Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's A City of Sadness

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's A City of Sadness is often pointed to as the pinnacle of the great filmmaker's career, and I now understand why. Like a lot of Hou's work, it's a look at Taiwan's broken past through the lens of a single family. Starting in 1945, living in the aftermath of WWII, when Japan gave up control of Taiwan after 51 years. Though optimistic at first, the people aren't treated any better by the incoming Kuomintang government (KMT) from mainland China. A City of Sadness was the first movie to tackle the "White Terror", the name for the suppression of the political uprising following the February 28th Incident (starting in 1947), in which thousands of Taiwanese were either imprisoned, executed, or both.

Hou was just old enough to have lived in the times after this. And as a Chinese born immigrant to Taiwan, Hou obviously feels some connection to these trying times, as his parents moved to Taiwan when he was 1-year-old to escape the Chinese Civil War. He shows us the story of this time through the Lin family, specifically the brothers. Oldest brother Wen-heung (Sung Young Chen), a loudmouthed club owner, middle brother Wen-leung (Jack Kao) who suffers from PTSD and brain trauma, and youngest brother Wen-ching (the great Hong Kong actor Tony Leung) a deaf-mute photographer. We see bits of their daily lives and family interactions, as well as how the growing political unrest affects their lives, especially focused on Wen-ching.

Tony Leung gives a performance of great depth and power as Wen-ching, who's the most sensitive but also the most intelligent of the brothers. You can often feel his inner anger and energy trying to get out as he gesticulates and grunts while trying to communicate through his limitation. He writes notes, which are seen through intertitles, often to the loving Hinomi (Xin Shufen). Though Hou made the character a deaf-mute because of Leung's inability to speak any of the languages spoken at the time (specifically Mandarin, Taiwanese, or Japanese), Leung's extraordinary abilities as an actor are what makes the movie, for me. You can't not empathize with not being able to defend yourself verbally as people xenophobically attack you for not responding to their demands of "where are you from?" Leung's innocence, barely contained anger, and empathy carries the movie's narrative thread.

This is also, from the 10 of his I've seen, Hou's most conventional narrative. There are the long shots, silences, elliptical storytelling and gorgeous landscapes we're used to from Hou, but it all feels a bit tighter. There are 5 or more languages spoken, which Hou shot in direct sound during filming (the first Taiwanese movie to do so), showing the melting pot of Taiwan. And the movie became the first Taiwanese movie to win the top prize at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. This is probably his most easily digestible movie, even if he still doesn't spoon feed us the story and characters in the normal way. The cumulative effect of the movie is a powerful one. This is Hou's best movie, and since I rank him among the best directors ever, that's really saying something.

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