The Assassin

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(Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/China, 2015)

Killer Style

An eight-year silence is quite long for a filmmaker who hasn’t gone more than four without releasing a new film over the past three decades. And, with an oeuvre that boasts such titles as A Time to Live, a Time to Die, A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster, Flowers of Shanghai, and Flight of the Red Balloon, adoring audiences might forgive the man if his glory days are a thing of the past. Over the past thirty years, master of the medium Hou Hsiao-hsien has delivered poignant coming-of-age dramas, crafted compelling historical sagas chronicling Taiwan’s rich recent history, allowed his formalist aesthetic to steadily evolve, and documented modern urban malaise while offering a heartwarming antidote. Now, after over thirty years of work, he turns to one of the world’s oldest genres of fiction: the Chinese wuxia, more commonly referred to as a sub-category of martial arts stories in the West. His latest, the long-gestating The Assassin, is an exercise in genre filmmaking – which on the surface does seem unusual considering Hou’s status as an art film festival staple – yet fortunately affirms that this artist remains one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. To this ardent fan’s delight, The Assassin is one of his finest yet.

There are famous filmmakers who built their careers on translating wuxia from page to screen – King Hu and Chang Cheh – and those who have dabbled in the genre once or twice – Wong Kar-wai, Ang Lee, and Zhang Yimou. And, while the films of the former are typically held in higher regard – The One-Armed Swordsman, Dragon Gate Inn, A Touch of Zen – the works of the latter three are probably better known today. There’s no denying the impact of Lee’s Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang’s equally popular Hero, but Hou’s inspiration here runs deeper than wuxia-flavored films arguably marketed for Western consumption. (This is not to suggest either is therefore a poor film; Lee’s crowd-pleaser still holds up and Zhang’s is at least pretty to look at.) Instead, Hou draws from the genre’s literary roots adapting an early short story about a princess turned assassin for his passion project, a film the director claims he’s wanted to make since the beginning of his career. Not surprisingly, The Assassin is more than just a worthy entry in the history of cinematic wuxia; it represents another leap forward in its creator’s art and furthers the overarching optimism new to his cinema as of his last feature Flight of the Red Balloon.

It goes without saying at this point that Hou’s cinema is demanding. It demands that his viewer watch closely and carefully, not only to bask in the beauty of the filmmaker’s rigorous aesthetic – few filmmakers today match his sheer mastery of the craft, an unrivaled attention to detail and an apparent sixth sense with regards to staging and camera placement – but also to ascertain what exactly transpires over the course of the film. The Assassin’s narrative is deliberately obscure, but never frustratingly so. It’s more a puzzle to be solved with details of family relations and character motivations revealed through dialogue or inference. Hou has famously wielded this form of storytelling before – to this writer, A City of Sadness remains the pinnacle of cinematic elliptical narration – but applied to the wuxia genre, it’s unexpectedly captivating. The opaque narrative serves to underscore the veiled thoughts, emotions, and motives of the film’s stoic central figure. Hou, then, has perhaps created one of the screen’s finest lone warriors in recent memory. Shu Qi’s titular killer is at first impenetrable to the audience, but only after careful observation do we discover what drives her to kill and ultimately what moves her to spare life. The result is an affecting portrait of an isolated figure at the crossroads of vengeance and heroics.

It’s no surprise that the bulk of the narrative concerns a web of complicated family ties. The story wrestles with the deadly Nie Yinniang’s duty to her family as much, if not more so than, her duty to her mission. That mission – to return to her home province to assassinate a hot-tempered local ruler – sets the film in motion. The ruler in question, however, happens to be Yinniang’s cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) to whom she was once betrothed. In a stunning black and white prelude, we learn that this assignment serves as a punishment from her ruthless master Jiaxin (Fang-Yi Sheu) for failing to eliminate another official in front of his son. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” she confesses, bent before her master. The severe consequences for her merciful actions lead her to the house of her childhood and the pervading uncertainty of whether or not she will fulfill her mission.

