A City of Sadness


Taiwan / 1989 / Mandarin, Hokkien, Shanghainese, Cantonese & Japanese

Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien

With Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Chen Songyong, Xin Shufen

Still from 'A City of Sadness'A City of Sadness takes place in the time between Japan’s ceding of Taiwan and the nationalist Chinese government occupying the island as its last stronghold. In this transitory moment, marked by rapid changes in policy and law, the country was passed from one colonizing force to another, standing on the brink of being captured by yet another. An already uncertain climate is perhaps most uncertain for the  Japanese families still living there, many of whom have lived their whole lives in Taiwan, the ground of their adopted homeland about to be pulled out from under their feet, leaving ocean in its place. They can allow themselves to be deported or to stay on and keep living their lives, in doing so subjecting themselves to violent mobs of Taiwanese and possibly being labeled “collaborators” by the government (although the heavy hand of the Japanese government left little room for non-collaborators for the fifty or so years that they were there). Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien draws on the ambivalence of this period, mapping it out across a varied group of characters whose hopes and losses are spelled by sparse dialogue and action, but are nonetheless articulately and profoundly realized.

The film opens in the gloom of a power outage. The wife of Wen-Heung, the eldest of four brothers of a well-to-do Taiwanese family, is in the throes of labor. A radio broadcast announces Japan’s defeat, and Wen-Heung’s son, who is named Kang-Ming (which, as onscreen text tells us, means light) is born as the lamps flicker back on. Gradually we get to know the Lin clan, who occupy a stately home built on the money of petty ventures and organized crime. Far from this largesse is the youngest brother, Wen-Ching, who works as a photographer. Hinomi and Hinoe, a sister and brother from a Japanese family, are his best friends, and he keenly feels the discrimination that they now suffer with the changing times. While Wen-Ching is completely deaf, he can communicate with people through writing and tracing out characters with a finger to the hand, and his two Japanese friends are the ones who are most attuned to him.

Hinomi has just gotten a job as a nurse at a miner’s hospital high up in the mountains. Most of the staff there are Japanese, and many of them are desperately trying to learn Mandarin to better accommodate the influx of Chinese patients. Her brother Hinoe’s group of friends, a mixed crowd of journalists and mainland intellectuals, spend much of their time talking left-wing politics and the overthrow of the Kuomintang. While Wen-Ching, being deaf and unable to talk, cannot engage them dialectically, he absorbs their rhetoric through their company and literature, gradually evolving a desire for revolution, as well as loving feelings for Hinomi. Like so many of his emotions, he does not make the latter explicit, perhaps out of respect for his equal friendship with Hinoe, but they are evident from his behavior towards the young woman.

Wen-Heung and Wen-Ching’s two middle brothers have been gone a long time fighting in the war. One of them is missing in the Philippines and presumed dead. The other, Wen-Leung, materializes again, apparently having suffered a nervous breakdown on the Chinese mainland, and is so violent and irrational that he must be kept strapped to his bed. In one scene he attacks Hinomi and Wen-Heung, who are trying to help him, before being sedated. While Wen-Heung has harbored high ideals for the continuation of his family’s dynasty, his brothers have brought, variously, disappointment and tragedy. He himself is given to gambling and carousing, and thus cannot hope to stay afloat in a time of such drastically shifting loyalties. Their father, a gently decrepit man who spends much of the film smoking and watching people flit and thunder past, seems beyond the anxiety and precariousness of the family’s status, a lifetime of conflict giving way to tacit reflection.

Still from 'A City of Sadness'Throughout this initial period Hinoe and Hinomi are losing friends to deportation. Japanese imperialism has been reversed, virtually overnight, and as usual, the toll on ordinary citizens of both ethnicities is seen everywhere. Shizuko, the sister of Hinoe’s friend gives Hinomi keepsakes before leaving for Japan, giving up the connection with identity and homeland that she had in Taiwan. There is a sense that she no longer needs ancestral objects to feel Japanese, since she is going to her homeland. Interestingly the gift is a sword, seen by the two of them as an object inimitably Japanese, but also one that signifies its martial presence, one that has been softened and pushed aside. Now it could serve better as a weapon in revolution, implementation to replace ornamentation. At meals Hinoe and his friends talk about how life is different, the rising price of rice, unemployment, police brutality. Wen-Ching and Hinomi do not engage in the conversation but sit by the gramophone together – this is their communion with one another. Their relationship relies heavily on writing back and forth to one another, revealing aspects about how they each see the world.

