August 23, 2018
Taipei Story, Taiwan, 1985
I am about to embark upon a mission that will undoubtedly conclude with a high rate of failure. I say this, for there is perhaps no harder task for a movie reviewer than to convince people to watch a film that shines such a harsh light on the world around us, one featuring characters that have the deck stacked against them, and who disprove the old adage that good people win in the end. But watch it people should, and so here I go.
The film being referenced is Edward Yang’s Taipei Story. It was his second, and its release came two years before the order that lifted martial law in Taiwan. Given that, it is somewhat amazing that it was made at all, seeing how the purpose of entertainment in such a state is often to convince people how great their lives are and how much the government is doing for them. Taipei Story, while shying away from any overt political message, couldn’t be more different.
The film depicts Taipei as a city of contrasts. In its residents, we see evidence of both hope and despair; we hear of the freedoms experienced by those who got out and the crushing conditions of those without the means of doing so. It is a city of bright lights and dark shadowy structures, and, at what may now be described as the advert of globalization, it is clear that the chasm between the have’s and have not’s is both growing and irreversible, one in which what we think of as progress may in fact be about to leave far too many people behind.
The film follows Lung (played by actor-director Hsiao-hsien Hou), a former baseball player who now owns a fabric shop, and his girlfriend, Chin, who works as a personal assistant to the head of a construction company. In the film’s opening scene, we see the two of them inspecting a vacant apartment, Lung while casually smoking, Chin while dressed in all-white business attire. The contrast could not be more telling. We soon learn that Chin is moving out of her parents’ house. This is practically unheard of, as she is still single. However, Chin gives the impression of this being a new world, one that is breaking the shackles of the past, and for good reason. Not only does she have a good job, but she recently got a raise. Independence is the logical next step – at least it is to her. As for Lung, he is preparing to visit his mother, sister, and brother-in-law in the United States, and if you know anything about Chinese culture, you’ll know how unusual it is for a mother to live with her daughter after she gets married.
The film follows these two as they struggle to maintain their relationship in a world that increasingly fails to reward people for making the morally correct decision or for having their hearts in the right place. To say that Lung has a heart of gold may be an overstatement, yet what is clear is that when faced with a choice of either helping others in need or acting to ensure his own well-being, he ends up doing the former. A good example of this is his actions regarding a young unfortunate father of three named Qin, whose wife is gambling away the family’s present and future. Chin matches Lung in good intentions. Early on, her company is the victim of a hostile takeover, and her new bosses not only fire her old boss but reduce both Chin’s job title and duties. She quits, outwardly reasoning that she can do the same job elsewhere, but inwardly standing up for her former boss. It’s a position that many of us have envisioned ourselves taking.
Anyone who has ever dealt with severe financial difficulty or felt the hopelessness that can set in when you experience unemployment will recognize what follows – the toll such conditions take on love, the insecurities that it causes to bubble up to the surface. And Yang never lets up. The script, written by Yang, Hou, and Chu Tien-wen, is a series of good intentions, unfortunate events, and tantalizing temptations, ones that offer transitory relieve and satisfaction, but would ultimately end in despair and regret. In other words, these characters seem fated to suffer. What other conclusion is there when both the right and wrong decisions lead to the same outcome?
See, I was right. I have painted the film in such dark and depressing colors that I really can’t imagine that anyone reading this will elect to seek it out, and in not accomplishing this, I may be replicating the experience of critics in 1985. After all, many of the Taiwanese films that came out in the 1980s struggled to find an audience. They diverged so much from the happy-go-lucky films that preceded them that they were rejected in favor of either lighter local fare or imported American films. Yang would make just seven films in his lifetime, and directors such as Hou and Ming-liang Tsai became much more popular on the international circuit than they were in their home countries. It is telling that Tokyo Story is not available on DVD in Taiwan and that Yi Yi, despite its stellar reputation globally, draws blank stares from the majority of my students and co-workers.
So, here’s what I like about the film. For one, the cast is superb. As Lung, Hou adopts a look of a social outsider who has been beaten down by life, but refuses to completely give in to despair. And in quieter moments, ones in which Chin leans on his shoulder and gently holds his hand, Hou, in the lightening of his eyes and the disappearance of physical tension, shows us just how he can find the strength to keep going. That he does this without uttering a single word makes his performance even more impressive. Chin is played by Chin Tsai, a regular in both Hou’s and Yang’s films, and in a way she has the harder part. She has to make us see something in Lung that could easily be missed by eyes that only see the lost soul he is close to becoming. In other words, she has to make us see the potential in him and the wonder that he once inspired in her. And she has to make us see someone who is worth being with even after everything that occurs in the film. She succeeds magnificently.
I cared for this couple. I wanted them to make it. It’s rare that you see characters as authentic as these, and the more you know about Taiwan, the more you’ll appreciate the film. It is equally rare to see movies that are this realistic. Chin and Lung experience circumstances that are entirely plausible, and their reactions, even the ones we wish they wouldn’t have, are equally understandable. The film is a lesson in the need for empathy for our fellow human beings, as well as a reminder that this quality is one of the earliest casualties in times of economic and social upheaval. The tendency to turn inward can be extremely powerful in dark times, and the film is a prayer that we can reverse this.
So, I hope people watch Taipei Story. If they do, they’ll see many things, including an intriguing look at Taiwan in transition, superb performances, and a story that makes you feel like few others do. You’ll also see one of the greats at work, for Edward Yang had a way with stories that few have matched since. He met complexity head on and was unafraid to hold a mirror up to society and ask people if they liked what they saw. Sure, too few took him up on the offer, but I have no doubt those that did - and that are willing to do so today - came out a little better than they were when they went in. Great films do that. (on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Criterion’s Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project Vol. 2)
*Taipei Story is in Mandarin and Hokkien with English subtitles.