The majority of the film takes place here in the province of Weibo as Yinniang contemplates her past and permanently altering her family’s future. Throughout, we discover a haunting connection between Yinniang and her deceased aunt who was the mother of her cousin and twin sister to her master, a strained relationship between the woman and her disapproving father, residual feelings between cousins once betrothed, and a love triangle between Tian Ji’an, his wife from a neighboring clan, and his mistress that not only causes tension in their home but between clans that endangers Yinniang’s banished uncle. Each of these various subplots orbits around the film’s central narrative core adding intrigue and strengthening Hou’s picture of life in 8th century China under the Tang Dynasty. The makings of high melodrama in another filmmaker’s hands become yet another opportunity for Hou to flex his self-proclaimed un-Hollywoodesque style of storytelling. Moments of narrative revelation are visual wonders in The Assassin – a sudden switch in aspect ratio and film stock to signify a character’s memory, a miraculously captured meteorological phenomenon of swirling fog that corresponds to our protagonist’s inner turmoil, a duplicitous character’s identity revealed after the forced removal of her mask, a late-film fantastical turn that symbolizes a fateful clash of clans.

In the film’s best scene, Hou invites us into a private rendezvous between Tian Ji’an and his mistress Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying) as much of his and Yinniang’s shared past is revealed in dialogue. The frame flickers with glowing candlelight as a thin veil billows across the screen with the wind. Hou cuts to Yinniang lurking in the shrouds, framed by swaying curtains. The scene is intoxicating and distractingly beautiful with the room bathed in a hazy color palette of deep red and glimmering gold. This short segment rivals anything in his dazzling Flowers of Shanghai. (It should be mentioned that this film marks some of DP Mark Lee Ping Bin’s very best work.) It’s only upon a second viewing that one might realize the scene’s narrative significance. Likewise, much has been made – and rightfully so – of The Assassin’s fight sequences. Expertly choreographed swordplay is a hallmark of wuxia films, and Hou’s film is no exception. It may be short on prolonged action, but its fights are undoubtedly exhilarating. Almost every one of them occurs unexpectedly, juxtaposed with sequences of tranquility or languid pacing. These bursts of dueling foes feature unprecedented cutting within a scene and rapid-fire editing, a move Hou claims was pragmatic given the lack of martial arts skills of his performers. Either way, the sequences are incredible and unlike anything else in his body of work thus far.

To catch every detail of Hou’s meticulously designed set pieces, gorgeously shot scenery, or his intricately woven story, the film demands repeat viewings. I suspect it’s a work that grows richer with each subsequent viewing, more than likely a future classic of the genre and favorite of his canon. If its stunning imagery and engrossing narrative weren’t enough, Hou’s film transcends the very genre trappings it channels in its protagonist’s late-film decision to spare her cousin’s life. In the beginning, she confessed that she couldn’t bring herself to kill as if mercy was a sin, but in the end she defiantly claims, “I chose not to,” and turns her back on her former master. She returns to a village on the outskirts of Weibo and fulfills a promise to escort two travelers to a far-off province. The assassin has become a guardian. Violence bows to mercy, and a trained killer uses her unmatched skills to guide and protect rather than kill. It’s a beautifully hopeful finale, and one that offers a fresh perspective on the typically dour stories of ruined or defeated heroes of most wuxia films. If the great Hou Hsiao-hsien can deliver this kind of masterstroke this late in his career, it give us devoted faithful hope that maybe his best is still yet to come.

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Flight of the Red Balloon

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(Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, France/Taiwan, 2007)

Float On

Brilliance is rarely over-pronounced in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films. The director forgoes flashy camera tricks, suspense-building narratives, and an aesthetic that draws attention to itself – all three reasons why many head to the theater each weekend, and all three reasons why many don’t connect with Hou’s cinema. But, in his unmistakable tableau that has subtly evolved over the years, his films exude brilliance in their quiet, gentle pacing that famously requires both a patience and dedication to his craft from viewers. His genius often surfaces in unexpected moments like an expertly staged fight sequence shot atypically in static wide shot pushing violence to the background in City of Sadness, or strict adherence to a self-imposed stylistic parameter that saw the filmmaker make unusual use of fades within a sequence to cut to separate shots in Flowers of Shanghai, or a gorgeous camera movement in a film of few of them that slowly glides down from the lit ceiling of a billiard room to rest on a pool table and his characters in Three Times. In this regard, then, Hou’s latest Flight of the Red Balloon may be his least immediately engaging given its largely static and minimal plot, yet it’s easily one of his most rewarding as a remarkably deep work of beautiful images and contemplation.

