THE TERRORIZERS (Kong bu fen zi) A
Taiwan (109 mi) 1986 d: Edward Yang
THE TERRORIZERS is a deliberately ambiguous third feature, one of the most experimental films of the New Taiwanese Cinema, the third of his urban trilogy movies, following THAT DAY, ON THE BEACH (1983) and TAPEI STORY (1985), which examine the contradictions and tensions of urban life in Taipei, each film revealing less and less narrative form, becoming increasingly experimental in form, more subtle in its perception of urban fears, real or imagined, rootlessness, the lack of continuity with the past, a void in values, all adding up to a severe identity crises for the young and affluent urbanites whose shaky moral foundations leave them vulnerable when trouble hits, despite their so-called economic security. What distinguishes this film is the abstract narrative that weaves in and out of two worlds, one that is happening, and one that is being written about in a novel, so that eventually it is impossible to tell one from the other, a device that feels remarkably original. While this might be Yang’s contribution to the modernist cinema of paranoia, viewing Taiwan in a post-colonial light, where terrorism, violence, and loneliness ensue in an urban web of intrigue. There is a chance encounter from a rebellious Eurasian girl (aka White Chick) who wrecks a marriage with a prank call to a novelist housewife, claiming to be having an affair with her husband, which leads to the novelist’s need to turn to writing to explore her confusion, eventually leading to her marital break-up, causing the focus to then shift to her husband’s confusion.
Loosely following several couples and their unstable relationships, whose lives are affected by seemingly random, incidental events, the film uses natural sound only, creating a complicated seres of seemingly disconnected points of view, never linking viewers to a specific character, instead lost in a mysterious, stream-of-conscious ambiguity. There’s an interesting use of technology, but instead of making things easier to understand, it instead compounds the feeling of disconnectedness. The use of color and production design are striking, giving the film a unique look. Perhaps Yang’s most Fassbinder-like work, sort of his WHY DOES HERR R RUN AMOK (1970), as it uses dark humor and focuses on a married couple, professionals who have the rug pulled out from underneath them, revealing a very tenuous emotional state, very much like Fassbinder, who suggested the German economic miracle of the 1970’s was a mirage. Putting so much faith in monetary gain and status can leave you a prisoner of your own ambitions, a creature of the same habits and routines, a puppet whose strings are pulled by others, without an inner soul to fall back upon for needed strength in times of crises. The metaphor of marriage works very well here, as when a marriage starts to crack, what does one draw upon to reconnect or rebuild? Instead, one partner usually dominates the other, mostly to cover up their own insecurities, causing the other partner to retreat into near silence, as there is nothing to fill that inner void. Sometimes silence is more than some can bear.
Seen a second time around years later in a 16 millimeter projection, it wasn’t nearly as sharp and focused as the original 35mm print, despite some rather extraordinary cinematography by Chang Chan, particularly darkened interior rooms with only the briefest glimpses of light, paralleling the fragile emotional state. There is a beautiful sequence in a photographer’s room, a compelling mix of visual and emotional contrasts, as a young girl walks into the young photographer’s room in the dark, and the light flashes on to just her picture in the light on the wall, where he has sections of the woman’s face pieced together to form her whole face, but when she leaves, the breeze from the open door causes each piece to flutter aimlessly, so the woman’s face all but disappears in a gentle breeze of postmodern darkness and light, giving the sense of an encroaching void broken only by a few strands of light. This film is surprisingly much funnier than remembered, but this second screening was something of a disappointment, feeling more like we were viewing a working copy, largely due to the poor quality of the print, as experiencing it the first time was immensely pleasurable, viewed as something of an artistic revelation, while this viewing includes subtitles flying off the screen in a nanosecond before anyone could possibly read them, while the development of some of the characters is incomplete and sketchy at best, though this may have been exactly the intention. The subject of this film seemed more like an exercise this time around, as there are moments when it doesn’t seem to take itself very seriously, like the final shot, which is something of a joke. Instead, this film feels like a rehearsal for the phenomenal storytelling of A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian) (1991), as the emotional breakdown of the male character in this film, as well as TAPEI STORY, is similar, covering up their inner vulnerability with out of control male bravura, which leads to violence or disaster. What was the line from S’ir’s sister? “You are out of touch with your inner calm.” Well, that pretty much explains this film as well.