Architecture on Film: Vive L'Amour + Taipei

Vive l'Amour’s languid tale of urban alienation weaves a tragicomic love triangle, as overlapping lives seek respite in the same empty Taipei apartment. Artist Gonzalez-Foerster’s work pays poetic pilgrimage to the film’s final scene.


06:30pm, Tuesday, 10 May 2016


08:45pm, Tuesday, 10 May 2016


Cinema 2
Barbican, Beech Street, London EC2Y 8AE



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Vive L'Amour

A keystone of contemporary Asian cinema, 'Vive l'Amour' weaves a languid tale of urban ennui, as three city dwellers unknowingly share an empty apartment in Taipei. Gradually finding themselves enmeshed in an accidental love triangle, housed within a piece of real estate sitting similarly alone, the overlapping lives of Ming-Liang’s characters – an estate agent, a street peddler and a seller of cremation plots – oscillate between comedy and tragedy, coupling and melancholy, slapstick and silence. Empty architecture performs as both a stage and a metaphor, as the setting for lonely lives looking for a way, and place, to dwell.

An allegorical film of eloquent emptiness, sparse in dialogue and meditative in pace, Ming-Liang creates enigmatically entertaining poetry out of the existential anxieties of contemporary urban life. Rubbing up against each other in the stark lines of box-fresh interior design and the bustle of the metropolis, his protagonists seek refuge and respite, battling alienation with intimacy.

A rare opportunity to see this masterpiece of world cinema on the big screen – winner of the FIPRESCI and Golden Lion awards at the Venice Film Festival upon its premiere – and the vision of a most idiosyncratic director, whose work has drawn comparisons to both Michelangelo Antonioni and Jacques Tati.

Taiwan, 1994, Tsai Ming-Liang, 118 mins


Artist Gonzalez-Foerster’s Taipei revisits the final scene from Ming-Liang’s Vive L’Amour through the eyes of its protagonist, paying pilgrimage to its location in a poetic and personal document – a diaristic homage to cinema and place.

France, 2000, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, 9 min

Programme Notes by Sukhdev Sandhu, writer, critic and Director of the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University:

Ancient City Where I Lived

Who are the people in Tsai Ming-Liang’s Vive L’Amour?

They’re all out of joint. 

Displaced – but from where?

May Lin (Yang Kuei Mei), a 30-something real estate agent, is hardly a power-seller or a gleaming-eyed visionary. She has limited access to a desk, far less an office of her own, and spends her days selling secondary-market property, refining the art of hanging around gracefully while customers decide whether or not to buy.

Ah-Jung (Chen Chao-Jung), the younger man with whom she has a series of desultory and mute assignations, describes himself as being involved in import/exports. His hours are freer than May’s, but most evenings he’s to be found perched by the pavement, hawking women’s garments to pedestrians, and trying to avoid arrest by patrolling policemen.

Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-Sheng), also young, sells wall space in a Memorial Home. (Taipei is overcrowded and its graveyards full, so these small slots for funeral urns are almost the only option left to the bereaved.) He makes himself a sort of home in an empty apartment where he overhears the other two have sex.

Sex without intimacy. Proximity without connection. Urbanism without much in the way of public space. This is a melancholic portrait of a city – and of a nation – that, over the last few decades, has often featured heavily in the pages of the business press. Taiwan, the former Japanese colony, was hailed as a beacon of postcolonial development, as a low-tax miracle economy, for its breakneck industrialization and the epic scale of its highways, harbours and infrastructural projects. It represented white-collar apotheosis, a wonder-zone for the flow of goods and capital, testament to the wonders of neoliberalism. (It was less often observed that this apparent affluence came at the expensive of democracy; martial law was only abolished in 1987.)

This modernist utopia is barely evident in Vive L’Amour. Ming-Liang’s Taipei, which he shoots with his characteristic fondness for long scenes and slow tracking shots, doesn’t feel like a test centre for state-orchestrated accelerationist capitalism. Libidinal energy has given way to inhibition, thwarted longing, listless fucking. (He once told an interview, “I always regard the characters in my films as plants which are short of water, which are almost on the point of dying from lack of water.”) Sonically, the city is hushed. Even its skyline, that advertisement for phallocentric monetarism, is mostly invisible, supplanted by interior shots of enclosed spaces - toilets, bathrooms, bedrooms, unsold real estate – remarkable for their lack of odour, ornamentation, personality. This is less brave new world than banalised bare life.

Hsiao-Kang may be a squatter, but he doesn’t belong to any community or sub-culture of squatters. Equally, Ming-Liang - who was born in Malaysia in 1957 - doesn’t dwell on the socially marginal or abject; on those hundreds of thousands of people lured to the city from the countryside. His aesthetics emerge instead, like those of Antonioni, less from political concerns so much as from an interest in the impact of emergent topographies on individual psychology. It’s intriguing that this film was being made at almost exactly the same time – in the wake both of the glistening transformations of the 1980s and the waning of Taiwan’s New Wave cinema of that decade – evoked by film writer Tony Rayns in his description of the customers at a café where the crew of Taiwanese auteur Edward Yang’s A Confucian Confusion (1994) liked to hang out: “Both the place and its customers embody a mood that’s new in Taipei: too cool to be rebellious, but cynical about politics, disrespectful of the old order, and wryly detached from the city’s assertive affluence.” 

It’s not easy to be a filmmaker in Taiwan. Gou-Juin Hong, discussing the nation’s film history, argued that just as it was “a film history without film … it was a national cinema without a nation”. In recent times, Ming-Liang has received more financial support for his work from France than from Taiwan. But, like the best of his other films, Vive L’Amour isolates – with subtle poetry and eccentric humour, and with a gaze that is at once voyeuristic and tremulous with useless pity – some of the peculiar qualities of living in a city that thrives on amnesia, that places more value on its national and international symbolic status than on its substance,  whose showpiece park – revisited by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster in Taipei (2000) – has disappeared its former squatters and appears now to have neither trees nor grass. 

In time - and that time may already have arrived - that violent, gaudy history will be normalised. The wounds to the city’s landscapes will be - or claimed to have been - healed. Few local inhabitants will be able to offer counter narratives to the erasures and derangements provoked by ‘progress’. But the past never fully knows its place. It always finds a way to leak into and destabilize the present. Vive L’Amour, all skeins and sorrow, is a vital pre-haunting.