the young professionals are reducible to their occupations: The nomadic Mei-mei sells homes to others without having one of her own; the hustler Ah-jung peddles clothes from an illegal sidewalk stand; and Hsiao-kang hocks crematory urns, which would scarcely seem to offset his suicidal tendencies. Hsiao-kang holds the center of the film's attention, and yet he's clearly the third side of its obtuse love triangle. In one of the film's dispassionate sex scenes, he hides under the bed masturbating while the other two bounce above him; later, he sneaks up next to the sleeping Ah-jung but can't bring himself to drag his desire out of the closet.
If Wong's Chungking Express serves as an ode to chance encounters in the big city, Vive L'Amour laments the modern tendency to substitute people with things. Not for nothing does the film's most sensual scene take place between Hsiao-kang and a ripe melon, which he proceeds to kiss, cut holes in, roll like a bowling ball, smash into pieces, and rub across his face. More often, the characters are totally alone, as in the harrowing final shot of someone weeping into the camera for six straight minutes. Like Wong, Tsai finds emotional salvation in cinematic style: The main hope of Vive L'Amour is its courage to present the rhythms of capitalist life without commercial interruption.
Happy Together starts Friday at Oak Street Cinema for a one-week run.Vive L'Amour screens Sunday at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, April 15 at 9 p.m. as part of Asian Media Access's "Chinese Film Showcase" at Metro State University in St. Paul; for more info on the series, call AMA at 376-7715.