It is unlikely that Edward Yang would quarrel with those who described him as the Antonioni of the East. But this kind of comparison is perhaps more damaging than helpful since it only engenders perceptions that have little or nothing to do with the filmmaker. If we are to understand Yang at all, we must allow his works to speak for themselves--they must succeed or fail on their own terms. "The Terrorizer" is one of Edward Yang's most accomplished works. In style, concerns, and methodology it differs significantly from the masterworks of Antonioni. Whereas Antonioni prefers to work with a narrower canvas, choosing to develop his characters until they achieve self-awareness, Yang seems to eschew such conventions, offering instead a logic akin to the dream world. "The Terrorizer" is indeed constructed very much like Chuang-Tzu's tale about a man who is unsure if he was dreaming that he was a butterfly or a butterfly who was dreaming that he was a man.
It would be a disservice to think that the ending of The Terrorizer is anything like O. Henry. It is perhaps more accurate to describe the ending as a faux denouement. The use of not a single but a double dream suggests that Yang is fully aware of his Chinese roots even when he is consciously quoting an outsider like Antonioni. It also indicates that he is less interested in the psychology of social behavior than in the actions taken by individuals and the effects they have on one another throughout the social network, regardless of their relations to each other. It is to this end that several couples in an unnamed metropolis of Taiwan are examined: a photographer and his girlfriend living off the wealth of their family; a teenage hustler and her pimp on a downward spiral of crime; an unhappily married novelist who embarks on an affair with a past lover. These three couples, in turn, are connected in some way, tangibly or peripherally, to a policeman, a law enforcer who is powerless to hold the city together, to keep it from coming apart. It is little wonder that everyone is constantly forging new relationships or alliances in a city where obsolescence is the rule.
Just as Antonioni uses dislocation as a means of conveying alienation, Yang chooses to use absentation--the absence of things--as a thematic device. Throughout the narrative one is reminded of the absence of fathers--both socially and politically. It is the absence of leadership. Elsewhere, absentation is employed when the photographer decides to turn an apartment into one huge darkroom which denies him the reality of time while permitting him to create a world of his own. At one point, a teenage girl whom he temporarily harbors asked him if it is day or night. When the camera finally peeps outside the apartment Yang gives us neither day nor night but that brief moment in time when light gives way to darkness or darkness breaks into light. It is here that Yang best captures the logic of that dream world: his protagonists are merely phantoms suspended in time. It is the absence of time. Throughout the narrative one is sometimes puzzled by the seemingly lack of explanations: the initial breakup of the photographer and his girlfriend (witnessed over the soundtrack of "Smoke Gets in Your Eye"); the return of the photographer's stolen cameras; the breakup of the married couple; the status of the policeman with no emotional or physical ties. It is the absence of elucidation. Unlike the works of Antonioni where there is always a central character whose viewpoint mirrors our own, functioning as a filter of reality, Yang denies us of such privilege. The impossibility of identifying with any character may be disorientating but it also serves as a metaphor of a city that has lost its moral compass. It is the absence of a central viewpoint. Absentation is clearly an effective tool in exploring the void that lies at the heart of modern culture--it is the black hole of the human condition.
When the film finally concludes it matters little what portion of it is real or a dream. Or for that matter who the dreamer really is. Fiction is perhaps no more than merely dreams, perfectly realized, and cinema the greatest dream machine ever built.
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