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City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1989)


    The first film in Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsienís trilogy about his countryís modern history, City of Sadness is an ambitiously conceived, sometimes frustratingly elliptical family chronicle that shows one familyís experience immediately following the Japanese occupation of the nation. At times the scope of the film, which spans from 1945 to 1949 and includes dozens of characters, makes things difficult to keep track of, but even when the significance of the action on screen isnít abundantly clear (though a few scenes later, things always click into place), the considerable atmosphere that Hou creates keeps the mind from wandering. Houís strict formalism, which never uses sudden camera movements, belies the decidedly naturalistic feel here. By taking the time to observe, he shows us things that other filmmakers would edit out, and makes the world one that seems to contain a life of its own. Though City of Sadness is expressly political, it doesnít present its politics in didactic terms. They instead are infused into the same worldview, creating a feeling that to this family politics are important, but not of utmost importance, even as they wreak havoc upon life as they know it. His mixture of naturalism and political acuity is such an effective, intoxicating equation that heís able to plug in a movie star like Tony Leung, who plays Wen-Ching a deaf-mute who is one of four brothers in the family, without sacrificing any of the realistic feel. Houís spontaneous, impressively choreographed fight scenes are particularly of note here in the same respect, because they completely dodge any of the sensationalism that nearly every other director indulges in without sacrificing excitement. I can think of few directors who need to strive less to achieve a desired effect than Hou, and thatís perhaps best demonstrated when City of Sadness attempts to achieve poignancy.


    What becomes apparent from watching Houís films, and this one in particular, is that environment has a direct effect on character development in his work. Perhaps this is because itís almost impossible for the Taiwanese people to separate themselves from their national identity. For it to have survived so much is a testament to its durability. Though Hou creates dynamic, interesting protagonists, they arenít heroes in the conventional sense, and coming to terms with that takes a while for a viewer who isnít accustomed to his approach (this might be why his movies usually seem better in retrospect or after a second viewing). Though the civil upheaval that occurs during the movieís time span is almost nonstop, the insularity of the characters largely shields the audience from it. Political involvement frequently arises as a side effect from personal involvement. Similarly, the crisis of non-communicativeness that afflicted the country at the time (a side effect of the sudden influx of people who speak different languages and dialects) is represented mostly in personal terms. Communication always must overcome obstacles in City of Sadness. Thereís a disconnect between the thoughts that the characters have and the words that they say. Whether they must be presented verbally to others through translators, written on the tablet that the mute Wen-Ching uses to speak, or are not able to be spoken at all like Hinomeís soul-baring diary entries, the layers of translation only insure that something is lost before another understands the speakerís intentions. When Hou applies these lapses to the countryís political predicament, the reasons for friction become apparent. All the same, his conceptualization of the period is smart enough to see that bonds still could form despite any such obstacles. An early scene which shows a Japanese woman as she says goodbye to a Taiwanese friend before her country withdraws from the nation that it once controlled is deeply affecting and pushes the film away from simple condemnations. The mixture of discontent with the Taiwanese past and the desire to embrace it for making the country what it currently is that exists in City of Sadness paints a distinctly schizophrenic portrait of the nationís identity. Perhaps no other attitude would make sense given the nationís history.


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Jeremy Heilman