Friday, November 6, 2009

Exhilarating Sadness

More than ten years ago, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, then still located in Golden Gate Park, hosted a retrospective of the work of Taiwanese master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I was preparing an extended trip abroad myself at the time, and missed the entire cycle, but upon my return I often heard Hou's name spoken in hushed tones by local moviegoers, and determined to seek his work out. I began with a viewing of Flowers Of Shanghai, starring Tony Leung as a nineteenth-century opium den father in that port city. I was absolutely entranced by its calm power, even though I was watching it on a videocassette tape. I loved it, but knew I would have loved it even more if shown on a beautiful new print. Helped along by assurances of cinephile friends, I was convinced I had been exposed to one of the great living artists of the medium, and I vowed that I would see any film of his that screened in town in a good 35mm print.

Since then, Hou has completed four newer films (Millenium Mambo, Cafe Lumiere, Three Times, and The Flight of the Red Balloon), and I have been sure to see each of them in Frisco cinemas, more than once if I could. Only one film from his back-catalogue has made it onto local screens during this time: Goodbye South, Goodbye, which the since-departed Manny Farber selected to be screened alongside his appearance at the 2003 San Francisco International Film Festival, where the legendary critic received the Mel Novikoff Award and was interviewed on the stage of the Kabuki Theatre in an intimate afternoon event. It was great, but that was the end if my exploration of Hou's pre-Flowers of Shanghai work.

Until now. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has brought a glorious new print of Hou's 1989 film City of Sadness, also starring Tony Leung, this time as a deaf man named Wen-ching, for a pair of twentieth-anniversary screenings this weekend. Of all of Hou's films, City Of Sadness is the one that is often favorably compared to The Godfather, that most often perches atop lists of the great Chinese-language films of all time, and that gets spoken of with perhaps the most reverence. It's all deserved. I attended last night's screening, and I cannot urge my readers strongly enough to make sure to be at the venue's second and final showing on Sunday afternoon. Especially if you have seen City of Sadness only on imported or bootlegged video before (it has never had a commercial release of any kind in this country) you will surely be astonished by the beauty of the print YBCA is showing.

Last night's viewing was introduced by Manfred Peng of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, who gave a brief but helpful explanation of the political backdrop of City of Sadness. It's considered the first of Hou's "history trilogy" continuing with The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women, all three of which were set against historical events in Taiwan. City of Sadness is set in that late-1940s period between the end of World War II and Japan's relinquishment of the island as one of its colonies, and the 1949 founding of the People's Republic of China. The film was made just a few years after the lifting of Taiwan's ban on mentioning the defining political event of that period, the "228 Incident" or "228 Massacre", still a contentious topic to this day.

I hope that any American politicians or diplomats now involved in relations with Taiwan and China understand the interrelations between various parties involved in 228 and its aftermath well enough to easily identify how all the characters in Hou's film are connected to the event on a single viewing. Even with Mr. Peng's aid, I could not, though I think with more reading on the matter and viewings of the film everything would fall into place for me. However, I do not think City of Sadness demands complete understanding of the events, as it is more about people tragically and capriciously impacted by 228 than it is about the event itself. Hou seems to have made a film where characters' perspectives on the political situation in Taiwan at the time matter less than the effects it has on their lives and those of their loved ones, and so we in the audience do not need to fully comprehend the history in order to comprehend the motivations and the emotions of the film's main players.

Every shot in the film is impeccably framed and lit, each scene impeccably staged, often in a way that stresses the relationship between the weight of history and the ordinary life of citizens living it. For example. As a group of students or intellectuals sit and debate politics, Wen-ching and pretty, young Hinomi (played by Xin Shufen) sit to the side of the room, exchanging notes with each other while a folk song plays on the phonograph. Hou situates his camera in the space between the table of students and the clearly smitten couple. It could be a point-of-view shot from the position of one of the debaters, but that seems unlikely. The students are swept up in their discussion and do not seem to be paying attention to the room's other occupants and their activities. No, this shot isolates the spirited discussion from the would-be lovers' attempts to lead a normal life unhindered by the intrusions of politics. At least for this moment, the two are able to exist in their own world; this sense is accentuated as the sound of the conversation subtly drops out and all we hear are sonorous musical notes as they are released from the record grooves. Wen-ching explains the origin of his deafness at age eight, and how it happened to him so young that it didn't feel like a tragedy.

