A CITY OF SADNESS (Bei qing cheng shi) A
Taiwan (158 mi) 1989 d: Hou Hsiao-hsien
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the same party currently ruling the country, which effectively banned any reference to this subject until martial law was revoked in 1987, allowing, for the first time, a film like this to be made.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.