A City of Sadness

A City of Sadness 1

(Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1989)

Identity Crisis

For his first of three films dealing explicitly with twentieth century Taiwanese history, the great Hou Hsiao-hsien takes a bold artistic and cultural leap with his arguable opus City of Sadness – easily one of cinema’s finest underappreciated masterpieces. As a work of art, the film builds upon Hou’s subtly influential aesthetic of static shots, long takes, unhurried, near-poetic pacing, and elliptical storytelling, but City of Sadness stands as the most crucial moment in the filmmaker’s career until that point because it represents the apex of these artistic traits and marks the beginning of open dialogue surrounding one of the nation’s most significant and infamously hushed eras of turmoil. If there is one common complaint level against the work it’s that many argue one shouldn’t need a history lesson before approaching and subsequently understanding a good film. Though I sympathize with those confused by viewings free of context (of which I too surely have been victim of with other films in the past), I must respectfully disagree with this notion. As with any work of art – whether it be a musical composition, a pop record, a great novel, or a film – the story or contextual history behind that work only to serves to richen the experience. Hou’s City of Sadness is no exception.

The history providing the backbone for Hou’s film is lengthy and complex, and much of it is likely entirely unknown to Western viewers, but even the briefest research should enlighten unfamiliar audiences enough to grasp the film’s central concern. The film’s narrative stretches from 1945 at the close of WWII to 1949 with the victory of Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War, forever altering the political and cultural landscape of the island of Taiwan. The film opens on a radio broadcast announcing the surrender of the Japanese to the Allied powers and their subsequent handover of Taiwan to mainland China ending fifty years of occupation. This historical announcement, with its far-reaching implications, plays while Wen-heung (Sungyoung Chen) awaits the birth of his child as his wife (Shufang Chen) goes into labor in the next room. It’s a gentle and poignant reminder that history is made whilst the lives of those who live it go on in the foreground. This juxtaposition that Hou establishes in the opening sequence forms the basis for the remainder of the film’s narrative – a delicate balance of actual historical events and intimate family drama. But, as Hou is clearly more concerned with how these events affect the people involved, history fills the background, relegated to dialogue, intertitles, or audience inference, while the story of one Taiwanese family deeply scarred by this political transition unfolds right in front of the camera.

The reprieve from occupation is short-lived as relations with the rising numbers of mainlanders become complicated and increasingly violent. Wen-heung runs a club in Jiufen a small city in the northeast of Taiwan and may engage in some dealing off the books, but his primary concern as the eldest of four brothers is taking care of his war-torn family. Of the two brothers who went off to fight in the war, one went missing in the Philippines leaving his widow back home and the other Wen-leung (Jack Kao) returned severely mentally unstable. The youngest brother Wen-ching (Tony Leung) is a deaf-mute and causes a great deal of anxiety for his oldest brother due to his disability and inability to work. The film follows the travails of the three remaining brothers as distrust of native Taiwanese grows amongst the new ruling mainland party, but the blooming romance between Wen-ching and his best friend’s sister Hinomi (Xin Shufen) serves as the film’s emotional core. As the nation and even Wen-ching’s own family members turn to violence, their growing bond provides grounding for the several narrative threads. That these two innocent-seeming individuals too fall victim to the tyranny of what would become known as the White Terror proves all the more devastating.

The tension growing between the varying language, cultural, and political groups culminates in what Taiwan now remembers as the 2-28 Incident in 1947. When an anti-government uprising explodes on February 28th in response to the corrupt and unjust dealings of the new ruling party, the Republic of China suppresses the gathering violently, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 civilians. For decades to come, though the initial violence quells some, native Taiwanese – mostly intellectuals – are imprisoned, executed, or vanish never to be heard from again. Hou leaves most of these deadly clashes off-screen (and the skirmishes that do appear onscreen are brilliantly captured in wide shot, distancing typically bloodthirsty audiences from the action) allowing our focus to remain with the Lin family and the ripple effects the massacre has on each of them. Both Wen-leung and Wen-ching are arrested, and Wen-heung eventually loses his own life in a brawl, but Hou shows that this family must go on. He repeatedly includes shots of a large table situated in front of beautiful stained-glass windows in Wen-heung’s club, but the number of those seated around it dwindles as the film goes on – a quietly effective technique to show the loss the Lin family suffers throughout.

