Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Taipei Story (Qing mei zhu ma)

Director Edward Yang and lead actor Hou Hsiao-hsien photo taken April 22, 1985

TAIPEI STORY (Qing mei zhu ma)              A                    
Taiwan  (115 mi)  1985  d:  Edward Yang

“How was Los Angeles?”
“It’s just like Taipei.”
—Lon (Hou Hsiao-hsien) from Edward Yang’s Taipei Story

There are moments of brilliance in this stunning, novelistic film, the second of Yang’s urban trilogy, and perhaps his most poetic, presented with several crisscrossing narrative strands, featuring a disintegrating relationship between director/actor Hou Hsiao-hsien as Lon, the only instance where he gives a lead performance, while also collaborating on the script, and Tsai Chin as his longstanding girlfriend Chin, a famous Taiwanese pop star from the 80’s and 90’s, where one of her songs, “Forgotten Time,” Tsai Chin - Forgotten Time - Duration - YouTube (2:41), is heard throughout the INFERNAL AFFAIRS TRILOGY (2002–03) as a recurring theme, and who happened to be married to the director for ten years beginning in 1985, the year of the film’s release, which might explain why she has such a luminous presence in the film.  On the surface, they are an up and coming middle class couple that have everything going for them, both smart, prosperous, able to indulge in Western tastes, while pinning their hopes on immigrating to America, where Lon laments, “the worst that can happen is that we can’t go to America,” and then, of course, the worst happens.  “I have been making some terrible mistakes lately,” he confesses, as each nurtures a profound dissatisfaction with life in the city of Taipei, an economically booming, neon-lit backdrop of confusion, undermining a sense of rootlessness and despair that affects three generations of residents.  Between 1985 and 1988 Taiwan’s gross domestic product (GDP) nearly doubled, creating one of the most intense periods of industrialization the world has ever seen, a period when the oppressive authoritarianism of Taiwan’s government dissolved under the pressure of monetary growth, where the growing strength of the middle class led to the collapse of the one-party rule Kuomintang (KMT) military dictatorship in 1987 that had ruled uninterrupted for forty years since Chiang Kai-shek marched his troops from the mainland to the island of Taiwan in 1949, bringing with him national treasures, including Shang Dynasty bronzes and jades and Ming Dynasty vases from the Forbidden City.  To the KMT, Taiwan was simply a way station, a temporary outpost until they could return to their rightful place in charge of running the mainland of China, where they held a deep contempt for the city of Taipei and the Taiwanese, having been a colonial territory of Japan, where everything in Taiwan was considered inferior to the cherished memories of grandparents and elders who held in such high praise their fading recollections of a better life in China, a place many of them would never see again.  Over the passage of time, however, they began viewing Taipei as a treasured dream city, though it was also the site of popular protests and student uprisings against the government, culminating with Chiang Kai-shek’s son and heir, Chiang Ching-Kuo finally declaring an end to the KMT military dictatorship, opening an artistic doorway for Hou Hsiou-hsien’s A City of Sadness (Bei qing cheng shi) (1989) and a reclaiming of the city of Taipei emerging from the delusions of the past.

Described by friends as his “Wim Wenders film,” as Yang was deeply influenced at the time by New German Cinema, especially Wenders, Edward Yang remains one of the least seen of the great artists of our generation, described by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas as “the great Chinese filmmaker of modernity,” where a decade after his death and more than 30 years after the film’s release, TAIPEI STORY finally had an American release in March earlier this year in New York, something that was a long time coming.  Shown twice in Chicago during a late 90’s retrospective, the film has been restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project from an original negative provided by film director Hou Hsiao-hsien and the Taiwan Film Institute, reconstructing a title sequence that was missing in the original release while anticipating a DVD release.  Both Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang were born in 1947 with the same ancestral home, Mei County in Guangdong province, with both families immigrating to Taiwan on the eve of the communist takeover of the mainland two years later in 1949, where Yang grew up in the urban center of Taipei, while Hou spent his formative years in a rural region of southern Taiwan.  Yang and his fellow Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien were more friends and collaborators than rivals, working together early on, supporting one another and appearing in each other’s films, where Hou Hsiao-hsien actually took out a second mortgage on his home to finance Yang’s next film, The Terrorizers (Kong bu fen zi) (1986).  Together, along with compatriot Tsai Ming-liang, they generated a Taiwanese New Wave in the 1980’s and 90’s, producing films that were more personal, often recounting events from their own autobiographies, including childhood memories or personal experiences, where a collective memory of the past became a thematic preoccupation.  After a brief run, the movement fizzled out by the new millennium, producing less than twenty films a year, overshadowed by outperforming Hong Kong films, where theaters in Taiwan have long been dominated by Hong Kong and American films.  A perfect example of this is the release of this film, which was not popular with Taiwanese audiences, as it screened in Taiwan theaters for three days before being pulled.  Conservative critics railed against it, preferring the Hollywood model of more audience friendly films, where the slow pace, alienated characters, and ponderous nature of the films, often critical of contemporary society, were in direct contrast to the escapist mainstream entertainment that both preceded and followed the movement.  But what these directors provided was real, recognizable, everyday people, inspired by Italian neo-realists, often using non-professional actors, removing all aspects of artifice and contrivance from their work while exploring their own lives and recent history.  Yang provided modern Taiwanese audiences with something they had never seen before, multiple narratives that only grew more complex, with fleshed out characters whose problems resembled their own, often at odds at how to adapt to such a rapidly changing world.