For his first venture outside Asia, Hou received funding from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to produce his France-set film that, as its title suggests, pays homage to Albert Lamorisse’s classic and beloved short film The Red Balloon. And, though Lamorisse’s work can be felt throughout Hou’s – most notably in both films’ central pre-adolescent male character and unexplained fantastical presence of the titular balloon – Flight still fits in quite nicely with Hou’s body of work as a whole, especially in his current trajectory of exploring urban isolation following Millennium Mambo, Café Lumière, and one-third of Three Times. His latest happens to be the best of the four finally offering a solid and compelling answer to Wong Kar-wai’s monopoly on the subject. And, perhaps this is why Flight succeeds in ways the others don’t; urban malaise is the backdrop for the characters in Flight amidst myriad other trials they face rather than the point as it felt in both Millennium Mambo and Three Times. For though Flight does speak to the increasing, paradoxical loneliness of the modern city – the closer people get, the farther away from everyone they feel – it highlights a potential remedy; hence the inclusion of the stalking red balloon, a symbolic presence of what keeps the film’s three primary characters from despair: companionship.

Thus, in its essence, Flight of the Red Balloon is an apt and faithful expansion of Lamorisse’s modest work that offered its protagonist a surrogate friend in the candy-colored, hovering orb. But, as it is an expansion, it’s also a much fuller portrait of modern life than the childlike fable it’s based upon. As with all of Hou’s films, however, the narrative thrust of most films – major events, climactic exchanges, histrionics passing for performance – is gloriously kicked to the sidelines in favor of highlighting the moments in between. Hou’s film, then, is a beautifully tender snapshot of everyday life. It begins with Simon (Simon Iteanu), a young Parisian boy who’s at once mature enough to ride the city’s railway system alone, and yet appropriately gripped by his imagination as he attempts to coax a lost balloon to descend from the tree where it bounces between the branches trying to break free. Simon lives with his mother Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), a professional puppeteer juggling the various challenging aspects of her life – work, raising a son alone, an estranged boyfriend, a distant daughter, and a fellow tenant that regularly takes advantage of her. In hopes of better managing at least one facet of her chaotic life, she hires Song (Fang Song), a soft-spoken film student from Taiwan, to be Simon’s nanny. Most of the film concerns the relationship that forms between the three as Song helps Suzanne wrap Simon in a cocoon of protection and guidance in the absence of the boy’s father.

As expected with Hou, there is no bubbling tension between boy and his new nanny, or this new mother-like figure and the boy’s actual mother as one might witness in a Hollywoodization of the same story. Instead, Hou uses this simple set-up to explore the various strands of modern urban life – a single mother balancing work and home, a foreigner in a strange land navigating extreme cultural differences, a child growing up in a technology saturated age. Of course, each of these is archetypal of the “Modern Age” in art, and yet there’s a remarkably organic synthesis with which Hou weaves these experiences together. As elementary as it might seem (and it might actually be in a lesser filmmaker’s hands), it’s that perfectly spherical balloon that ties them all together. It isn’t clear throughout whether or not the balloon exists (though Song mentions both Lamorisse’s short and a filmic project of her own centered on red balloons in Paris), but it certainly has no bearing on the story either way. It exists as a function of cinema, proof that Hou and artists like him work in a medium wholly unique from other narrative art forms. The wandering balloon pops up here and there, never derailing the film’s narrative, but there to both complement the themes of Hou’s film and draw our attention to the work as a film itself.

