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A City of Sadness is an epic historical Taiwanese drama, the first film to deal with the events of so-called Incident 228 and White Terror. It is obvious that the director had to stay out of strong political criticism making the film, as it was still 1989. He tries to show the White Terror in a neutral way giving an example of the life of one extended family. He shows the family in the 1940s covering several years and jumping from older events to the subsequent years. Zhang Yimou would later make something similar related to Chinese history in his To Live (1994). While Zhang Yimou is showing the resilience of Chinese people, Hou charges his feature-length film with the fear, becoming an essential part of people's everyday life. A City of Sadness recreates the events of the 1940s where corruption was under control, and everybody could have been arrested for far-fetched accusations for bonds with guerillas or without any accusations at all. The life of The Lin family we see on the screen is destroyed by the Terror, as one brother dies at the war, the other one is assassinated, the third one suffers brain injury and the last one gets arrested.
Many episodes focus at the protagonists whispering or speaking silently to show everybody is under surveillance. They are afraid of talking since you can get arrested for anything. This is probably why Hou shoots very often through the doors like somebody is always watching while people talk or ruminate. The director makes a great and ironical move introducing the protagonist Wen-ching (portrayed by Tony Leung Chiu-wai). Wen-ching is deaf-mute, and it seems like this the way one can take the things better - not hearing what is happening around and not sharing the opinion. However, Wen-ching gets arrested several times before he finally disappears in the jails. Moreover, the director uses Wen-ching to illustrate the linguistic conflict of post-war times, which was another part producing tension in Taiwan. The irony is that the dialogues in A City of Sadness are present in 5 languages and different dialects, while the protagonist is both deaf and mute to understand it.
Despite the fear and horror we observe, one can hardly say that Hou Hsiao-hsien judged those times very harshly. It is obvious, we see that the events of suppression were awful and it led many families to collapse. However, it was the price the nation had to pay to become stable. The price was certainly too high from the modern point of view, but Hou Hsiao-hsien doesn't give us a strict answer on how to take it. He only acts as a chronicler depicting the drastically important historical events of Taiwan in a perfect way, with dim colours and severe atmosphere of fear. A City of Sadness is a long thought-provoking film disclosing the establishment of Taiwanese nation after the II World War, and it is certainly worth watching, from the historical perspectives.
I've sat through many slow, monotonous art films, but this is another level of boring.
9 8 8 9 9 10 9 9 9 9 = 89
This strong and resonant historical drama moves with a deliberate pace and takes a good time to shape what it wants to say and find a focus, but the waiting is more than worth it and the result full of significance, even if it may be hard for the viewers to follow its intricate narrative.
beautiful family saga
One of the only films I've ever seen in which I required access to a synopsis through the entirety of the PICTURE, but it was worth it. Hou is a completely unique filmmaker, Dawg.
I love films like this. It's a glimpse at the lives of normal people living through major historical events. I find them engrossing as you feel their struggles and heartbreaks. Combining that with excellent acting and filmaking, A City of Sadness is easily one of the best films to come out of Taiwan.
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This movie started a movement in the Taiwanese film world (the New Wave), and I can see why. The entire style of the movie, from cinematography, camerawork, and candid dialogue, places viewers right into the time of early Japanese post-colonialism in Taiwan. The minimalist lighting and natural setting takes away from the superficial, set-up world of many studio films. The sometimes agonizingly long pans of long shots seems to push audience members away from being "involved" in the story line of the movie, but in doing so, it actually reveals a candid quality--like being a fly on the wall, watching quietly as events unfold. If you're accustomed to watching lots of studio films, however, this movie can take some getting-used to. As the film progresses, viewers are aware of each character's role in the story and what their relationship is to one another, but characters are difficult to relate to and there's little space for "development," characters don't really transform over time--they sort of are just there--living their lives (which is a hallmark of Taiwanese New Wave films). However, A City of Sadness really set the standard to films that tell it like it is. In fact, when comparing this film to Ang Lee's "Lust Caution" (with the same male lead actor), very direct parallels can be made.
Depressingly boring and full of unexplained references that would be unknown to someone unfamiliar with Taiwanese history, as well as actions that aren't conveyed through film as well as they should be. I also found the style of filmmaking to be dated, with more in common with something by Ozu than a film from the 80s, and while it's not a bad thing I can't help but feel it should have been more. It's by no means a bad movie, but I would be hard pressed to call it one of the best movies ever made.