Monday, August 20, 2012

A City of Sadness (Bei qing cheng shi)

A CITY OF SADNESS (Bei qing cheng shi)      A                    
Taiwan  (158 mi)  1989  d:  Hou Hsiao-hsien

Jonathan Rosenbaum:
It’s also worth remarking that City of Sadness, one of Hou’s more difficult films for Westerners in terms of plot, was his biggest hit in Taiwan; by broaching historical and cultural issues that couldn’t be discussed when the island was under martial law—that is, for the entire century until 1987—it caused a major sensation.

A devastating, densely constructed, and complicated film that unravels very much like a novel, set in 1945 with the surrender of the Japanese after 51 years of colonial rule in Taiwan, while at the same time a child is being born into the Lin family, a name that means “light,” and the film follows the travails of that family, which coincides with true references to historical events.  While the Taiwanese celebrated their liberation from Japan, there was a national upheaval when it became clear that the Mainlanders intended to continue the colonial structures of exploitation, only with Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Chinese as the sole party in control.  When the Taiwanese rebelled against the Nationalist's implementation of martial law in 1947, effectively turning the country into a police state in what is known as The February 28 Incident, anywhere from 18 – 28,000 or more Taiwanese were massacred by Nationalist troops, the same party currently ruling the country, which effectively banned any reference to this subject until martial law was revoked in 1987, allowing, for the first time, a film like this to be made.  So this is considered a highly significant nationalist work, using an exceedingly complex plot reconstructing the nation’s history as a backdrop for following the daily routines, personal dramas, and eventual destruction of a single family, something resembling The Brothers Karamazov.  Much of the film’s power comes from placing so much of the violence off in the distance, or even off-screen, heightening the internal experience of the viewer.  The film ends in 1949 when the Chiang Kai-Shek Nationalist’s attempt to regain the Mainland fails and the Kuomintang retreat to the island of Taiwan. 
Headed by the humorously candid, always-wonderful father, Li Tien-Lu, so extraordinary in The Puppetmaster (Xi meng ren sheng) (1993), he was an acknowledged gangster who spent much time during the war in and out of the Japanese jails attempting to sabotage the Japanese rule.  His family consists of 4 sons, 1st brother is another low-life gangster who turns his Japanese-style bar into a restaurant called “Little Shanghai,” largely a front for his own proclivity for gambling, while 2nd brother has disappeared in the Philippines fighting the Japanese, 3rd brother (Jack Kao) returns from the war mentally unstable, yet collaborates on the black market with drug smugglers, requiring the rescuing intervention by the 1st brother that nearly leads to the entire family’s demise, while the 4th brother, a photographer played by Tony Leung, is deaf.  Nearly everyone in the family is either arrested or attacked in this film, as after defeating the Japanese, Taiwan becomes a brutal police state that coincides with the corrupt rule of the gangsters, so after fighting the Japanese as well as the Mainland Chinese, they still have to fend off wave after wave of more Taiwanese Chinese.  There is a beautiful extended sequence early in the film where a happy group of friends and brothers drunkenly sing “A Song of Exile” out the window, which seems to represent an obvious theme of displacement.  

Xin Shufen, who played the young girl friend in DUST IN THE WIND (1986), is nothing short of heartbreaking in this film as Hinomi, the quiet, beguiling sister to the 4th brother’s best friend, Hinoe (Fang Wou Yi), a girl who works tirelessly as a nurse at the hospital.  She actually narrates the film and can frequently be seen writing her thoughts in her diary.  She is the closest companion to and secretly loves the deaf 4th brother, played with complete understatement by Tony Leung, whose character was changed to a mute as he didn’t speak Mandarin, so the couple communicate by handing each other written notes.  Their quiet sensitivity is stunningly contrasted against the violence of the gangsters and the soldiers.  And if anything, that is the heart of this film, intermingling the deeply personal interior world with the deeply disturbing exterior political world.  Hinoe is repeatedly arrested for secretly spreading his Socialist beliefs on the island, a belief shared by the 4th brother, believing that is the best way to repel outside colonialist forces.  The deafness of the youngest brother becomes a metaphor for the muted voices of opposition.  In one of the most shocking scenes, he is jailed, awaiting his name to be called, but he hears nothing, while off-screen, execution shots can be heard.

