by Yann Tobin
By putting an image from King Hu’s A Touch of Zen on its cover as early as 1975, Positif signaled the arrival of a new generation of filmmakers from the Far East, which had previously been the preserve of Japan alone. In addition to films from mainland China and Hong Kong, Taiwan’s cinema began to shine particularly brightly. The films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, including City of Sadness, may be compared in scope to Theodoras Angelopoulos’s The Traveling Players.
The French release of the admirable film City of Sadness (Bēiqíng chéngshì) was delayed for a year for obscure commercial reasons. Among them, it seems, was the timidity of the distributors about showing a Taiwanese film that was two hours and forty minutes long,- its reputation for being “difficult”,- and the greed of Chinese marketers placing too much confidence in the prestige of international recognition (the film won the Lion d’or in Venice in 1989).
Even though delayed and launched in only two modest theaters with a minimum of promotion, Hou Hsaio-hsien’s film is one of the best to appear in France this year . The overworked term “masterpiece” to designate an artistic triumph as well as the successful completion of an ambitious undertaking can be applied here without reservation.
First let us deal with the presumed “difficulty” of the film. The historical context of Taiwan, formerly Formosa, unknown to most Westerners, is clearly summarized by the lead-in preceding the French subtitles, added so as to accommodate export to the West.
The problem of language is more subtle: all the characters in the film speak the language they would have spoken historically. That means Taiwanese, Japanese, Mandarin, or Cantonese, not to mention regional dialects! Obviously, for the French viewer, all this is . . . let’s face it, Greek. In one charming scene, only the Chinese members of the audience laugh, it’s a group language course in a hospital and the height of abstruseness is reached when the older brother (there are four of them, and the film tells their stories) communicates with gangsters through an interpreter: the French subtitles can only repeat the same lines twice, to make us understand how difficult it is for the character to express himself. This, in fact, supports one of the major themes of the film: the absurdity and despair of a country searching for its cultural identity. But this kind of problem occurs only rarely in a work that consistently opts to show the supremacy of the visual over the pitfalls of language. It’s not for nothing that the protagonist (Wen-ching, the youngest of the four brothers) is a photographer who is a deaf mute.
The thesis, therefore, is clear, even classical: a family saga in which each character represents a significant historical attitude. From Gone with the Wind to the films of Theodoros Angelopoulos, the cinema has been able to prove just how well a description of a community microcosm can describe a whole country’s development. Here the destiny of old father Lin and his four sons begins to resemble a didactic fable that reveals the contradictions of a country shaken by History. The succession of tragedies that affects the four brothers becomes the keys to their collective despair: disappearances, silence, madness, and death strike each of them in turn, while the socioeconomic and political upheavals are unleashed around them. The father outlives the children, an indestructible symbol (albeit fragile) of the roots of Taiwan.
The presence of women gives a discreetly melodramatic texture to a system that is austere on the surface. Sisters or betrothed, wives or widows, mothers or mistresses, create the various facets of the feminine side that tempers the narrative. Very often it is a woman’s glance that alters the viewpoint of a sequence. The key character in the film is thus the young and beautiful Hinomi, who brings together the disparate elements of the fable. In love with a Japanese man, sister of an intellectual, wife of the fourth son, mother of the last-born in the family, she provides the link between the Lin family and the outside world, and plays an essential role in articulating the story. This is the only character for whom communication is not a problem: she is fluent in several languages,- she learns to communicate with the deaf mute Wen-ching (her future husband) in deeply moving sequences in which the messages they write to one another are inserted like intertitles in a silent film. She is even allowed to explain her feelings to the viewer, through a private journal read in voice-over.
But it is not the hidden subtlety of this apparently simple story that makes the film so original. What hits home, what is most disorienting and requires the most effort from the viewer, is not the historical revelation of a period until now taboo in Taiwanese cinema. More than anything else, the strength, beauty, and audacity of the film lie in the details of the writing and direction.
Hou Hsaio-hsien is faced with a difficult challenge: explaining the entire history of a country through a “window” of four decisive years (1945 to 1949, when Taiwan shifted from Japanese control to the Chinese nationalists while fighting in vain for independence). The cinema gives him the ideal opportunity to apply the “window” system strictly. A shot is a window in space and time. He selects a limited space called a frame, and cuts a self-contained time span which is then fitted into the edited version. The historical window selected by the writers allows us to understand or imagine the surrounding context (which is neither shown nor explained). Likewise, each shot in the edited film constitutes a fragment which, through careful observation, allows us to deduce the circumstances. Hence a film style which requires the greatest attention from the viewer so that one can understand what is happening, and a style of film writing that requires attention to understand the story: shot sequences, most often static, long shots in which the space is painstakingly organized, colors and light sources carefully placed, character movements handled like choreography, voices and conversations caught “on the fly” before cutting abruptly to the next scene.
There are no scenes of what might be called introduction or explanation. We are not introduced to the characters,- they are simply there. They present themselves “live” through their gestures, actions, and words, while the camera seems to catch the fragments of life that we are shown arbitrarily. This elliptical process requires us to deduce what happens between two sequences, to figure out what happens before and after what we see. The juxtaposition of the episodes leads to striking changes of tone (a funeral immediately followed by a wedding). This juxtaposition reinforces the realism of the production (life “as it happens”) while at the same time distancing itself from it (one can identify the characters, but not identify with them).
From this “fragmented” historical and storytelling approach (comparable to the work of the filmmaker Axel Corti in his Viennese trilogy), the director develops the visual structure of the film, and thus completes its extraordinarily formal cohesion.
The repeated but masterly use of frames within the frame is reminiscent of Ernst Lubitsch, Yasujiro Ozu, or some of George Cukor’s films. Every element of scenery contributes to the pictorial obsession, likening the flatness of the motion-picture screen to that of traditional Asian painting: the depth of field comes only from the superimposition of frontal shots, and the composition of most shots is based on this concept. Thus a “window” outlining a character can be located in front of him (Wenching as a prisoner, seen through a peephole), or behind him (Hinomi, loosening her garment, is set against a bright frame in the background). Similarly, the street where the older brother’s restaurant is located is invariably framed by the building facades, and the violence of an antigovernment revolt is seen in the interior of a hospital through an open door.
The visual leitmotiv of the “framing” not only gives body to the overall conception of the film, but strikingly suggests the isolation of the characters and the pressure placed on them by a chaotic environment.
In one of the most beautiful scenes in the film and also one of the shortest, the frame within the frame begins to move. More precisely, it becomes movement. Wen-ching, Hinomi, and their little boy, immobile on a station platform, are fleetingly seen between the cars of a train passing in the foreground—a poignant premonition of the breakup of their family and, at the same time, an homage to cinema itself, to the stroboscopic effects of a camera shutter that can immortalize fragments of history.
Positif, No. 358, December 1990