Riots cause Taiwan to go under martial law, and Wen-Ching is nearly attacked because he is mistaken for Japanese. Hinoe, who seems to go undetected, comes to his aid. People pour into the mountain hospital to take refuge from violence. Messages on the radio urge people not to be suspicious of their neighbors (while at the same time the police seek the collaborators), superficially trying to disown the violence that erupts throughout the island while in fact condoning and even funding it. The matter of who is a collaborator are complex – after all this used to be Japan.

Wen-Leung returns to mental health, at least on the surface, and, having some of the family’s boats at his disposal, quickly gets tempted by a group of mainland gangsters into helping them smuggle rice and sugar out of Taiwan. Meanwhile the prices for such common foods have become astronomical since the war began. With Japan ousted from Taiwan, a new sort of shadow-capitalism from China is able to move freely, marginalizing local big men such as Wen-Heung and his father. At the start of the film, the night-club that the father owns, formerly shut down during colonial times, has been re-opened as the “Shanghai Club.” Clearly they are not above kowtowing to the opportunists who have flooded in, as long as it means holding onto their old property.

Still from 'A City of Sadness'It takes little time for Wen-Heung to discover, through a mistake of his artless crony (and Wen-Leung collaborator) Ah-Ga, of the smuggling racket, and he puts a stop to it, reproaching his brother and sparking a feud with the shady, malevolent mainlanders. While he and his group are really no better than those criminals, we feel for his loss of power and pride, which goes even to the point where his younger brother is engaging in dealings behind his back. Their elderly father chides Wen-Leung, explaining that, when he was a young man, he rebelled against the Japanese, not his own people. By aiding and abetting exploitation from China, Wen-Leung is, in effect, lashing out at those around him.

An enemy denounces Wen-Leung and he gets hauled off to prison. A victim of his self-interest, he is also suffering for the excesses of new capitalism. There is a scene wherein Wen-Heung tries to strike a deal with the Shanghai men to help free his brother. He speaks through Ah-Ga, who translates the Taiwanese Mandarin into Cantonese, which one of the gangsters then translates into Shanghainese for the rest to hear. Without their help, Wen-Leung appears at his father’s doorstep once again, beaten and bloodied by the police. He relapses into shell-shock once again. This vacillation out of and then back into reality seems little more than opportunism, a hiding from responsibility and consequence, but it is Wen-Heung who has to answer for his infractions.

The conflict between the two contingents (Wen-Heung’s people and the Shanghai mobsters) continues to simmer. His associate, Red Monkey, has been killed by Kim Tsua, a friend of Wen-Leung’s, over a deal involving Japanese currency. Wen-Heung requests a return of the money while friends of his try to mediate talks that will make amends. But his pride is much larger than his influence, and his chosen foes are too powerful to care much about how angry he is. This family, who must have previously felt untouchable for so long, are now subject to the whims of the government, and are all the more exposed for their prosperity and prominence. One by one each of the brothers disappears for a spell, thrown into silence and uncertainty in prison.

A short time after his arrest Wen-Ching is freed and returns home. If there was any trepidation in his mind that Chiang Kai Shek and his government should be resisted at all costs, jail time has erased that. He learns that Hinoe is living up in the mountains where he is hiding out with other Japanese dissidents to escape persecution. He becomes a go-between for Hinoe and Hinomi, who cannot learn of her brother’s whereabouts. Wounded in an incident with angry locals, Hinoe takes shelter at his parents’ house, where people of Japanese descent speak Mandarin. He poses a problem for the family: Hinoe cannot simply behave himself and conform, instead incurring for his family dishonor, suspicion, and the possibility of arrest.

