Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Taiwan Through "City of Sadness"

City of Sadness
The films of Hou Hsiao-hsien ("HHH") came after my time in Taiwan, but for me they are a happy addition to my attempts to understand the place.

I've seen City of Sadness many times without putting into words just what is so breathtaking about it.  Last night I saw it again at DOC Films at the University of Chicago, and this time I decided to get to the bottom of it. (Note: three related films show at DOC in the next several days: Good Men, Good Women on Nov 11 at 7 pm; Flowers of Shanghai on Nov 18 at 7 pm; and HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-Hsien on Nov 21 at 7 pm; see the DOC schedule.)

Taiwan Nature

Photo of Keelung from Adrian Ling blog echoes shots in
City of Sadness
I tend to think of HHH films as being about personal experience, and culture, and City of Sadness is particularly about history. But this time, as I watched it, I realized that more than anything else, these films convey the unmistakable message that Taiwan is a place were Nature reigns.

In interspersed shots reminiscent of Ozu, HHH reminds us again and again that, no matter how big the historical forces that are bearing down on the characters, their physical environment is itself a massive fact.

A Place Apart

I certainly enjoyed the way City of Sadness portrayed Taiwan as a place apart. This feels particularly true at the end of WWII, as Japan leaves Taiwan and the Mainlanders come to take control.  One of the characters says, "Ho pitiful we are on this island: first the Japanese, then the Mainlanders . . . ."

During the time I lived in Taiwan, the "party line" provided that nothing good could be said about Japan or Japanese culture, particularly as it related to the period of Japanese control over Taiwan.  City of Sadness makes it clear that the story is a little more complicated than that.  It clearly shows the friendship between the Lins and the family of the Japanese teacher. More than anything, the way Hinomi interacts with Shizuko -- language, manners -- shows how much Japanese culture was an integral part of the lives of many people at the time.

The sit-down
More than anything, it is dialect that sets Taiwan apart in City of Sadness. I don't speak Taiwan dialect, but just listening to the speech of the characters in the film takes me back to my time there. There is one wonderful scene, in particular, that illustrates the separation brought about by dialect. Wen-heung is having a "sit-down" with the guys from Shanghai, to try to make a deal to get his brother Wen-leung released from police custody.  The dealings need to be translated through several different dialects, and, together with the conventions and indirection required for proper negotiations, it brings about explosive results. (It is reminiscent of the central action in one of my favorite short stories, "Sayonara Zaijian," which involves translation back and forth between Japanese and Chinese.

Primitive Rebels

I have a very strong impression of Taiwan as a place where order is respected, but also as a place where the government is taken with a grain of salt.

Hou Hsiao-hsien and Li Tianlu on location for City of Sadness
(See Kinoimages blog)
There is one moment in City of Sadness that I particularly love: the police (i.e. the Mainlander government) comes to the house to arrest Wen-heung on charges of "collaboration," and his father (played by the redoubtable Li Tian-lu) has to thread the needle to suggest just where the family stands -- and how it's not possible that they are "collaborators."  He says, "We've always been gangsters [liumang] -- for the good of the whole district -- so the Japanese didn't take advantage of us."

(It made me think of a book I read in college -- Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries -- by Eric Hobsbawm, one of the big thinkers on European social history.)

This view of "gangsterhood" surely ennobles the many fight scenes in the film -- as when Ah-Ga goes after the guys from Shanghai with a short sword. Scenes worthy of Kurosawa.

And more . . . 

I could go on and on about City of Sadness: about everything from the sound of slippers scraping across the floor to the history of the 228 incident that the film illuminates; about the similarities between Wen-ching, who could hear until he was 8, and Oskar in The Tin Drum, who stopped growing when he was 6 (i.e. when the war started); about the funeral scene, and the wedding scene; about the pitch-perfect soundtrack.

But most of all, I'm looking forward to seeing the other films in the trilogy -- The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women -- and connecting the dots.

More about Taipei c. 1979 . . . .

Related posts

I often refer to how important the films of Iran have been in helping me open my mind to the possibilities of a peaceful relationship with that country.  I have been fortunate to be able to go see some of the best films from Iran every year at the wonderful Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago. The will be another Festival of Films From Iran showing there in February, 2014.

(See A Force for Peace: Getting to Know Iran Through Film)

HHH's soulmate on the Mainland?  Jia Zhangke, of course!

(See Long Life, Connected Lives)

In Taiwan, HHH is to film as Huang Chunming is to literature.  Take, for instance, the story, set in a fishing town on the east coast of Taiwan, about a prostitute who determines to have a baby, and so selects as the father a likely candidate from among her customers (most of whom are workers in the local fishing fleet), gets pregnant, and heads back to the tiny town in which she was born, in order to have the baby.

(See Days for Looking at the Sea )

More related links