Whilst it is a bit dangerous to learn a lot of your world history by watching films there are times where it is a necessary evil. Through A City of Sadness, Yi Yi and A Brighter Summer Day I have learnt so much more about modern Taiwanese history than I would have otherwise. In fact, my understanding would have probably been a cursory knowledge of the two state problem and a joke in Red Dwarf about the Talkie Toaster having been manufactured in Taiwan.
In the historical timeline of these three films A City of Sadness would come first by about two years and covers (if slightly obliquely) the February 28 Massacre in 1947 and the installation of, what would become, 40 years of martial law. We see the events through the life of the grown-up siblings of the Lin family, where all of them are adversely affected by the brutality.
I have seen a number of films where a country tells a story of its own past and makes a lot of assumptions about the viewers knowledge. The Travelling Players was guilty of this and really turned me off as a consequence. A City of Sadness does a better job of this (maybe because it had the film festival circuit in its sights) although there were times where the jumping between times did get a bit confusing. Still, the film kept its grounding as it stripped away more and more of the optimism.
Whilst this is an ensemble cast there is one actor who completely stands out, yet again, and that is Tony Leung Chiu Wei. Truly he is one of the best actors that I have ever seen and there is still so much more of his work that I need to see (Happy Together, 2046, Hard Boiled and Lust, Caution being the films that immediately come to mind). There is something about him that is magnetic and instantly generates empathy as you watch him.
He takes on the role of the youngest brother – a photographer who is also deaf-mute. As the rest of his siblings begin to ‘thin out’ (one being murdered by gangsters and another being mentally destroyed after being arrested as part of the new political rulings) his roles grows as he becomes more and more central to the family. His communications with the outside world are limited to gesture, guttural noises and written notes – which makes it difficult to prove to marauding gangs that you are native to Taiwan instead of Japanese…
The fact that this film came out just two years after the end of martial law speaks to the bravery of director Hou Hsiao-hsien and everyone else working on this production. As the first film to deal with this subject matter I can see that they probably didn’t go as deep as they could have, but there is a lot to be said about exercising restraint.
Whilst this film doesn’t look away from the grisly realities of an authoritarian regime shooting and imprisoning its own people it, the director creates a distance through his choice of shots that ultimately helps to create a more nuance and, ultimately, memorable film.