Still from 'A City of Sadness'Hou uses language as a means to convey the complexity of the colonized situation, and the disenfranchisement at its core. Being situated at a remove from the strictures and divisions of language, Wen-Ching is, concurrently, at the center of the film’s visual sensibility, the purveyor of portraiture, which is its most salient motif. He functions as the recorder of history or, at least, the surfaces thereof. Wen-Ching communicates through tracing characters on his palm, so he has the written language, the commonality between the dialects of China and Taiwan, as well as Japanese. It is significant that the linguistic barriers are diminished or different from his perspective even though he is isolated by deafness. The choice of making the character deaf arose because Tony Leung, the Hong Kong actor who plays him, was not well suited to the Taiwanese dialogue – a choice that adds yet another dimension to the film’s linguistic dynamics.

As much emphasis as there is on speech as a metaphorical signifier of human connection – as well as the severing of connection, when it is manifested in disenfranchisement and hegemony – Hou will at times eschew it altogether, showing events or establishing chronology with brief scenes that have no dialogue but rely on the visual. We are reminded of the visual (textual/Chinese) way that Wen-Ching relates to the world, assimilates and understands things. Wen-Heung is a character who has no time for writing (and possibly may never have mastered it completely) and so verbally berates his deaf brother. Wen-Ching’s scenes are at such a remove from the trials of his family – none of them really has the sensitivity to match his own, and it seems as though he lives in another world altogether. Not surprisingly, Wen-Ching reveals that his role model, when he was a child (and before an accident rendered him deaf), was a lithe and graceful opera performer. It would not be a stretch to posit that Wen-Heung’s role model was their father, a club owner and small-time gangster who has had problems with alcoholism.

The film’s outsized ambition is felt in Hou’s fluctuation between the extensive and the minute, the historical and the slice-of-life, the dramatic and the domestic, the contemplative with the violent, giving a varied sense for the major events that stream into everyday life and sometimes deluge it. His exhaustive take on things is forever echoed in the smallest details; wide establishing shots of landscapes (where mountains tumble dramatically to the sea) lead us briskly to the bustling scenes in the family home, and the feeling of an epic scale is not diminished, only moved slightly. With such an intimate sense for his material, the setting and the people in A City of Sadness, Hou has these seemingly opposing elements co-exist and never forestall one another. It’s appropriate that, in a film concerned with language and its implications, one of the chief contrapositions is between the actually quite verbal, and almost literary, scenes between Wen-Ching, Hinomi, and Hinoe (language taking on several shifting forms with them) and the decidedly nonverbal scenes with the other two brothers – marked by Wen-Leung’s pensive silences (or violent seizures… they alternate) and Wen-Heung’s strangely pre-linguistic outbursts at people – where looks and unconscious gestures are emphasized. Contrasting scenes with Wen-Heung and his newborn baby have a quiet, paternal tenderness.

Part of what keeps the film from ballooning into pure histrionics is that it feels so contained – in spite of its large and effortless scope – both in terms of compositions (so many interactions seen through framing interiors, their windows, screens, and thresholds), and in terms of character, concerning itself mainly with one family and their environs. Hou films people through defining enclosures with very deliberate geometry, spaces divided and subdivided by deep focus into adjoining rooms. The frontal, finely-layered interior imagery (with a palpably confined feeling that Hou’s films share with those of Edward Yang) gives more power to the empty boundlessness of the exterior shots. What happens onscreen is so often enriched with off-camera voices and cross-camera motion, drawing events in ever deeper, ever closer to the particulars of the environment. Long, single-takes with many characters are filmed from a perspective that is set back from the action, giving life to portraiture, presenting concerts of people, activity, and wild sound. These scenes, alive with activity and chaotic naturalism, are balanced by a seemingly equal number of spartan, scrupulously-poised stagings, both types with their own, distinct emotional impact.

Meanwhile the theme music – a march-like anthem of longing that seems to fade into the air – appears whenever characters make the slow and silent trudge up the road into the mountains. It heightens the feeling that they are ascending to heaven, only to be continually wrenched away from it by the events on the ground. The exterior shots on the mountain, paired with the score, serve to conjure narrative propulsion by emphasizing an ascending/descending motion, and also to tear away the walls of the historical moment to reveal an ancient Taiwan that still thrives into the present day. This visible link to the past is palpably connected to the hope and comradeship of the hospital, and both are places whose humanity defies nationality.

