A City of Sadness (Beiqing chengshi)

A City of Sadness

…The same will come to pass for us all.

I’ve made mention before how I’ve found Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films to be meager moviegoing experiences at best, and that I felt he didn’t deserve three whole spots on the list. I said all that in my reviews of his two other list films, having not seen the third until now, and even though it hadn’t been all that long since my last viewing of his work, it was so inconsequential that I barely remembered what his films were like, and thus had very little to go with upon entering A City of Sadness. Well, after seeing this one, I feel like I may be able to make a solid case for Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s presence on the list; he may not need to have three slots, but this one, definitely, deserves to be there. This is the Hou Hsiao-Hsien film I didn’t even know I’d been waiting for.

Now, that’s not to say that this is an unbridled masterpiece along the lines of Gone with the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia, but this was significantly better than Hou’s other work, and seemed to be a much more solidly made example of it. The film, like Hou’s others, tells the life story of a particular individual or set of individuals, in this case a Taiwanese family as they try to survive and thrive in the post-Japanese WWII occupation of Taiwan, in particular the turmoil that the Kuomintang government would enact on the Taiwanese, in what would become known as the White Terror. Like Hou’s other films, the plot is somewhat hard to follow, as the film is constructed not in a forward-moving fashion, like the flow of a river, but as a series of individual scenes placed in a roughly continuous order, like a bunch of individual pieces of fruit lined up in a row. They’re all fruit, and they all are roughly alike, but each scene has its own taste and color to it, and there is almost nothing running from one scene to the next to set up a continuous narrative. What I did enjoy about this one was that, unlike the other two films of Hou’s I’ve seen, which were largely mellow and benign and content to merely be, this one actually engages in a dialogue with its audience, having a much more pronounced political and societal agenda to discuss. It may spend an unbelievably long time discussing it, as Hou’s films tend to be (and this is no exception), but at least it keeps you a little bit more engaged with the film than it otherwise would. One other thing I really enjoyed was Tony Leung’s performance as the mute and deaf photographer Wen-ching; apparently, they decided to make his character deaf because he couldn’t speak Taiwanese, which was especially interesting whenever he would go to speak and nothing would come out instead, except for grunts and noises. Still, he did pretty damn well given the limitations.

Honestly, I really can’t even say whether or not I liked this, but I was certain I liked it a lot more than Hou’s two other list films. Where there was apathy before, there was a poetic effort here instead; where there was vacuous emptiness before, there was solid structure here. It may not have been that much easier to watch, but it did feel like an easier watch, somehow. What still bothered me about this (and, really, all of Hou’s films I’ve seen) was how inconsequential it seemed; there was no real reason to believe that this was a story that I needed to hear, or that really mattered, or had weight behind it. Of course, the White Terror era of Taiwan’s history is certainly worthy of memorialization on film, but there was still this nagging feeling that the specific story told in this film wasn’t really worth seeing. It was still good, though, so you might have a better go of it than I did, and it’s certainly one to spend the time on, even with its length.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

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