The balloon is at once the focal point of Flight and merely a fixture of the background. It plays a minor role in terms of the film’s central story, but its presence reminds us of the companionship that each of its characters needs and the fluidity that marks the life each of these characters leads. Like the balloon, Hou’s characters continue to float on despite the challenges or obstacles they face. Suzanne often appears to be teetering on the verge of losing control of her life, but instead of the film adopting a posture of chastisement toward her parenting, Hou offers the pair of Song and Simon as a calming, balancing presence to her volatility. And then, in other ways, it seems that Suzanne is the glue that holds this makeshift family together providing strong maternal love for her son and extending a hand of friendship to a member of a group typically ostracized in most societies. Hou’s camera follows suit. From the film’s staggering opening shot as the camera mimics the buoyant yet elegant movement of the spontaneous balloon, Hou adopts this floating quality to the entirety of the film as the camera gently bounces around Suzanne’s apartment or the streets of Paris in a near dreamlike state. The effect is utterly enchanting.

The accomplishments of Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon are many – its gorgeous camerawork, meditative pacing, and thoroughly and realistically inhabited world (one of the film’s finest scenes features a static shot of Song cleaning the kitchen framed by the clutter of Suzanne’s apartment) – and yet as an honest and earnest portrait of modern life in the city, Hou’s beautiful film achieves something near revelatory.

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Flowers of Shanghai

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(Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan, 1998)

Locked Inside

Behind closed doors director Hou Hsiao-hsien tells the tale of “flower girls” (upscale prostitutes) and their patrons in elaborately decorated “flower houses” (brothels) in late nineteenth century Shanghai with his beloved, yet sparsely seen Flowers of Shanghai. What might make for riveting melodrama with third-act backstabbing and steamy sex scenes in another filmmaker’s hands, Hou utilizes the subject matter to expand his signature tableau eschewing theatrics and intrigue for subtlety, gentle pacing, and contemplation. This is not to say, of course, that Hou’s film is a slog to get through as some have complained. For though Hou favors the long take and aftermath dialogue instead of including major events, the film is still wholly engrossing.

In fact, perhaps Flowers’ greatest attribute is its dizzying, claustrophobic atmosphere that Hou creates with carefully staged set pieces, dim lighting, and a gently moving camera that tracks from side to side but never in or out. Hou sucks us in with the very first sequence – an extended long take – as the camera slowly pans back and forth while a group of men drink and play games at a cluttered table while their courtesans stand quietly behind them. Each scene begins and ends with a slow fade to darkness allowing Hou to never cut to a new scene or angle without a brief, hazy interlude. The effect is utterly intoxicating; apt, of course, as the characters ceaselessly puff on their opium pipes and the glowing oil lamps barely lift the room’s inhabitants from the shadows.

Unlike some of his earlier works, there is no one character or relationship at the film’s center. Tony Leung as Wang gets top billing, but this is surely solely due to his star power. As a long time caller of the emotionally volatile Crimson (Michiko Hada), Wang must deal with the consequences of a jealous flower girl when he begins also frequenting the younger Jasmine (Vicky Wei) at a rival house. He vows to continue to pay off Crimson’s debts, but he fails to see why his actions could have such an effect until he catches Crimson with a side lover of her own. Meanwhile, the popular, yet haughty Emerald (Michelle Reis) seeks to buy her freedom from her cruel Auntie (Rebecca Pan) without the help of her own patron Luo (Jack Kao). And, in the fourth house, Pearl (Carina Lau), a seasoned flower girl resigned to her own position, coaches the younger Jade (Hsuan Fang) who is disillusioned into thinking a caller has promised to marry her.

While Hou allows each of these strands some resolution come film’s end, the experience is similar to that of his arguable opus City of Sadness in that he brilliantly allows loose ends for viewers to tie up themselves. And, like that great film, most of the action here occurs off-screen. Here, it seems, Hou is more concerned with how each event retold affects the interior space and those who populate it over the course of the film. If Flowers of Shanghai won’t be remembered for its complex or gripping narrative, it boasts enough of Hou’s impeccable and always evolving aesthetic to still list it amongst his greats. Too, it easily stands as one of the most gorgeous films ever committed to celluloid – a craftily shot period piece in the vein of Barry Lyndon that uses its space and lighting to mesmerizing effect.

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A City of Sadness

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(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.

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