Still from 'A City of Sadness'As in so much of his work, Hou is more intent on tracing paths of human tragedy through textures and tones, rather than events and dramatic fulcra. One can look back at the contours of the story with little difficulty, but they seem arrayed in a jumble with no center. It’s not that they aren’t important, but ultimately, their aggregate composition – which is to say, the story they form – is not as important to conjuring the history, the political climate, and the human landscape of what was a pivotal moment for modern Taiwan. Hou is sure to swathe each scene with layers of historical details, but all of a very ordinary sort, never allowing them to become stretched thin by style or lit wanly by aura. Each motion feels that it has the weight of a lifetime resting on it (as well as those of preceding generations), and each setting has a lived-in quality that cannot be achieved by mere visual cues to the past.

Like in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, we see the horror and tumult of a changing world by way of mostly very privileged characters. Nonetheless they have had their share of suffering and loss, and their descent into ignominy has been a long time in the making. The film seems to take a similar position to Lampedusa’s novel in positing that the decline is all the more precipitous the higher up you started. The antithesis of the entrenched Lin clan are the farmers working with water buffalo on their rice paddy, their lives unchanging even with the winds veering around them this way and that. Hou also seems to be paralleling the experience of Japanese and Taiwanese in the country at that time. Both are being forced, in some ways, to give up the land they have known their whole lives – one literally, and the other figuratively, as the place transforms around them.

Photography loses its priority with Wen-Ching as he is pulled closer to Hinoe’s ideals and to Hinomi’s heart. While initially his profession also felt like his main connection with the world, language and feelings needing to be rendered visually for him, the very falseness of happiness has become more apparent to him with each passing day. He is sensible to cries of pain even if they are inaudible to him, his sensitivities trapped with fewer and fewer outlets. Hinomi, now more than a focus for his affection, becomes the axis upon which his feelings for the world around him must pivot. She represents the idealized past for him, and is, at the same time, the scant light of tomorrow. He sets up the camera. He and Hinomi pose for a portrait in front of a mural of a Western-style living room, threadbare optimism hanging behind them as a backdrop. While the return of electricity at the start of the film seems to represent a new dawn for Taiwan, the colonizing forces leaving and the war at a close, it is in fact a trick of the light, the mirage of hope, sustaining long enough to show the dimensions of the decayed surroundings, only to coldly plunge them back into darkness.


7 Responses to “A City of Sadness”

  1. Mary Ann Hales said

    What a complicated film! When we were in Taiwan, we saw the deserted Japanese-style houses there.

    • chaiwalla said

      Interesting – I wonder if they were deserted because they were historical landmarks, or because they were antiquated, or reminders of Japan’s occupation of the island?

  2. This is a great review and explanation of the movie. I watched it last night but there were certain elements that I missed or didn’t quite understand, which your review has helped to shed some light on. Thank you!

    • chaiwalla said

      Thanks for reading, Angelina! After you commented, I realized what a crazy-lengthy review I wrote. Well, ‘Bei Qing Cheng Shi’ is complex, so it would be hard to write a brief article about it. Glad you found it helped your understanding of the film 🙂

  3. The movie deserved the attention you gave it : ) I grew up in Singapore but (embarrassingly) never knew much about Taiwan’s history, even though some of these events and periods (e.g. the White Terror) happened in the past few decades. After watching this movie, I have found other movies (A Brighter Summer Day; Good Men, Good Women) for future viewing to learn a little more about Taiwan : )

    • chaiwalla said

      It’s great that this has led you to more Hou and Yang films. They give an inimitably personal take on historical events from Taiwan’s history. I Hope you like A Brighter Summer Day! And I would also recommend Hou’s more autobiographical film A Time to Live and a Time to Die.

  4. The Asian Cinema Blog said

    Wonderful review. Such great insights and so well-written! I feel I know movie better now, just as I felt I know Taiwan better upon watching this great film. Thank you!

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