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A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989)

Posted on the 31 October 2011 by Jake Cole @notjustmovies
A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989)Hou Hsaio-hsien's A City of Sadness opens on perhaps the most solemn moment of celebration I've ever seen in a film. Over the black credits screen comes the voice of Emperor Hirohito announcing his unconditional surrender to Allied forces, his thin, resigned voice carrying the still-fresh shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hou cuts to a Taiwanese family in a candlelit household during a power outage, listening to this broadcast as a woman in the next room gives birth. One cannot tell whether the looks of apprehension on their faces are for the woman in labor or the political uncertainty. What should be a joyous moment—one Hou even visualizes a sense of hope when the lights come back on with the baby's birth and Taiwan's official liberation from 50 years of Japanese rule—instead feels ambiguous, even vaguely threatening.
But then, it's not really a true celebration of Taiwan's freedom. As characters note a few minutes later, the Japanese flags have been taken down and replaced with the old Chinese ones. The country still finds itself under the heel of another, venal Chinese bureaucrats replacing imperial Japanese forces. Not two years later, the Kuomintang government headed by Chiang Kai-shek would unleash a mass crackdown of growing Taiwanese dissidence in order to consolidate power over the Nationalist party's new homebase. During this vicious suppression, anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 dissidents were killed and the KMT enacted a 40-year reign of martial law that would kill and imprison many more. Hou never bothers to make that coming storm a surprise, focusing instead on the sense of loss and voicelessness that categorizes Taiwan to this day.
In a typical practice of narrative focus, A City of Sadness condenses its large-scale historico-political subject matter by filtering it through the more personal prism of the Lin family, made up of four brothers. The eldest, Wen-heung, is the most optimistic about the end of Japanese rule, reconverting his bar into a restaurant he calls "Little Shanghai." But when gangsters from the real city come by demanding his cooperation, he learns soon enough that he isn't free. Two brothers got conscripted into the Japanese army, but only one, Wen Wen-leung, returned, albeit shellshocked into madness. When he recovers, he finds himself working for the same gangsters who pressure Wen-heung, unable to find work elsewhere. The youngest, Wen-ching (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), is deaf-mute, a sweet intellectual who operates a photography studio where grumbling young dissidents begin meeting before everything goes to hell.
Each represents some facet of Taiwanese response to liberation and subsequent re-enslavement, yet none exists solely as a symbol. But neither do the characters get much in the way of insight and depth of thought. Their presence grounds the emotional remove of the film with resonant hardships, also sidestepping any play for concrete objectivity by resolutely sticking with the brothers and their immediate families instead of capturing the full impact of the White Terror. By concentrating on what happens to these people, however, Hou can still address the actual events that ravaged the island. It's a hard approach to grasp, and it's telling that, as much as the film baffled Western critics not versed in Taiwan's history, it similarly vexed Taiwanese audiences.
Hou achieves his contradictorily historical and lyrical perspective through a singular use of camera movement and placement that uses geometric precision to create an antithetical sense of natural realism. He sets shots on an axis, returning to each area with shots in different positions along that same axis. For example, when he first moves inside the central set of the hospital, Hou situates the camera in the middle of the corridor looking out the door as Shizuko, a Japanese girl repatriated back to Japan following the war, asks for her nurse friend, Hinomi. Shortly thereafter, Hou returns to the axis but pulls the camera back into another room, still pointing out the hospital door but placing a second doorway to complete change the mood of the shot with only the slightest variance.
This style proves more confusing and challenging to Western viewers than its esoteric approach to lesser-known cultural history. The shots we assume to be chronological progressions are revealed belatedly to be simultaneous occurrences, and sometimes distinct areas become adjacent rooms in a larger set. For a film that situates itself in an intimate family setting, Hou's camera reverses the expectation of proximal shots and more psychological framing of sociopolitical response. If anything, the director moves further back the deeper the film plunges into its despair. No shot moves nearer to a character than medium-close-up, and any violence gets framed in long and extreme-long-shots, if not elided altogether.
Yet there is a poetic beauty at work here, with Hou's precise framing marking the progress of time outside clear dates. Mixing Ozu's static shots with Mizoguchi's elegant, long takes, Hou consistently clarifies and subsequently redefines spatial relationships in a playful but serious and perfectly judged way. And by returning to the same sets along the same axes, Hou creates visual motifs that instantly convey meaning through repetition. Several scenes occur at a dinner table in front of a stained-glass window with diamond shapes, and all of them feature some form of conflict. First, people mumble dissent over politics before being chided and distracted from their talk. Later, the Shanghai gangsters cow Wen-heung there. By showing intimate unrest throughout the film, the table symbolizes the massive conflict outside that window when Hou ends the film with a shot of no one sitting there. Furthermore, his method of visualizing the notes Wen-ching writes and receives to communicate recalls silent film intertitles, tying a film about cultural history to the history of the artform itself.
Wen-heung summarizes the film's theme even as his weary voice sets the tone when he bitterly sighs, "This island is in a bad way. First the Japanese, then the Chinese. They all exploit us and no one gives a damn." A sense of elegiac sorrow hangs over this film, and not only for the Taiwanese; Hou devotes some sad moments to the Japanese who grew up there during the 50-year rule forced to return to a still-smoldering motherland they wouldn't recognize even at its best. But Hou uses politics to move deeper into his story, presenting history, culture and personal recollection not into one homogenous whole but alternating between them until the ties that connect them are revealed. Hinomi, whose romance with Wen-ching leads to a marriage they won't be able to enjoy because of the regime crackdown, narrates the film.
Another director might have played up the irony of this, a Japanese woman speaking for a depiction of brutality upon the Taiwanese. Indeed, to some extent, Hou does suggest some commentary here, such as the scene where Hinomi diverts the political talk of others at the table by bidding Wen-ching to put on music he cannot hear to distract them. But Hou goes beyond using mere jabs, instead complicating the humanity, not the politics, of the film. She wanted a normal life too, and her flat, wistful narration proves no less haunting and resonant than the shot of an arrested Wen-ching staring blankly as he sits in a cell, unable to hear the sound of gunfire eliminating prisoners just outside the jail walls.

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