A CITY OF SADNESS (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989)

Winner of the top prize at Venice, the Golden Lion of St. Mark, Bei qing cheng shi is one of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s most important and most highly regarded films without being a particular favorite of mine. The screenplay by Chu T’ien-wen and Wu Nien-Jen details more plot than Hou’s lyrical and realistic gifts can handle, skirting novelistic melodrama, and indeed has to, given the epic film’s sweep of Taiwanese history, 1945-1949, through the prism of a single family’s experience. The film opens with a radio broadcast: in darkness, the voice of Japanese emperor Hirohito’s declaration of defeat in the just-concluded world war, signaling the end of Japan’s occupation of Taiwan after 51 years. To follow: Taiwan’s tug-of-war with mainland China, which will erupt in the latter’s “228”—February 28, 1947—massacre of the Taiwanese, portrayed by Hou on the fly as the hospital admission of survivors (this hospital is one of the film’s key settings), and culminating in Taiwan’s 1949 secession from mainland China. Of course, Chu, Wu and Hou also have Tian’anmen Square in contemporary mind.
     One Lin brother returns from the Second World War to start a restaurant called “Little Shanghai.” Another, a hospital patient, is afflicted with war psychosis—Posttraumatic Stress Disorder; released, he stumbles into organized crime. Another brother, “missing in action,” doesn’t return. The fourth brother, Wen-ching, a deaf-mute photographer (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, heartrending), did not go to war. His inability to hear and speak, to declare his political allegiance, will have tragic consequences. In effect, the new “war” comes home to him.
     The film’s finest aspect, along with Leung’s great acting, is its formal presentation: an impressionistic stream of vignettes or dovetailing episodes. (This is why comparisons with Francis Ford Coppola’s lumbering, one-track Godfather, 1972, make no sense.) This creates an attractive surface complexity that suits the complexity of the historical context. Hou’s use of color is another asset: the chill gray of certain exterior shots suggests a “natural,” diffuse version of the hospital interiors; the rosiness and crimson staining other interiors, conjoined with the “blindness” of darkness and often lurid or bordering on the lurid, suggest a sublimation of blood-violence. Visually, Hou has thoroughly worked things out.
     As he always does. However, I am used to finding his films sparer, less shrill and more deeply affecting. This is a good film, but not a great one.

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