Handout: A City of Sadness
A City of Sadness (Beiqing chengshi)

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dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien [Hou Xiaoxian]
sc. Zhu Tianwen, Wu Nianzhen
Taipei: Era Films, 1989; 159 minutes.

A City of Sadness is the first part of director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s trilogy on Taiwanese history; the other two parts are The Puppetmaster (Ximeng rensheng, 1993) and Good Men, Good Women (Haonan haonü, 1995). In 1989 A City of Sadness won the Golden Lion, the Venice Film Festival’s award for Best Picture.

Historical Background: After losing the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the imperial government of China ceded Taiwan to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The island was returned to China (then officially under the Nationalist KMT government) upon Japan’s defeat in 1945. Tension grew quickly between the inhabitants of Taiwan and the KMT’s new provincial government (thus between Taiwanese and mainlanders in general). A police incident involving a cigarette vendor in Taipei on February 28, 1947 exploded into riots and short-lived rebellions around the island. As a result, thousands of Taiwanese—especially intellectuals and other leading members of society—were arrested, imprisoned, and executed. The government declared martial law all over the island, which was not lifted until 1987. The episode became known as the February 28 Incident or “2-28” in Taiwan. (See also timeline on the course website.)

The film opens with the surrender of Japan in 1945; the voice on the radio in the prologue is that of Emperor Hirohito announcing his country’s surrender to the Allies. At the same moment, the son of Wen-hsiung (Wen-heung in Taiwanese) is born. The title in the last shot of the film says that the KMT government moves to Taiwan in 1949.

Story: The film intertwines two plot lines, organized around the brothers Lin (Lim). One plot line involves the small-time gangster activities of the first and third brothers, who get entangled in a turf war with recently-arrived smugglers from Shanghai. The other plot line follows the fourth brother, who is a deaf-mute photographer. He falls in love with his friend’s sister--a nurse who is also the V/O narration in the film—while he and his friend are caught up in the discontent of Taiwanese intellectuals that is one of the causes of the February 28 Incident.

Representational Strategies: Hou Hsiao-hsien has developed a very characteristic style marked by slow pacing, minimal plot development, long shots (where the camera is far away from the action), long takes (where the camera films for a relatively long time without a cut), stationary camera, and painstaking counterpoint between sound and image.

Public and Critical Reception: The film was a huge box office success in Taiwan—it was, after all, the first time events of 1947 had ever been portrayed on screen. Critics, however, were ambivalent. Since the film was billed as being ‘about’ the February 28 Incident, and since the Incident is not shown as a violent on-screen spectacle, many people felt the film was politically ambiguous (i.e. did not take a strong enough stand against the KMT of the time) and historically inaccurate. Others faulted the film for its hermeticism, its ‘hard to follow’ style—yet no one disputes the fact that City of Sadness is probably the most significant film to have emerged out of Taiwan’s New Cinema.

Main Cast of Characters:

Lin Ah-lu (Lim Ah-lu) played by Li Tianlu
Patriarch of the Lim family, who is played here by the legendary Taiwanese puppeteer Li Tianlu (who is also the subject of Hou’s second film in the trilogy, The Puppetmaster).

Lin Wen-hsiung (Lim Wen-heung) played by Chen Yung-sung
Oldest brother; in charge of the family businesses, which include a semi-shady trading company and a restaurant, “Little Shanghai.” Has a wife and daughter (Ah-hsueh), as well as a mistress who lives in Badouzi, and who gives birth to his son in the prologue. Mistress’ brother, Ah Chia (Ah Ga) also works for him. Killed by gangsters.

Lin Wen-sun missing in action
Second brother. Doctor; drafted by Japanese, disappeared in the Philippines; he does not appear in the film, but his wife and children do.

Lin Wen-liang (Lim Wen-leung) played by Jack Gao (Gao Chieh)
Third brother. Drafted by Japanese to be a translator in Shanghai, China; returns with psychiatric problems; involved with Shanghai gangsters in Taiwan; framed for collaboration with Japanese by the Taiwan-based Shanghai gangsters; insane again at the end of film; married before war.

Lin Wen-ch’ing (Lim Wen-ching) played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai
Fourth son. Deaf-mute photographer; friends include Taiwanese intellectuals; marries Hinomi; arrested around February 28, released, arrested again.

