Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review – The Terrorizers

January 25, 2011

The Terrorizers – Taiwan, 1986

In a way, every one of the characters in Edward Yang’s 1986 film The Terrorizers could be described as a “terrorizer.” They terrorize each other with their deeds, as well as their words. For example, in the film, a single mother padlocks the doors in her apartment to prevent her troubled young daughter from leaving the house after her daughter’s actions give her real reason to be concerned for her safety. Another young woman trashes the apartment she shares with her boyfriend after he disappeared for a few hours. He had run towards the sound of gunfire and police sirens. Exactly who is terrorizing whom in these situations? The one who she was worried about or the one reacting to being made to worry? In another apartment, a woman sits in her study trying to finish writing a story. Her husband makes a few fairly obvious observations and gives her some rather unhelpful advice before leaving for work. This is clearly a marriage that has seen better days – or maybe it hasn’t. Later, a friend of the husband tells him how surprised people were that she married him. Perhaps they saw something that he didn’t. In any event, couldn’t these two be said to be terrorizing each other by not addressing their problems directly?

In the film, the city these characters live in is coming apart at the seams. Fathers are conspicuous by their absence, and people have grown too comfortable with loved ones, which often leads to one taking advantage of another or one taking someone for granted. Law enforcement, despite its best efforts, seems unable to stop the escalating violence and criminal activity that is occurring. It is this criminal element that connects the film’s multiple storylines. In the beginning of the film, shots ring out from a small apartment being used as a gambling den, and as a result, a man lies dead on the street outside. Police capture all but one of the criminals, a young woman whose image is captured by the young photographer’s lens. However, instead of handing this evidence over to the police, he blows the picture up and hangs it on his wall. Later, stuck at home as a result of a broken ankle and the chains her mother put on the door, the young criminal, completely bored, decides to make a few prank calls. Using the phone book as an aid, she dials a number and intimates to the woman who answers that she is having an affair with her husband. It’s a cruel joke, and yet it receives a surprisingly calm response. In a way, it’s a relief, for it excuses the married woman’s own indiscretion.

Later, in one of the film’s most fascinating moments, this character delivers a long explanation of her actions. Facing the camera, her husband sitting at a table in another room, she explains that her life has been a series of new starts, starting with their marriage. Leaving him, she says, is just another of these new starts. As she speaks, she turns her head often, as if she is avoiding looking directly at the camera. It is as if what is in front of her can see through her poetic explanations and illustrations and she is ashamed to look it in the eyes. And this nervousness is understandable, for we – the audience – indeed know the truth.

One of the film’s central themes is that perception may not be reality, and therefore, we should not trust everything we see in the film. Some events occur on the screen and are then revealed to have been lies; at other times, what we think is real turns out to have been a dream, even if it’s unclear whose dream it actually is. And yet sometimes what we write, especially if it’s based on people we know, reveals truths and beliefs that we are too hesitant to reveal in real life. So what does it mean that the husband in the novel turns out to be capable of great violence? Does it mean that the writer thinks her husband is capable of such action in real life? We don’t see any direct evidence of this at first, but as his life begins to unravel, doubt crept in, and a part of me wondered just how far he would go to hold onto those things that have long been stabilizing forces in his life.

At one point in The Terrorizers, a woman plays the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” At first, I thought it was an odd choice for a woman who has just returned from work. As she listens to the song, she is moved to go into her daughter’s room and check up on her. She reaches toward her, touches her cheek lovingly, and smiles. As the song plays, we also see the break-up of the photographer and his girlfriend. As his pictures drift like feathers in the wind to the apartment floor, she looks behind her to find him suddenly gone. The woman’s daughter will later return to her life of crime, and the young man is leaving due to his infatuation with a woman in a picture. In this case, the song’s lyrics ring true – All who love are blind.

The Terrorizers is a powerful film about characters dealing with doubt and misunderstandings in today’s modern society. It was made just one year before martial law was overturned in Taiwan, and it seems to reflect unease about what can happen when modernity conflicts with tradition, about what can happen when what has brought people together for thousands of years begins to crumble. As the struggling housewife/writer, Zhou Yufang delivers an unforgettable performance, and Lichun Lee deserves praise for his portrayal of her husband. He makes that character rather sympathetic despite the unethical things he does in the name of career advancement. The Terrorizers is by no means an easy film to watch, but it is a film that offers a fascinating look at the human condition in these modern times. It’s not all pretty, but then again, neither is life. (on DVD in Region 3)

4 stars

*The Terrorizers is in Mandarin and Min Nan with English subtitles.

No comments: