Here begins a new blog series, in which I pick at a list of movies that I’ve never seen before but really should have by now. The parameters are just as broad as I want them to be — there are masterpieces from around the world, unseen movies from some of my favorite directors and genres, and some odd choices that just feel like they need to be part of my vocabulary one way or another — but in most cases the driving motivation is as follows: I will probably like this movie, so what have I been waiting for? The answer is that I need an excuse to press play on that particular movie as opposed to the dozens of other options that are always available. So here we are. Writing about them is also an opportunity to put down extensive thoughts on a movie that I just saw for the first time — something I’ve never really done regularly. In that way, and others, I will be stretching myself here.
Both the blurb (by Scott Foundas of LA Weekly) selected for the film’s spot on the “1,000 Greatest Films” page of the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? and the oldest user review (by one Zach Campbell) on IMDB make a point of comparing Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A City of Sadness (1989) to The Godfather. At first, I found this very annoying. Sure, there are points of comparison. Each story takes place in the years immediately following World War II, and each makes implicit connections between the family narrative of the story and the national narrative of the era. They both unfold at a stately pace, punctuated by bursts of violence. In fact, the patriarch of the Lin family in A City of Sadness describes himself as a gangster at one point, and, even more pointedly, laments the fact that, while he may have stretched legality in his business dealings, the younger generation is much more reckless.
All told, that’s not a small number of things! But needless to say, America in the years 1945-1949 had nothing in common with Taiwan during the same span. A City of Sadness is not a story about crime and the consolidation of an empire, but of political upheaval and misery, as a small nation exchanges one despotic regime for another. It’s a little bit myopic to draw connections between a ubiquitous, canonical American film and an exemplar of a more overlooked national cinema — even though Hou himself put The Godfather on his Sight & Sound ballot in 1992. On the other hand, for many of us, myself included, it’s a more honest approach than trying to hold forth on the complicated historical context behind the film after spending, say, a single afternoon reading about it. But that’s exactly what I’m about to do.
The importance of this particular film for both Taiwan’s understanding of its own history and the newfound freedom of its cinema can never be overstated. The movie begins with a scene of childbirth coinciding with the announcement of Japan’s surrender in World War II, ending a fifty-year occupation of the island. What followed, in both Taiwan and Mainland China, was a bloody struggle between Nationalist and Communist forces, with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang ultimately losing the mainland and seizing control of the island. A massacre in 1947 that came to be known as the February 28 Incident, in which a popular uprising against state-sanctioned corruption and brutality was violently suppressed by the military, kicked off four decades of martial law. This period came to an end only a few years before the release of A City of Sadness, the very first film to mention the February 28 Incident. For most of the years in between, the state controlled mainstream film in Taiwan.
That control extended all the way to spoken language, so that language itself gains a political dimension in the film. Part of the Kuomintang’s vision for Taiwan was to enforce Mandarin as the official tongue, at the expense of its indigenous languages. Even after the party’s control started to soften, the rule, which Hou disregarded for A City of Sadness, was that the majority of spoken dialogue in a film had to be in Mandarin. The five main languages used in the film represent a culture in flux, a four-year pocket between the period in which Japanese was the official language and the Mandarin era. Additionally, the presence of a deaf-mute character (Lin Wen-ching, played by Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who didn’t speak Taiwanese) adds yet another linguistic wrinkle. The film includes limited sign language but primarily has Wen-ching communicate via handwritten notes. Learning that some of the film’s dialogue is also in Shanghainese and Cantonese was a humbling experience. There are no doubt many dimensions to the relationships between characters that can’t be detected by someone without a trained ear.
While there’s plenty of room to grow in terms of understanding the history, politics and spoken languages of the film, a more universal point of entry is the filmmaking itself. Hou Hsiao-Hsien has been a tricky director for me — rigorous, to be sure, but not in such a way that he either alienates me or especially captures my imagination as of yet. I haven’t been as enchanted by his inventive blocking or zest for aperture framing as David Bordwell has. That kind of thing, for me, is more fun to read about than to watch. For this film, Hou picked a handful of camera setups for his main locations and stuck to them, with small variations. His long takes almost never draw attention to themselves. Sometimes, the camera will pan halfway through, moving from one tableau to another. In this way, he doubles the duration of the shot, but the pan almost registers like a cut. It’s efficient, not showy. The same goes for the film’s violence, which is always portrayed from a distance, sometimes obscured, if not altogether offscreen. I’m tempted to assume that, as my cinephilia continues to mature, I will begin to appreciate all of this restraint more and more. Besides, the sweep and the sorrow of the narrative, not to mention the deadpan inclusion of mendacious government radio broadcasts, are entirely accessible. They had to be. A great film will find a way to speak to you even if you know nothing about the place and time it depicts. And what the heck, if you’ve seen The Godfather, you won’t be surprised to learn that (SPOILER ALERT) the eldest brother’s (Lin Wen-heung, played by Chen Sung-young) fatal flaw is his hotheadedness. So, all right. I didn’t want to call A City of Sadness “the Taiwanese Godfather,” but until I know what I’m talking about, that will have to do.