There is beauty to be found amidst these accounts of such loss and tragedy, and Hou is not shy in capturing it. Hou’s cinema is one of great subtlety; so much so that even though the film’s dense narrative envelops the audience, demanding spectators’ fullest engagement to fill in the gaps of the story’s many ellipses, it also lingers long after its finale allowing viewers to crack open the nuances to reveal even greater, unexpected depth. In one such scene that becomes more significant with further reflection and repeat viewings, the essence of Hou’s brilliant style emerges in a series of four extended shots once again bridging the gap between the public and the personal. The sequence opens on Hinomi’s brother Hinoe (Wu Yifang) and a group of colleagues eating and drinking around a small, floor-level living room table. Hinomi and Wen-ching are there too, but they may be difficult to notice at first since she is tucked away in the far corner, and his back faces the camera – neither one adds anything to the conversation. The scene takes place prior to the 2-28 Incident, thus the discussion revolves around the encroaching mainland presence and the threat it may pose to not only those of Japanese background (like Hinoe and Hinomi) but also Taiwanese perceived as loyal to the old ways. After a few moments, Hinomi gets up and moves even farther into the corner of the room and motions for Wen-ching to join her. Hou cuts to a two-shot of the pair sitting by a record player while Hinomi asks Wen-ching to help her chose a record to play. Their private conversation – scribbled on a pad of paper and uniquely shown to the audience through intertitles – provides insight into Wen-ching’s past as he tells Hinomi that he remembers hearing an opera before he went deaf as child. Hinomi explains to him the background of the particular record he chooses, and the music gradually drowns out the conversation with wider implications at the table wrapping the two characters in a tender intimacy. As Wen-ching describes for her his memory, Hou’s camera cuts again to an opera singer performing on stage. There is initially no context for this transition, but once the camera cuts again, this time to a group of young boys at school goofing around and imitating the singer, the audience is left to infer that this may either be a flashback of Wen-ching’s childhood memory or Hinomi’s imagination of the described event. It’s a tremendous sequence that may read as a bit confusing upon initial viewing, but in the greater context of the entire film, it’s one of the finest instances of Hou’s aesthetic beautifully serving his complex story.

That confusion might be a typical response from viewers – both Taiwanese or otherwise – shouldn’t be much of a surprise for it may very well be somewhat intentional. Of the range of emotions and themes Hou explores throughout City of Sadness, the uncertain identity and accompanying confusion it breeds are central to the film’s focus. (After all, there are at least five different languages spoken by different characters throughout.) The notion of a lost Taiwanese identity passing down through the generations was explored in Edward Yang’s opus A Brighter Summer Day only two years after Hou’s film. That film, set in the ‘60s, follows the children of both mainlanders and native Taiwanese of the generation in Hou’s City of Sadness as the struggles of their parents to establish a national identity lead them to join violent gangs and appropriate Western culture in the absence of their own. That both of these great directors of the so-called Taiwanese New Wave dealt with such similar themes decades later speaks to the very real cultural crisis many Taiwanese not only faced but continue to face as their demands to be taken seriously as a nation state fall upon deaf ears tuned to the economic and political dominance of the mainland People’s Republic of China. Taiwan’s future remains uncertain even well into the twenty-first century, which makes both films – like two crucial entries in an audio-visual history book of the nation – even more important today.

And so, even though Hou’s film is one of exquisite and thoroughly engaging filmmaking, it is only fitting that it does not end on an optimistic note. In keeping with the film’s oblique narrative – some threads with missing pieces (the explicit work of Hinoe after retreating into hiding, Wen-leung’s relapse into insanity) and others that simply come to a halt (any further discussion of the missing fourth brother, the fate of Wen-heung’s business after his death) – the film ends on its greatest (and perhaps most emotionally unsatisfying) ellipsis yet. After Wen-ching and Hinomi are wed and give birth to their first child, Hinomi reveals, almost in the most casual of tones, in a voiceover letter to Wen-ching’s niece that he’s been arrested again and she’s heard no news for some time. It’s all the more devastating that these are Hinomi’s final moments in the film. Hou cuts to the Lin family eating dinner around the table that once sat so many guests with the few who have survived this national terror. Then, the film’s final shot is of that same table and room, now empty and bathed in shadow, with no one to dine and drink together. It may be a rather bleak ending to a film of already so much sorrow, but it’s also, tragically, the most honest. For a few fleeting seconds, after having invested in these characters throughout the film’s duration, we’re given a fraction of a glimpse of the feelings many Taiwanese had to live with for decades following the years covered in the film. Uncertainty and fear reigned supreme as the 2-28 Incident and the following White Terror remained taboo until officially addressed in 1987 – only two years prior to the release of this film. It’s rare that a film is as important as it is accomplished, but Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness is certainly one of those films – a work that will hopefully someday stand alongside the accepted canon of Western and Japanese classics where it definitely belongs.

city of sadness 2


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