City of Sadness by Hou Hsiou-Hsien

Breathtakingly beautiful and accomplished film-making from Taiwanese maestro Hou Hsiou-Hsien in 1989’s ‘City of Sadness’. It’s a multi-faceted family drama set around the experiences of four brothers during Taiwan’s tumultuous transitional years after the end of World War Two. So it’s also the story of a nation, more epic in its scope than anything I’ve ever seen by HHH before (I love his films).

The device of the four brothers of course gives plenty of scope for multiple, intersecting storylines, each brother’s life reflecting different aspects of the often chaotic times in which they are living. The impression is of a time of massive upheaval, where the rules keep changing and it’s impossible not to come into conflict somewhere between the opposing demands of state, society, family and the modern age. There’s the heartbreak of dashed hopes as a seemingly golden moment for Taiwan beckons then is lost; the spectre of corruption and recrimination; and the precariousness of a life lived in shifting circumstances.

Whatever its political and historical aspects, this is also very much the story of a family and its survival through a succession of tragedies and misfortunes. With an incredibly strong sense of place – figures moving across a hillside, the repeated image of a coastline seen in all weathers – I was even reminded of Thomas Hardy! (Though this might have been because the last film I saw on the big NFT1 screen was ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’…) Cuts to almost-random scenes in the landscape remind me of Ozu – the roof of a house, a telegraph pole, a train passing.

Ozu’s influence is there too, perhaps, in the beautifully composed interior shots: looking along the length of a corridor or observing a scene from the room’s edge, where we can really see the characters inhabiting their space. Indoors, there is often plenty of bustle, people moving around the periphery of the scene or someone squeezing through with a tray – the whole extended family are here, presided over by a tough and revered grandfather, who despite his small stature we feel is really the one holding everything together.

I found Hsiou-Hsien’s evocation of place through sound incredibly creative too – sometimes while watching a scene, we’ll hear what’s happening just off-stage (music, tea pouring, a train passing); or we’ll listen to the continuation of one scene while visually we’re already onto the next.

Through repetition and wonderful attention to detail, we become so intimate with the characters’ everyday surroundings that we feel like we’re living there with them. The places that for all of us become second nature, like the doors to our workplace or the hallway of our home – Hsiou-Hsien makes such places marker-points in the film, that we return to again and again even as different dramatic events take place around them. There’s the upstairs room with its beautiful and intriguing coloured glass; the lobby with its vase always there on the table – often we view this while hearing voices coming from elsewhere in the house, as if we’re waiting for them to come down; the family shrine, as glimpsed through the window from the neighbouring room; and the hospital entrance, seen from the inside and often bathed in a beautiful golden light.

We share the family’s everyday pleasures – eating (lots of it!), drinking, smoking… Even at moments of extreme tension, a teapot will be produced; and the most uncouth thing that elder brother can do is to drink directly from the spout! Music of all sorts surrounds us too, emblematic of the many layers and forces at play in society – Chinese opera, teahouse music, LP records; as well as an 80’s synth soundtrack that for me added an extra layer of historical interest.

The swirl of languages being spoken also tells of the confusion of the time; in one farcical scene, when the gangsters go to consult with an elder for a solution to their dispute, the conversation dissolves into a riot of mis-translations and Chinese Whispers.

In a film that’s always beautiful to look at, an added strand of visual poetry comes in the form of the traditional Chinese script that Hsiou-Hsien, the master-storyteller, puts on screen at various times – it brought to mind Wong Kar Wai, though I’m sure lots of directors use it. Also calling to mind Wong Kar Wai, Tony Leung plays the youngest of the four brothers – I’m always happy to see his face and be reminded of those magical films.

This is stunning, gripping, emotional film-making from Hou Hsiou-Hsien. ‘City of Sadness’ may be more sharp-focused than some of his other films (with those four interacting storylines and the fate of a nation to tell, it has to be) but it’s a supremely rich, sensuous, life-enhancing experience.

No photos from the actual film, but maybe you’d like to see these pictures all taken at the Puppet Museum in Taipei?

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