Wu K’uan-jung (Hinoe) played by Wu Yi-fang
Taiwanese, but as with many Taiwanese at the time, pronounced his name (‘Kuanrong’) in Japanese (‘Hinoe’); schoolteacher; friend of Wenqing, brother of Hinomi; escapes into mountains after February 28, but later arrested.

Wu K’uan-mei (Hinomi) played by Hsin Hsu-fen
Also uses Japanese pronunciation for her name (‘Kuanmei’); sister of Hinoe, eventually wife of Wenqing; nurse in hospital; keeps a diary which is an important souce of narrative information throughout the film. Communicates with Wen-ching through note-writing.

Intertitles: These are the untranslated intertitles that appear on the screen, mostly during the scenes when people are writing.

0. [Prologue: birth of Wen-heung’s son] “On August 15, 1945 the Emperor of Japan announced Japan’s unconditional surrender; Taiwan emerged from fifty-one years of Japanese rule. Lim Wen-heung’s woman at Badouzi gave birth to a son named Lin Guangming.

1. [Wen-ching showing Himoni his photographs] “Mementos of Second Brother and Third Brother before they went to war. They haven’t returned yet. Someone said he saw Third Brother in Shanghai. No news of Second Brother in Luzon [Philippines].”

2. [Hinoe to Wen-ching, after meeting intellectuals] “Principal Ogawa was sick this morning but insisted on going out. He felt better after getting a shot. Shisuko [Ogawa’s daughter] is worried.”

3. [The Japanese poem: it appears the first time in Japanese calligraphy, then is translated into Chinese print at the end of the scene] “Fellow cherry blossoms, fly as you will and go, I will follow, so it is with all of us.”

4. [Hinomi and Wen-ching listening to the record while the others eat]. “[Hinomi:] ‘Lorelei’ is a famous German folk song. According to tradition...” “...On the banks of the Rhine there was a beautiful maiden singing and brushing her golden hair. Sailors became intoxicated by her singing, so the ship hit the rocks and sank, and they died...”

5. [Wen-ching:] “ I remember some sounds from before I was eight years old, like the baa-ing of sheep and opera singers. I liked to imitate their gestures. My teachers said I would amount to nothing but an actor.”

6. [Wen-ching:] “When I was eight, I fell from a tree and hit my head; I was very sick for a while. Even after I got better I couldn’t walk for a while. I didn’t even known I had gone deaf until my father wrote it out for me. I was a kid then and didn’t know to be sad—it just seemed neat.”

7. [Wen-ching tells Hinomi about his trip to Taipei with Hinoe] “Hinoe is safe. He told me to return first. Lin-san [Teacher Lin, another intellectual] has been going to public meetings every day. Many people have died in Taipei Everyone is anxious and fearful

8. [The handwritten note that Wen-ching smuggles out of prison to a widow. This is the only ‘title’ that appears within the diegesis.] “You must live with honor and dignity/ Father is innocent”

9. [Hinomi and Wen-ching at the latter’s family home, after he returns from the trip] [Hinomi:] “You look thinner. How are you doing? My brother is missing. He had been in hiding. The military police came to look for him. We haven’t heard any news.”

10. [Wen-ching, in flashback, with Hinoe in the mountains; Wen-ching delivers Mr. Huang’s brother’s last words from prison] “In life I was separated from the fatherland. In death I return. Life and death are the will of heaven. I have neither worries nor regrets.”

11. [Wen-ching to Hinomi, in the present] “Hinoe has already gotten married in the mountains. I can’t say where—he asked me not to tell his family, just to pretend that he’s dead. That he belongs now to beautiful future of the fatherland.

12. [Wen-ching to Hinoe, in flashback] “When I was in prison I decided to live this life for my dead friends. I can’t just float along life before. I want to stay here. I’m sure I can do anything you can do.

13. [Hinoe:] “This place is not suitable for you. So long as you have faith, you can serve the people in any place, in any manner. Also, there is Hinomi—people have been talking about marriage prospects, but I know her heart is set on you...”

14. [Epilogue: last shot] “In December 1949, the Mainland changed hands. The Nationalist KMT government moved to Taiwan and set up its temporary capital in Taipei.”