The winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Hsiao-hsien Hou’s 1989 A City of Sadness – a movie with such a far-reaching scope – deals with the violent history of post-World War II Taiwan and its Martial Law through the sufferings and idealist activities of a family.
For a film that deals with political brutality, A City of Sadness [Bēiqíng Chéngshì] presents very few episodes of actual violence. As such events are universally understood, and political repression utterly commonplace throughout the 20th Century – from fascism in Europe and McCarthyism in America through the military juntas in South America to the dictatorships of the Middle East and South East Asia – the tension can be felt and estimated by most members of the audience. It is this poignant stifling of liberty and desire that makes the movie a superb document on the human condition.
In 1945, after Japan’s defeat on the Pacific, control of the islands are transferred from the Japanese – who ruled Taiwan for 50 years – to the Chinese. During the course of the film, the brothers of the Lin family will suffer at the hands of the Chinese Nationalists, who now govern their country. The eldest brother, Wen-heung (Sung Young Chen) is a small business owner involved with Shanghai gangsters. The second brother, Wen-leung (Jack Kao) returns from the war scarred and then mix himself with unsavoury characters. The third brother, Wen-sun (who does not appear in the film) is a doctor, who has been missing in the Philippines. And the youngest brother, Wen-ching (Tony Leung Chiu-wai – of In the Mood for Love fame) is a deaf-mute photographer, who although not involved in politics, gets arrested anyway.
Although the key political events of the period are commented upon within the narrative of the film, these are mainly left unobserved. The notorious 228 Incident, which led to the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians and propelled the country onto nearly 40 years of military martial law, is not shown directly, but only through hints within the plot. Hsiao-hsien Hou’s film lets us know that such events are happening outside the household of the Lin family, but these are never central to the development of the story, which is intimate as it can be. What happens in the film happens on an individual, personal level; not on a historical one. There are no synchronised fights or grandiose battles; just pure drama through the sufferings of the main characters.
..The Painful History of a Nation Through the Suffering of its People.
Over half way through the film, Hinomi (Hsin Shu-fen), the nurse who eventually marries Wen-ching, epitomizes what most people living under martial law must feel. From a letter, she learns that Wen-ching has been arrested. As it is mentioned in it that his father went around shouting “They are even arresting the deaf. Where is justice in this world?,” she simply reflects that ‘Justice is not important to me. I only want to know where Wen-ching is. I only want to know if he’s alive and well.’ Call it egotistic if you will, but very few people have the guts or the understanding to fight for political change; these are usually young, idealist and unafraid to leave anyone behind. People with something to lose rarely engage in battle.
It is this paradoxical fact of social life, i.e. the actions of the very few end up affecting the lives of the very many, that injects any political drama with such relevant poignancy. Political decisions and social changes resulting from those decisions affect every single person in any community and yet they are initiated by such a minority (are they brave or crazy, or both?) of the population. Thus, it is wise to notice that if it is only the few that manage to build the new societies, then it is also the few that make decisions that oppress others. This all might seem unfair – and in fact, it is! – but has anyone ever found a real alternative to the rule of the few?
Perhaps the reason A City of Sadness feels like such a modern masterpiece (in fact, one of the greatest films of the last 30 years) is Hsiao-hsien Hou’s intimate approach to narrative, which is apparently controversial to some people. What seems to me the best possible way to represent history in an artistic way, to others, the fact that the movie does not depict the events of the White Terror in an open and conventional way, as part of the narrative, is tantamount to betraying the memory of the victims of the country’s atrocities. I can understand how the ones who suffered directly at the hands of the oppressive KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) government might feel deprived of a proper representation of their pain, but I think the film has a different purpose.
The way I understand ellipsis as the highest tool in storytelling and the most subtle of devices capable of exerting ambiguity without compromising understanding might be viewed by others as a pretentious way of avoiding clarity as well as a reasoned opinion. However, I’d like to argue that this focus on the personal and the feeling of not fully grasping what’s going on within this small circle of family members and friends feels much like our own lives. Our limited understanding of the people who are closest to us proves the point. The civil unrest of 28th February 1947, that happened in Taipei, and was triggered by the seizing of contraband cigarettes from a street vendor by the Office of Monopoly deserves a proper award-winning documentary capable to telling this story right. I’m afraid this is not it.
Instead, Hsiao-hsien Hou’s A City of Sadness – this tale of hope and despair under political duress – is a magnificent masterwork of elliptical complexity, obscure at first, but as soon as one gets to know its main characters, the poetry sinks in.