(Dir. Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1986)
Before he diagnosed Taiwan’s tumultuous history through the eyes of teen street gangs with A Brighter Summer Day and captured the universality of the human struggle with Yi Yi, filmmaker Edward Yang served up another thoroughly explored microcosm of a narrative with The Terrorizers – this time to dissect a rapidly urbanizing, globalizing late-twentieth century Taipei. And, while the former pair of critical darlings has solidified his position as a modern titan of cinema as well as ensured endless comparisons to his contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien, his third feature bears more resemblance to the works of the chronicler of urban malaise himself, Wong Kar-wai, than others considered a part of the New Taiwanese Cinema movement. The Terrorizers, then, is perhaps in one sense an anomaly in Yang’s canon, and yet on the other hand, given the versatility of his craft (the atypically historical setting of A Brighter Summer Day, the more direct comedy of A Confucian Confusion, or the uncharacteristic optimism of Yi Yi), it also fits in quite nicely amidst one of the most impressive, albeit tragically brief bodies of work in film.
Employing the network narrative structure championed in the second half of the twentieth century by the likes of Robert Altman, Yang’s film serves as something like a prelude to the onslaught of (mostly) terrible films like Crash and Babel that polluted the first years of the new millennium. Intertwining webs of strangers that collide in unexpected (and oftentimes unbelievable) ways is a fine metaphor for the struggle of human connection (or disconnection in today’s social media saturated world), but on this side of the still shocking Oscar win for Paul Haggis’ insulting fable chastising racism, it’s safe to say most thoughtful filmgoers have recognized the technique has grown stale. Viewing The Terrorizers some thirty years later, then, it’s surprising how fresh it still seems.
Even before the exhausting overuse of said technique had become cliché, Yang seemed to have already offered his own twist with The Terrorizers, which weaves three or four separate narrative threads together through coincidence and most often inference. This last point is crucial in understanding why Yang and Hou remain such influential figures in film; viewer participation is a must when engaging the art of either one. Though Yang forces his characters into each other’s spheres with one precipitating act, the specifics of these accidental connections remain alarmingly oblique and ultimately incomplete. In the film’s stunning opening sequence alone, we’re left wondering who delivers the scene-setting voiceover, who’s lying dead in the middle of the street, and who’s responsible for the shootout that sets each of these strands in motion. That Yang’s film never really answers any of these questions may prove frustrating for some viewers, but for others it’s all part of the fascinating puzzle he creates.
Yang judiciously cuts between a young voyeuristic photographer who stumbles on a muse that’s not his girlfriend, the subject of his camera, a reckless teenage prostitute who hangs around the wrong crowd, the bored police officer tasked with eliminating the threat of these gangs, and a professionally stunted doctor and his novelist wife who seems to have fallen out of love with her spouse at the same time she suffers writer’s block. For the first half of the film, brief encounters hint at some interaction between the different stories, but it isn’t until the teen – imprisoned in her room by her hot-tempered mother and a sprained ankle – takes to prank calling strangers that Yang prepares the violent collision of these characters. When she randomly dials the novelist’s number and pretends to be her husband’s mistress, the young prostitute sets in motion consequences that can’t be undone. Like his later works, these fragmented stories are wound together tightly until the compression results in an explosion of violence. Unlike those later realist works, however, The Terrorizers’ bloody finale may or may not actually happen. In the director’s finest foray into cinematic postmodernism, the pair of diverging endings could be taken as alternate takes on the same event or one the realization of the novelist’s fictional account of the dissolution of her marriage. The film is ultimately stronger for refusing to grant us narrative clarity.
For clarity is rarely the objective in Yang’s films. He frequently operates in the mode of elliptical storytelling, and The Terrorizers’ opaque, disjointed narrative brilliantly serves its theme mourning the effects of burgeoning urbanization. In short, the closer we get in physical proximity, the further away we actually grow from one another. The doctor drowns in the pressure of his work and fails to see his wife slipping away. The teenage prostitute sees only opportunity for monetary gain when she scans the sea of faces that dot the city’s bustling streets. The photographer creates a photographic shrine to the girl he captures with his camera only once, but the feelings an image can conjure are but a shadow compared to the real thing.
Yang would go on to assign significant meaning to objects to astounding effect in A Brighter Summer Day (notably Xiao S’ir’s illuminating flashlight), but here he hints at the power of these symbols as well. A phone, a camera, a pistol – these seemingly random objects bring characters together, tear them apart, and alter the course of their lives permanently. The same can be said of Yang’s depiction of the city as a whole. The full effect of such global urbanization has yet to be seen, but it’s undeniable that such a monumental shift in where we live has dramatically shaped how we live. The Terrorizers presents a disturbing, yet crucial view of the consequences of missed connections in the city, but fortunately we also have Yi Yi to cap an incredible filmic career to remind us that no matter how much the city pushes, the human spirit is forever resilient.