The leading director of the Taiwanese ‘new wave’ of the 1980s, which also incorporated Tsai Ming-Liang, Edward Yang, and Ang Lee, Hou is one of the most celebrated international directors of the past two decades or so. Most of his films have achieved recognition at international awards ceremonies, and influential critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum are fierce champions of his work. A poll of international critics, compiled by The Village Voice and Film Comment named Hou as the best director of the 1990s, and it’s likely that this was one of the films that was considered when these critics bestowed the honour upon him.
Hou’s family moved from the China to Taiwan during the late-1940s when the civil war on the mainland was raging, so ‘City of Sadness’ might be seen as one of his more personal films, exploring the effects of this tumultuous period upon a single family. It was the first film to address a taboo subject in Taiwan; that of the 228 Incident, when the Nationalist government brutally suppressed an uprising, which resulted in the deaths of between ten and twenty thousand civilians. It was only in the year before the film was made that it was even officially allowed to be discussed in public, and whilst Hou never actually shows the incident, it is never far away in our minds. We witness the aftermath of the civil unrest that took hold of the island, and the effects it had upon the population, especially when the government appeared to try to quell the trouble with the utmost force and with no rational approach.
Hou focuses on one family in particular, overseen by a widower and his four sons. The eldest is a semi-legitimate businessman, the second eldest fought during the war in the Philippines, and has yet to return (his wife still maintains he will one day), the third eldest has bouts of madness, and becomes a smuggler and small time crook during his period of normal behaviour, and the youngest is a deaf-mute photographer – the most sensitive and the brother we are obviously supposed to identify with. He communicates through words rather than sign language, with his writings communicated to us through the kind of intertitles you would see in silent films.
Through the semi-legitimate and illegitimate dealings of the eldest and third eldest brothers, we witness the widespread corruption that ran through China and implicated the Nationalist government (drug smuggling, counterfeit currency, illegal cigarettes). On numerous occasions, individuals discuss this corruption, coupled with hyperinflation which has made the price of rice sky-rocket, which was one of the numerous causes of resentment by the Taiwanese population towards the Nationalists and their scepticism towards the future of their government. The locals discuss the constant exploitation of the Taiwan – whether it’s by the Chinese or the Japanese – it doesn’t matter. After Taiwan returned to China after Japanese rule, unemployment in the region rose, and mainlanders often replaced the indigenous workers. Taiwan’s recent history of changing hands between occupying countries created an unstable population with multiple languages and cultures, and created mutual distrust and suspicion between these different groups. The third brother is at one point arrested for supposedly collaborating with the Japanese during the war and informing on others to save his own skin. Because of its precarious standing, the Nationalist government tried to instil order with force, which we see with the numerous arrests of many of the family on spurious charges more often than not, and the regular radio broadcasts that signal the introduction of martial law.
The emotional centre of ‘City of Sadness’ is the budding relationship between Wen Ching and his best friend’s sister, Hinomi. Her brother Hinoe is a teacher who has to flee to the mountains to avoid the Nationalist forces (we eventually see his murdered by soldiers). Wen Ching wants to join him, but is told by Hinoe to stay in their village to take care of Hinomi. They marry and have a child, but he too is arrested despite moving away. There was no escape from the Nationalist forces. The eldest and third eldest brothers are also murdered by the Nationalists, and we are given the impression that Wen Ching is merely in jail, and therefore the only brother of the family apparently alive. Hinomi’s diary recounts the incidents and her feelings and hopes for the future. Her final entry leaves the film on a sober and sombre note. The turbulent history of the island continues with the film’s epilogue, that of news that the Nationalists hot-footed it to Taiwan in 1949 after the Communists overthrew them in China. A one party state which still relied on terror at times existed until 1987 when liberalisation and democratisation policies were embarked upon. Hou’s film reminds us of an island forever subjugated by its oppressors, but prefers not to dwell on showing the events, and focuses on the human element and their place within the numerous tragedies that befell the island. In short, a masterpiece by any standards.