Hou's own political perspective may be evident throughout the film as well, at least to someone knowledgeable on Taiwanese history. For those of us who are not, we can appreciate his form and technique. He is a master at expressing contrasts of energy, such as the way a violent scene spills out onto a quiet morning street. A scene starts as an interior, as two young men confront each other in a bathroom. Anger escalates until the pair are embroiled in a knife fight, chasing each other down hallways. Hou cuts to an exterior long shot of the town nestled below forested hills. For several seconds there is a decided pause in the violence and the viewer may wonder if it may have ended, but suddenly the combatants are now out on the street, bringing their chaos out into the public sphere. This is not the only scene staged along these lines. The film often gives the viewer opportunities like this to understand how the bloodshed of 228 affected day-to-day life on the island.

I'd be very curious to learn about the production history of City Of Sadness. If it was completely taboo to speak of 228 publicly in Taiwan until just a few years before the film was made (a situation that, by the end of the film, seems symbolically represented by Wen-ching's deafness), then was it Hou himself who chose to be the first filmmaker in his country to take on the topic, or was he approached on the basis of his critically successful earlier films (A Time To Live And A Time To Die, etc.) to apply his sensitive sensibility? These questions and others may be answered as I read more about the film. (Because I want to alert readers to the opportunity to see this new print as quickly as I can, I'm writing this piece relatively "cold", that is, without the benefit of delving into other articles as I usually am wont to do.)

I hope to revisit this film again many times in my life. The second screening at the YBCA is this Sunday, and should take precedence over any other film events happening in town for anyone who has not seen City of Sadness before, no matter their previous experience with Hou or Taiwanese cinema. However, this weekend coincides with Taiwan Film Days at the Opera Plaza, which provides Frisco Bay cinephiles with opportunities to see seven more recent films from the island. And with the Chinese American Film Festival coming to town later this month (featuring John Woo's Red Cliff 2, the allegedly superior sequel to the film opening at Landmark Theatres in November as well), this month is a boon for anyone interested in expanding their understanding of Chinese-language cinema.


  1. It's with exhilirating sadness that I will probably have to miss this. But somewhere someday it will show up again, I'm sure. Until then, how nice to have your commentary. It is, indeed, a great month for all things Asian. I'm focusing on South Asian myself.

  2. And I'm sad I missed the whole 3rd i festival this year, as it's been a highlight of previous autumn festival seasons.

    I did notice that YBCA is bringing the amazing Om Shanti Om to its screening room December 6th, though.

    I hope someone programs Love Aaj Ka, the Bollywood remake of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times in Frisco sometime.

  3. re John Woo's "Red Cliff 2" - I believe the film screening at the Chinese American Film Festival is the same version of the film opening at the Landmark Theaters which is also the same version that screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival last month.

    I saw "Red Cliff 2" at MVFF and Woo or whats-his-name (the guy with the beard from the Smith Center in San Rafael) said that there is only one English subtitled version of the film which (for reasons unstated) is being titled "Red Cliff 2" for the MVFF.

    Confusion sets in because in China, two films were released and they had a total runtime approaching 5 hours. The International/English subtitled version is an abbreviated compilation of the two Chinese films.

    It appears that Frank Lee and MVFF are calling the film "Red Cliff 2" whereas Landmark is calling the film "Red Cliff." I do notice that the stated runtimes differ by 6 minutes but I doubt the differences are substantial. I believe the film is called "Red Cliff 2" because most of the footage comes from the more action-packed 2nd film.

  4. Dan, thanks for clearing that up. The whole re-edited, re-titled Red Cliff situation is so confusing it's easy to become Woo-zy.

  5. i just hope a wide angle lens was used for the family portrait so I could see more of the stucco design.