(Beiqing chengshi)

Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Taiwan. 1989.

Reviewed by Alan Pavelin and Howard Schumann

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Like Italy in the 1940s, Japan in the 1950s, and France around 1960, Taiwan has been the source of a string of exceptional films since the late 1980s. And just as Rome Open City, Rashomon, and Les Quatre Cents Coups are seen as emblematic of the Italian, Japanese, and French flowerings just referred to, so Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 1989 masterpiece A City of Sadness has come to be emblematic of the Taiwanese “new wave”. While not necessarily the finest of this spate of films from Taiwan (in my view this accolade rightly applies to Edward Yang’s magisterial A One And A Two), a recent re-viewing after more than a decade confirms, for me, that it belongs in the canon of essential films.

Unlike A One And A Two, but like Yang’s other masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day, Hou’s epic is rooted in a specific period of Taiwanese history, the late 1940s. Clearly the events of this time require some rudimentary background knowledge, and fortunately a summary is given at the beginning of the English-language version of the film; the key event, a massacre known as the “February 28 Incident”, is referred to in the film only by a sudden invasion of the hospital by wounded victims. A City of Sadness is the second of a loose historical trilogy by Hou, the others being The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985) and The Puppetmaster (1993), both of them
outstanding productions. There is an alternative view that A City of Sadness is the first of a trilogy which is completed by Good Man, Good Woman (1995) (which I have not seen). Perhaps all four films should be considered as a tetralogy.

This is not, however, a political film; it deals with an ordinary family and with how their lives are affected by the bigger national events. In this it resembles other Oriental films, such as Mizoguchi’s timeless masterpiece Ugetsu Monogatari. What makes A City of Sadness doubly difficult for a Western audience is the complexity of the relationships between the many characters, so that it demands to be seen at least twice for proper comprehension of the story. Basically it is about an old man who has four sons, one of whom never appears because he is presumed killed in the war in the Philippines (though his widow does not accept this). Insofar as there is a central character, a somewhat alien concept in both Oriental and third-world cinema, it is the youngest son, a deaf-mute played superbly by Tony Leung (charismatic star of such popular Wong Kar-Wai films as Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love).

What lifts Hou’s films (and for that matter Yang’s) out of the ordinary is their hypnotic visual style and their elliptical approach. Perhaps it is just aesthetic preference, but I find that the long take, and the unobtrusive camera which stays at a distance as if it is an uninvited guest, infinitely more involving than the frequent cross-cutting and emphasis on close-ups in the typical Hollywood-style film based on the emotional involvements of a central “hero”. A City of Sadness contains not a single close-up in its 160-minute running time; the long takes are sometimes shot through windows or from another room; several shots are from inside a hospital entrance-hall looking out at a graceful archway and at a flight of steps going up off screen at an angle.

The elliptical approach, particularly associated in Western cinema with Robert Bresson, adds another difficulty for the viewer who prefers events to be explicitly shown. It does however enable Hou, in a film which is anything but “fast-moving” in the conventional sense, to relate an enormous amount of narrative in a short period of screen time. This is particularly effective in the film’s final 15 minutes when, in only 17 shots, there is a death, a funeral, a marriage, a birth, and another death, all of important characters.

One major theme of the film is communication. Five languages are used, four Chinese ones plus Japanese, although the force of this is somewhat diminished for a non-Chinese audience as the subtitles are obviously all in a single language. Another form of communication, writing, is used by the deaf-mute brother when conversing with anyone else, including the girl he eventually marries (his best friend’s sister, a nurse at the aforementioned hospital). When he has this form of written conversation, we see the messages in Chinese characters, along with the explanatory subtitles. Incidentally, the scenes when he and the girl (played by Xin Shufen) are clearly
growing in mutual attraction while silently discussing, in writing, the activities of her brother are superbly realised, impeccably acted. Just watch the subtle changes of expression on their faces during these long-drawn-out “conversations”.