With a cast and crew of nearly all non-professionals, including the two leads, yet the look of the film is dazzling, even sophisticated, feeling ultra contemporary, even now, thirty years later, where the two stars stand out, as Chin is arguably the most mature female role in Yang’s films, usually writing for younger, more adolescent women, while Hou’s enigmatic performance drives the film.  Longtime lovers since an early age, the opening finds Chin, an upwardly mobile, independent career woman who has embraced American style bourgeois values, feeling a sense of liberation, perhaps even entitlement, in search of an apartment in new Taipei, with the young couple examining an empty apartment in the thriving modernity of Taipei, suggesting the possibility of starting something anew, where Chin already has a design in mind where she can put her things while Lon remains aloof and distant.  Having recently returned from a visit to relatives in Los Angeles, running a successful fabric business, it’s only a matter of time before Lon takes the plunge and crosses the ocean to join them, as one of the byproducts of the economic boom is the opportunity to send so many Taiwanese students to America, hoping to make a better life for themselves, as there are more opportunities, including Yang himself, who studied and worked in the United States for more than a decade before returning to Taiwan to make films.  Lon lives on his former glory as a former Taiwan Little League baseball player on the national team competing internationally at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where currently Taiwan has won more titles (17) than any other nation, winning their first championship in 1969, where he still keeps in contact with coaches and former members of his team, including Wu Nien-jen, a screenwriter for Hou Hsiao-hsien in the 80’s and 90’s, and also the patriarchal head of the family in Yi Yi: A One and a Two... (2000), seen here as a luckless taxi driver whose wife has a habit of leaving their three kids alone to go gambling, where they act as assistants to the next generation of young stars.  While Lon and Chin seem made for each other, something always comes between them, including, as is Yang’s tendency, a host of stories revolving around secondary characters.  While in the U.S. Lon made VHS tapes of several baseball games for the coach to watch, but he is equally enthralled watching them himself.  Chin, on the other hand, works for a high powered architectural firm as the personal assistant for an executive, Mrs. Mei (Chen Shu-fang), one of the major players who is exiting in an administrative restructuring.  Refusing to be just a secretary, Chin gracefully exits as well, waiting for something better to come along, while having a secret affair with one of the architects from the firm, Mr. Ke (Ke I-cheng), who stares out the window overlooking a city of high rises while lamenting, “Look at these buildings.  It’s getting harder and harder for me to distinguish which ones I designed, as they all look the same.  So it doesn’t make much difference whether I lived or not.”  There are occasional moments of humor, eying the new Japanese management team, with Chin being told the new owner is the one wearing glasses, yet every single one of them is wearing glasses.  This is arguably Yang’s most Antonioni influenced film, as the relationship between character development and newly constructed architecture feels symbiotic, captured in the emptiness of glass and steel, where windows and glass reflections are a natural part of the landscape, even seen reflecting off Chin’s everpresent dark glasses, with repeated shots of empty rooms symbolizing the interior lives of the characters and the emotional distance in between, revealing a city caught between the past and the present.  Similarly, according to Yang in an interview with New Left Review, from John Anderson’s book, Edward Yang - Page 37 - Google Books Result: 

A lot of people have tried to brand me as a mainlander, a foreigner who’s somehow against Taiwan.  But I consider myself a Taipei guy—I’m not against Taiwan.  I’m for Taipei.  I wanted to include every element of the city, so I really gave myself a hard time, to build a story from the ground up.  The two main characters represent the past and the future of Taipei and the story is about the transition from one to the other.  I tried to bring enough controversial questions onto the screen, so that viewers would ask themselves about their own lives when they’d seen the film.

On the surface, Taipei Story represents a kind of poetic or even melodramatic façade.  But actually every element of the way we lived then was in the film.  So that was the intention.    

