City Of Sadness - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(Beiqing chengshi)

Taiwan, 1989

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Production: 3-H Films; An Era International Presentation; color; running time: 155 minutes (some copies 160 minutes); length: 14,464 feet. Filmed in Hokkien, China; dialogue in Mandarin, Hokkien, Shanghaiese, Cantonese, and Japanese.

Producer: Qiu Fusheng executive producers: H. T. Jan, Michael Yang; associate producer: Huakun; cinematographer: Chen Huai'en; screenplay: Wu Nianzhen, Zhu Tianwen; editor: Liao Qingsong; production designer: Liu Zhihua, Lin Chongwen; music: Tachikawa Naoki, Zhang Hongzyi; sound: Du Duzhi, Yang Jing'an.

Cast: Li Tianlu ( Lin Ah-Lu); Chen Songyong ( Lin Wen-Hsung); Gao Jie ( Lin Wen-Liang ); Tony Leung ( Lin Wen-Ching ); Wu Yifang ( Wu Hinoe ); Xin Shufen ( Wu Hinomi ); Chen Shufang ( Mio, First Brother's Wife ); Ke Suyun ( Second Brother's Wife ); and others.

Awards: Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival, 1989; Special Award, Political Film Society, 1990.



Egger, M., "Tournage," in Positif (Paris), no. 338, April 1989.

Young, Deborah, " City of Sadness Captures Hearts, Prizes at Ven-ice," in Variety (New York), vol. 336, no. 10, 20 September 1989.

James, C., "Film Festival: Postwar Sadness in Taiwan," in The New York Times , 6 October 1989.

Wood, Robin, "New Films by MacGillivray and Hou," in CineAction (Toronto), no. 18, Fall 1989.

Sterritt, David, "Taiwan's Hou Hsaio-hsien Brilliantly Taps Film Medium's Affinity for Nostalgia," in The Christian Science Monitor , 16 November 1989.

Noh, D., "Taiwanese Director's Sadness Recalls Island's Turbulent Past," in Film Journal (New York), vol. 93, February 1990.

Film (London), no. 33, 9 March 1990.

Rayns, Tony, " Beiqing chengshi (A City of Sadness) : Not the Best Possible Face," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), vol. 57, no. 677, June 1990.

Kauffmann, S., "Elsewhere," in New Republic , vol. 202, 11 June 1990.

Greenland, Hall, "Complex Pleasures," in Filmnews , vol. 20, no. 6, July 1990.

Niogret, Hubert, and others, "Hou Hsiao-Hsien: Retrouver la mémoire," in Positif (Paris), no. 358, December 1990.

Reynaud, B., "Three Asian Films: For a New Cinematic Language," in Cinematograph (San Francisco), vol. 4, 1991.

Cooke, D., "A Review of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's A City of Sadness ," in Public Culture , vol. 5, no. 2, 1993.

Liao, P.-h., "Rewriting Taiwanese National History: The February 28 Incident as Spectacle," in Public Culture , vol. 5, no. 2, 1993.

City of Sadness
City of Sadness

Cheshire, Godfrey, "Time Span," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 29, no. 6, November-December 1993.

Tobin, Yann, Michel Ciment, and Pierre Eisenreich, "Hou Hsiao-hsien," in Positif (Paris), no. 453, November 1998.

Jones, Kent, "Cinema with a Roof Over Its Head," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 35, no. 5, September 1999.

Lopate, Phillip, "A Master Everywhere Else is Ready to Try Amer-ica," in The New York Times , 10 October 1999.

* * *

Daughter of the Nile (1987) marked a watershed in Hou's career, as his first film set entirely in the city, the ultimate stage in his transition from the "rural" films on which his reputation was initially built. Its successor two years later, City of Sadness , marks another watershed, as the first film explicitly concerned with Taiwanese history, from which viewpoint it can be seen as the first of a loose trilogy, followed by The Puppetmaster (1993), and completed with Good Men, Good Women (1995).