Hou is regarded in his home country as being too “arty”, but when it became known that A City of Sadness would cover the notorious “February 28 Incident”, hitherto taboo in filmic representation, it drew huge audiences in Taiwan. However, those audiences were disappointed to discover that this massacre was neither portrayed nor even directly mentioned, only elliptically hinted at by the scene in the hospital, and the Taiwanese public continued to prefer Jackie Chan to Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

The four films of Hou’s, and the three of Yang’s, which I have seen are all utterly absorbing, and have made me a great fan of what might be called the “Taiwanese style”; perhaps the nearest equivalent is the great sequence of films by Ozu between 1949 and 1962 (notably Tokyo Story). A City of Sadness is as good an introduction as any, and it is hoped that it can achieve a far wider audience in the U.K., perhaps by a re-issue on video/DVD.

Alan Pavelin

"This island is pitiful. First the Japanese, then the Chinese. Everyone exploits us and no one cares." - Wen-heung  

On the evening of February 27th, 1947 in Taipei, police ruthlessly beat a woman selling illegal cigarettes and the next day opened fire on a protest demonstration outside the Presidential Palace. Years of resentment against a government increasingly defined by nepotism, corruption, and suppression of human rights exploded in open conflict. As soon as the troops arrived, they began the systematic round up and execution of scholars, lawyers, doctors, students and local leaders of the protest movement. In total between 18,000 and 28,000 people were murdered by Chinese troops sent from the mainland by Chiang Kai-shek. Thousands of others were arrested and imprisoned and martial law was established in what became known as the "White Terror" campaign.

Hou Hsiao-hsien's magnificent 1989 film, A City of Sadness, brings to light the truth about the 1947 massacre known as the 2/28 incident. Winner of the Golden Lion Award at the 1989 Venice Film Festival, A City of Sadness treats one of the key issues of Taiwanese history, yet is far from being a political film. Its focus is not on the bloodshed but on the consequences for a particular family and how individual experience is impacted by the flow of time and history. In the film, Wen-heung (Chen Sown-yung), the oldest of four Lin brothers, tries to hold the family together with the support of Ah-lu (Li Ten-lu), the family patriarch. A brutish, feverishly emotional man, he has turned his Japanese bar into a family restaurant known as "Little Shanghai" but finds his business undermined by ruthless Shanghai gangsters. The second brother, Wen-sun disappeared in the Philippines and is talked about but never seen in the film. 

Brother number three, Wen-leung (Jack Gao) suffered mental problems as a direct result of the war and is bedridden at a local hospital. Amazingly, he recovers enough to deal with Shanghai drug smugglers but is framed as a Japanese collaborator and, after being beaten in prison, loses his mental balance again. The fourth Lin brother, Wen-ching is deaf and runs a photography studio. Wen-ching is involved with young anti-government socialists such as his friend Hinoe (Wu Yi-fang) who is forced to flee to the mountains to join the guerillas. Wen-ching also wants to join the movement but is persuaded to stay home and care for Hinoe's sister, Hinome (Hsin Shu-fen), a nurse, who loves him.

As in all of Hou's films, there are no peak moments of dramatic interest to which everything else is simply a build up. The camera simply records the events from a distance without judgment or evaluation, allowing the complexities of the characters and situations to gradually unfold. Everything is relevant -- taking care of the baby, eating, cleaning the floor, and washing the dishes. This attention to the ordinary makes us realize that history happens to everyone, not only in the battlefield, but also in the quiet of everyday life. Far from being bogged down in banality, however, the film achieves transcendence in moments such as Hinome and Wen-ching listening to a German folk song, Wen-ching imitating the voice of an opera singer when he was only eight, the solitary flight of a bird after a sudden death, and the gentle caressing voiceover of Hinome.

A City of Sadness is a remarkable portrait of one of the most traumatic events in Taiwanese history and its popularity in Taiwan reflected its willingness to deal with a previously taboo subject. Hou said, "I didn't make A City of Sadness because I purposely wanted to open up old wounds'…but because I know that we have to face ourselves and our history if we are ever to understand who we are and where we're going." Though the film was criticized by some for being "politically ambiguous" and "historically inaccurate, the film's depiction of political events and its impact on Taiwan is clear and unmistakable. A City of Sadness will not satisfy those seeking a political expose, but Hou's refusal to trivialize events for the sake of emotional appeal gives the film a universality of spirit that ensures its place among the most powerful cinematic statements of our time. 

Howard Schumann
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