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This was the first Taiwanese film to be shot in direct sound. Director Hsiao-hsien Hou wanted to capture the varied dialects and accents of his actors, reflecting the film's concern for the complex, heterogeneous origins of modern Taiwan. See more »
One of the most powerful cinematic statements of our time
On the evening of February 27th, 1947 in Taipei, police ruthlessly beat a woman selling illegal cigarettes and the next day opened fire on a protest demonstration outside the Presidential Palace. Years of resentment against a government increasingly defined by nepotism, corruption, and suppression of human rights exploded in open conflict. As soon as the troops arrived, they began the systematic round up and execution of scholars, lawyers, doctors, students and local leaders of the protest movement. In total between 18,000 and 28,000 people were murdered by Chinese troops sent from the mainland by Chiang Kai-shek. Thousands of others were arrested and imprisoned and martial law was established in what became known as the "White Terror" campaign.
Hou Hsiao-hsien's magnificent 1989 film, City of Sadness, brings to light the truth about the 1947 massacre known as the 2/28 incident. Winner of the Golden Lion Award at the 1989 Venice Film Festival, City of Sadness treats one of the key issues of Taiwanese history, yet is far from being a political film. Its focus is not on the bloodshed but on the consequences for a particular family and how individual experience is impacted by the flow of time and history. In the film, Wen-heung (Chen Sown-yung), the oldest of four Lin brothers, tries to hold the family together with the support of Ah-lu (Li Ten-lu), the family patriarch. A brutish, feverishly emotional man, he has turned his Japanese bar into a family restaurant known as "Little Shanghai" but finds his business undermined by ruthless Shanghai gangsters. The second brother, Wen-sun disappeared in the Philippines and is talked about but never seen in the film.
Brother number three, Wen-leung (Jack Gao) suffered mental problems as a direct result of the war and is bedridden at a local hospital. Amazingly, he recovers enough to deal with Shanghai drug smugglers but is framed as a Japanese collaborator and, after being beaten in prison, loses his mental balance again. The fourth Lin brother, Wen-ching is deaf and runs a photography studio. Wen-ching is involved with young anti-government socialists such as his friend Hinoe (Wu Yi-fang) who is forced to flee to the mountains to join the guerillas. Wen-ching also wants to join the movement but is persuaded to stay home and care for Hinoe's sister, Hinome (Hsin Shu-fen), a nurse, who loves him.
As in all of Hou's films, there are no peak moments of dramatic interest to which everything else is simply a build up. The camera simply records the events from a distance without judgment or evaluation, allowing the complexities of the characters and situations to gradually unfold. Everything is relevant -- taking care of the baby, eating, cleaning the floor, and washing the dishes. This attention to the ordinary makes us realize that history happens to everyone, not only in the battlefield, but also in the quiet of everyday life. Far from being bogged down in banality, however, the film achieves transcendence in moments such as Hinome and Wen-ching listening to a German folk song, Wen-ching imitating the voice of an opera singer when he was only eight, the solitary flight of a bird after a sudden death, and the gentle caressing voiceover of Hinome.
City of Sadness is a remarkable portrait of one of the most traumatic events in Taiwanese history and its popularity in Taiwan reflected its willingness to deal with a previously taboo subject. Hou said, "I didn't make A City of Sadness because I purposely wanted to open up old wounds'.but because I know that we have to face ourselves and our history if we are ever to understand who we are and where we're going." Though the film was criticized by some for being "politically ambiguous" and "historically inaccurate, the film's depiction of political events and its impact on Taiwan is clear and unmistakable. City of Sadness will not satisfy those seeking a political expose, but Hou's refusal to trivialize events for the sake of emotional appeal gives the film a universality of spirit that ensures its place among the most powerful cinematic statements of our time.
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