Great films explore complex contemporary events to help elucidate and elaborate upon intensely personal issues, fundamental issues that we can all relate to, no matter our backgrounds.  As Melissa Anderson suggests in The Village Voice, Past and Future Tug at an Unstable Present in a Restored Masterwork ..., “the title of a Hou film from 1989 — A City of Sadness — would make a beautiful alternative for Yang’s portrait of metropolitan malaise.”  While Ozu’s TOKYO STORY (1953) was about the abandonment of the elderly in the postwar generation’s pursuit of a new and better life, Yang’s TAIPEI STORY, in comparison, is about the neglect of the young, who are left to fend for themselves in a world their parents didn’t really want, with most of them thinking it was only temporary before they’d return to the mainland, leaving young people apathetic about their future, receiving little support or enthusiasm, where a war-style curfew was imposed under authoritarian rule to deny them what was rightfully theirs as the next generation, denied any and all hope, remaining in a state of limbo.  A portrait of urban alienation, Taipei is viewed as a city of contrasts, like Chin’s new apartment with a Marilyn Monroe calendar on the wall and her parent’s dilapidated, old world home, sleek modern office space and old buildings being torn down to make way for the new, westernized bars and Japanese karaoke, where there are repeated scenes of congested street traffic, towering cranes, high rise construction, and modern electronic equipment, expressing confusion, anxiety, and the seemingly unstoppable power of societal transformation.  Watching Chin in the old world environment of her father’s home is stunning, as she’s reduced to a subservient role of a servant, being ordered around by her father, providing the food and drinks while keeping her opinions to herself, unable to prevent her abusive father from drinking excessively and gambling the family’s money away.  Much of the story is told through Chin’s point of view, as we watch her cope with Lon’s immaturity and ambivalence, seemingly unable to take that next step towards advancement, yet she has to rise above her own father’s abject failures, while also dealing with the ambitious demands of an executive boss.  She seems thoroughly capable of juggling two or three things at once, even looking after her wayward younger sister Ling (Lin Hsiu-ling), a dropout, representative of youths who have lost all direction in life, a restless teenager begging her for money, likely for an abortion, while Chin is perfectly at ease hanging out with a younger, more rebellious crowd, seen driving through the city streets at night on motorbikes, passing by a statue of General Chiang Kai-shek in Memorial Square, where one of the young bikers takes unusual interest, literally stalking Chin, sitting on his bike parked in front of her apartment. 

One of the scenes of the film is a party sequence, where the music is inexplicably “Footloose, Footloose Final Dance 1984 to 2011 - YouTube, showing the unbridled energy and pure decadence of youth, revealed in a brightly decorated scene with a youthful, impulsive exuberance, but Chin grows weary, becoming despondent, as the musical selection transitions to an unnamed Andante movement from a piano trio, adding a somber mood, exactly as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata does in a similar scene in Yi Yi: A One and a Two... (2000), completely altering the mood of the film, as the characters grow more introspective, guarding and protecting their emotions, including a walk outside onto the roof, becoming silhouettes dwarfed by giant neon advertising signs that continually remind residents and viewers of the power of money, where there is no escaping this troublesome reality.  A decidedly different tone than any of the earlier New Taiwan films, released the same year as Hou’s autobiographical A Time to Live and a Time to Die (Tong nien wang shi) (1985), Yang’s film is one of the first to depict Taiwan as a place with a burgeoning sense of its own identity, culturally distinct and independent of mainland China, becoming a ruthless critique of a fractured culture accompanying Taipei’s economic boom, equally split by a look back as well as forward, driven by a youthful urban angst and alienation, never feeling part of any success story.  When Chin finds Lon watching tapes of a baseball game, what’s seen on the screen is a runner caught in a rundown between two bases, unable to move forward or backward, stuck in a no man’s land, reflecting Lon’s own paralysis, refusing to let go of the past, or move ahead, holding onto old friends, bailing them out of jams, including covering a substantial outstanding debt accrued by Chin’s father, handing over what amounted to their future together, a decision that causes deep divisions, perhaps even a mortal blow to their relationship.  Angry at her because she still believes in romantic illusions, as if getting married or moving to America would miraculously fix things between them, he storms out of her apartment, more alienated and disconnected than ever, ultimately leading to his senseless death, confronting the stalker waiting out front, giving him a beating, but as the biker follows him on his cab ride home, Lon gets out and beats him up again along a desolate highway, but the young boy frantically stabs him, barely noticeable at first, leaving Lon bleeding to death alone at an isolated bus stop in the wee hours of the night, his only companion a broken down television set that has been thrown out as garbage.  He sees his life pass before his eyes, replete with baseball images, superficial, unfulfilling memories unworthy of life or death, juxtaposed against Chin’s discovery of a new job with Mrs. Mei in what seems like acres of new office space in an otherwise empty building, which ends the film as it began, with a new couple inspecting an empty apartment.  This film is a poetic, melancholy vision of an eerie void, providing a haunting view of grief and sadness, revealing a colossal amount of empty spaces waiting to be filled.    


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I am from the 20s Taiwanese.
    Really appreciate you recorded this.