The Taiwanese New Wave is one of the most overlooked movements of cinema in the West; Hsiao-Hsien Hou's films have never been given a proper release here, and Edward Yang, aside from Yi Yi, has not had any DVD releases at all (although the Criterion Collection aims to correct that, as they'll eventually release his epic, A Brighter Summer Day). However, the former's 1989 film, A City of Sadness, was recently given a new print by LACMA and has been touring around the country. Managed to catch a screening of it this yesterday, and it's very difficult to unravel my thoughts.
The plot, as loose as it is, centers around the Lin family during the mid to late 1940s -- right after the exit of the Japanese from Taiwan to the takeover by the Chinese Nationalists, covering the 228 Massacre and the subsequent forty year start of martial law. The movie's setting and production are both important, as each signified different kinds of change in freedom and cultural identification for the Taiwanese.
Comparisons are made to The Godfather -- and Hou acknowledges it as an influence -- but they're both minimal and superficial. Both involve gangsters and have a family serve as stand-ins for an ever-changing nation, but similarities after that become strained. The context of resistance, corruption and violence in A City of Sadness comes out of a desire for community betterment, rather than egotism; as such, there is no admiration for the violence here. The cast is far less sprawling yet the scope is wider -- despite far less settings used here -- which induces the audience to consider both the personal and larger context of the breaking apart of the Lin family.
If there is one point of brevity from the somberness -- aside from numerous moments of humor, such as the changing of flags after the Japanese occupation, or familial admonishments -- it's the couple of Hinomi and the deaf Wen-ching (played by a young Tony Leung). Their interactions are reminiscent of silent theater -- intertitles and all -- adding a romantic dynamic that I've never seen in modern film. Yet Wen-ching's empathetic nature is also a helpless one, danger nearing him at two crucial points of the film. We part from them at the end with a photograph and Honomi's narration; their fate, as well as the rest of the family, is left somewhat ambiguous, even if Taiwan's history over the next forty years leaves an unsettling answer.
There is also one element that completely separates Hou's film from anything else that I've seen, and that is flashbacks. "Elliptical" doesn't even begin to describe them; there's no indication in the editing when we switch from present to past, but the rhythm becomes so dreamlike (and I use the term literally) that it becomes very easier to follow the transitions. The rest of Hou's direction is equally impressive: the beauty of the cinematography cannot be overstated. The camera is mostly static, lingering over Hou's gorgeous yellows and reds. Movement is slight, the tight compositions uninterrupted as characters are introduced to our view from off-screen. The outdoors is when Hou pulls back, sometimes to remove us from the violence, but more often to examine gorgeous shades of green as we're swept over the mountains and hills in Taiwan. The soundtrack is just briefly used -- more often we hear music from the cast -- balancing the quiet drama enough to be as effective of any film score that I've recently heard.
With the extensive touring A City of Sadness has been given, I'm hopeful that we'll see a DVD (and perhaps blu-ray) release of the film soon. It can't come quickly enough.