Of note, Hou seems to be more comfortable with his film style, which uses poetic innertitles to reflect appropriate philosophical thought and also several repeated static shots from a distance, each with moving objects or people in the foreground while something entirely different is happening in the rear.  One is at the local hospital, as patients or family members arrive, others are seated waiting, someone is mopping the floors, something is happening outside on the street, but everything is choreographed into this small, restricted space.  Also, there are multiple table shots at the restaurant, so much so that this familiar scene actually becomes a symbol for the family, as people are eating in the foreground while others are in a room in the back, and people move easily in and out of the scene.  There is an interesting use of still photographs, 4th brother’s profession, each of which places the story of the events being shown in a deeper historical context.  As usual, the music is carefully interwoven into the emotional fabric of the film.  Probably the most stunning sequence comes at the end, the last 15 minutes of the film, where the sadness of the family becomes the mourning of the nation, and where the life cycles of death-rebirth and death again are so poetically rendered.


  1. Well, I'm glad someone likes it. It was one of my most eagerly awaited movies after I read raves by Dave Kehr and others. But I hated hated hated this movie--and just about anything by Hou. I find him dull. Worse, I find him stubbornly and purposelessly dull. I don't mind slow, pensive, meditative, poetic as long as it comes from the heart, mind, or soul: Tarkovsky, Bresson, Ozu, Antonioni, etc. But I don't like dead space and dead time that are gratuitous or premised on some conceit of being 'unconventional art'.

    The subject of this film is fascinating, but I couldn't make head or tails of anyone or what was happening, not least because the characters were so listless, forgettable, ignored.
    And Hou must have the most pedestrian camera style in the world. He doesn't do anything, but this obstinacy has been mistaken for some kind of higher form of expression. I don't think so. I think Hou is just straining to be different, as if breaking rules in and of itself automatically results in art and meaning.

    As for the Nationalists in Taiwan, they did some horrible things, but it was nothing extraordinary by the standards of national liberation narrativves. When there's a drastic change of political systems, bursts of violence and counter-violence follow. Think of the 10,000s of revenge killing that happened in France and Italy after WWII. Collaborationists were killed by angry mobs or by government dictate. This happened all over the third world with the rise of new regimes--right or left. In 1950, Mao boasted of having 800,000 'counter-revolutionaries' executed.

    Taiwan was a special case as it had been one of the happiest Japanese colonies. Though there was some resistance, most Taiwanese actually got along with the Japanese pretty well. To mainland Chinese who suffered horribly under the Japanese, Taiwanese were not to be trusted. They were seen as willing collaborationists. Of course, it didn't help that many of Chiang's associates were corrupt as hell.

    That said, had the communists taken over Taiwan, far more would have been killed as Mao was a far more murderous and ruthless man than Chiang. A recent bio of Chiang makes him out to be a far more complex character than he was often portrayed by journalists and China scholars who, by and large, were communist-sympathizers.

    Incidentally, Chiang took a vast amount of Chinese treasures to Taiwan when he retreated. Good thing too. During the Cultural Revolution, up to 80% of Chinese arts and treasures were ransacked or burnt when Mao said 'no destruction, no construction.'

    One thing for sure, both Taiwan and South Korea, under American political and economic influence, eventually became affluent and democratic nations. And both nations reviewed their past most honestly. But when will China led by communist party honestly discuss the Great Leap Forward which killed up to 40 million? As for North Korea... it might as well be on another planet. Them people are weird.

  2. While acknowledging Hou Hsiao-hsien films are not for everyone, as often there are walk outs in theaters, but his historic trilogy is one of the best, each self-sufficient works on their own, intensely poetic and deeply personal. This is a filmmaker at the creative height of his powers, and these are his best films, as they remain rooted in history while told in an experimental style, using still photography in City of Sadness, the use of puppetry as art in The Puppetmaster, while the haunting structure and creative use of editing in Good Men, Good Women suggests the artform used is cinema itself.

    Unlike your assessment, I find the characters extremely memorable, as these are truly haunting films, but the featured style is understatement and a deeply felt sense of humility. There's a transparent sense of shame along with pride and heroism running throughout these films, highly unusual in nationalistic subject matter.

    While Taiwan is a prosperous and semi-democratic nation, it's also a corrupt nation with a heavy criminal element controlling much of the business, much of it due to a one party system, where the actual films of New Wave Taiwanese filmmakers Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien would likely never have been made if not for heavy investment from gangsters and the criminal underworld. Rather than a typical production company, Yang's films continue to rot on shelves somewhere rather than be seen by an international audience, which was also the case during his lifetime, where he often mentioned he was making movies nobody would ever see, as they were never screened in Taiwan theaters, which instead show more profitable American films, though interestingly they could occasionally be seen on television. You notice Hou Hsiao-hsien, like Kiarostami, rarely makes films at home anymore, as their finances come elsewhere.