The film opens in 1945 on the day of the end of World War II, with the surrender of the Japanese and the release of Taiwan from Japanese occupation; it closes with a caption telling us that in 1949 the Nationalist government moved to Taiwan and made Taipei the provisional capital. The film starts, therefore, with celebration, a celebration that proves shortlived and misplaced, for "liberation" by mainland China proves scarcely less oppressive than Japanese rule. The five years chronicled become a history of relentlessly escalating tragedy from which the film never releases us. It can be read as a structure of concentric but overlapping circles: at its core, the love story of a Taiwanese deaf-mute (Tony Leung, one of the major stars of both Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema) and Hinomi, the young Japanese woman who has settled in Taiwan along with her slightly older brother Hinoe; beyond that, the story of a family consisting of four brothers (of whom the deaf-mute, Wen-ching, is the youngest) and their ageing father; beyond that again, the steadily increasing persecution of dissidents by the forces of government, culminating in the death of Hinoe and the "disappearance" of Wen-ching, leaving Hinomi (now his wife) along with their young child within a depleted family circle. But the film also traces its disasters backward, to the war, in which one brother has vanished never to return, while the brother who does return (Wen-leung) comes home temporarily insane, subsequently unstable, engaging in criminal activities and given to outbreaks of uncontrollable violence. Ironically, by the film's end, he is the one apparent survivor.

Structurally and stylistically, City of Sadness is Hou's most audacious and uncompromising film up to that date, the first complete elaboration of the stylistics that dominant his subsequent work. One can define his style partly by reference to two great Japanese masters who may or may not be direct influences. Like Ozu, he prefers a static camera, but, like Mizoguchi, long takes. Many scenes are sequenceshots, without a cut, or sequences of at most two camera setups. As with Mizoguchi and very unlike Ozu, many scenes involve complex simultaneous foreground and background actions, using depth of field, and with actors entering and exiting the frame, giving a constant sense of lives continuing beyond the image. On the other hand, like Ozu, he is fond of using frames-within-the-frame for intimate interior scenes, replacing Ozu's shoji screens with dark walls or pillars. There are no closeups and no point-of-view shots.

Hou's treatment of violence is particularly rigorous, at the furthest possible remove from what the modern Hollywood or Hong Kong "action film" has accustomed us to. Violence in Hou is always in long-shot. City of Sadness offers a particularly striking example, in Ah-Ga's characteristically wild assault (with an accomplice) on a wagon. The sequence consists of two long takes: 1. Ah-Ga in foreground, standing in profile, medium long-shot; the wagon approaches along the track in extreme long-shot; only as Ah-Ga throws away his cigarette and turns his back to the camera, walking away toward the wagon (which has stopped), do we see the sword he is holding at his side; he begins to run, shouting (no cut, no track-in), leaving the spectator far behind, attacking the wagon and its occupants as his associate (like Ah-Ga wearing a white shirt) runs up behind it. 2. Hou cuts only when the ensuing battle splits into two, some running screen left into a field of tall grasses, others moving even further away from the camera down the track; even then, the cut is not a cut-in but a cut to an even more distant long-shot that can encompass the entire action and that reduces the participants to little more than specks on the screen.

Structurally, Hou makes considerable demands on the spectator, always constructed by his films as intelligent and alert. There are major ellipses in the narrative, left unexplained, where we have to "fill in" what has happened by a process of deduction (the various stages of Wen-leung's mental condition are a good example: when he is introduced he appears incurably and dangerously insane, then subsequently turns up amid the family with no intermediary account of his progress). There are also intercut sequences not initially signified as such, so that we begin by reading them as chronological then are forced to readjust when they prove to be simultaneous. Apparently disconnected scenes form a pattern which we only gradually figure out. This cannot be accounted for in terms of the duration of the film's time period: Hou omits any dramatization of major events, preferring to show us small, almost irrelevant scenes of intimacy and character-interaction that prove to have only an indirect relation to the determining historical developments offscreen. The ending carries the withholding of information to its logical extreme: we learn that Wen-ching has disappeared, certainly arrested, probably but not certainly executed for his work in printing pamphlets for the dissidents, his disability having prevented him from full engagement. The film then simply stops, and we are left in precisely the same state of uncertainty as Hinomi and the surviving relatives.

At the present time, City of Sadness is marginally available only on an unofficial laserdisc, in the wrong format (so that Hou's meticulous 1: 1.85 compositions are seriously mutilated, giving the impression that he doesn't know how to frame), and with subtitles that fail to translate a number of crucial explanatory intertitles (the written "dialogues" between Wen-ching and Hinomi, depriving the former of his only "voice" and undermining the film's most beautiful and touching scenes, played with great delicacy). All of Hou's films, within a healthy film culture, would by now be available on DVD.

—Robin Wood

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