New Taiwanese Cinema Exposes a Secret History
A rare screening of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterpiece A City of Sadness
Filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien is a mainstay of New Taiwanese Cinema, and the current retrospective at AFS Cinema, presented in partnership with the Austin Asian American Film Festival, concludes its sublime run of contemplative works with the director's most elusive and renowned film yet, the 1989 masterpiece A City of Sadness. Taking in the Hou tradition by being absent of a physical release in the U.S., the whopping two English-subtitled 35mm prints in circulation have been the sole option for American film lovers to consume one of the great gems from the movement.
The film opens on August 15, 1945, with the offscreen birth of Kang-ming, son of Wen-heung (Chen Sung-young), one of the four brothers of the Lin family, deceptively suggesting that post-World War II Taiwan, having just been released from Japanese occupation, will adhere to a less constrained way of living. It's a transitory moment of hope for the film's principal family, for the picture's four-year timeframe of the now Chinese-occupied Taiwan will encompass the oppressive authoritarian regime's most consequential landmarks, notably the 2.28 incident, in which the public's collective frustration of martial law erupts in a massacre that would go on to be the unspeakable mark on the nation's history. (The fleeting recollection here was the first depiction in a Taiwanese film.) The ensuing tragedy for the family isn't a result from personal, deliberate action, but a seemingly forceful pull from a throughline that's beyond their control, prompting momentous shifts in a familial dynamic that feels frustratingly inevitable with its trajectory.
Compare it with another, equally hard to track down classic of New Taiwanese Cinema, Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day. If Yang's film is the study of the political domino effect that gives irreparable dramatic weight to a family's legacy, then Hou's film is the indelible impression of a scope that cannot be fully perceived. History, personal and political, loosely pieces itself together in ways that feel deeply intertwined, resulting in fragments that care less for the essential progression of plot and more for the inhabitance of space.
A City of Sadness is the transitional moment for a filmmaker that would push these demonstrative formal traits to what some would say is their breaking point. In a scene that succinctly represents Hou's authorial inclinations, a group downs dinner while carrying on a dry discourse on Taiwan's identity. One of the other four brothers, the mute Wen-ching, played by Hong Kong star Tony Leung (whose inability to speak fluent Taiwanese resulted in this characteristic, a stroke that furthers the separation of character and environment), is interrupted from his disinterested state by Hinome (Hsin Shu-fen), a romantic interest of sorts, to spin a record as this conversation ensues. Migrating to the back of the frame, the two drown out the talk by linking their warmly lit past to the tragic folk song "Lorelei." For Hou, articulating the expected isn't the desired option for coming to terms with uncontrollable circumstances. By placing individual expression at the fore of a ruptured backdrop, he allows a perspective that is as insightful as it is idiosyncratic.
Austin Asian American Film Festival presents A City of Sadness with an introduction by filmmaker and writer Peggy Chiao, AFS Cinema, Sat., Sept., 29, 7pm. For an interview with Chiao about the legacy of Hou Hsiao-hsien and New Taiwanese Cinema, see austinchronicle.com/screens.