What you need to know
'A City of Sadness' is not only one of Taiwan's most renowned films, but also a great way to learn about the island.
By Anthony Kao
Let’s say you are someone cares about Taiwan and you had to pick only one movie from the island to watch. What should it be?
Our answer: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (侯孝賢) 1989 historical drama "A City of Sadness," which follows a family’s experiences during the infamous 228 Incident.
But why should you watch this movie from 30 years ago about a historical event? Here are five reasons.
1. It’s a great intro to Taiwan’s modern history
The 228 Incident — a 1947 uprising of native Taiwanese against Chinese Nationalist (KMT) authorities that came to the island after WWII — is one of Taiwan’s most important historical events. During 228, KMT troops killed between 18,000 and 28,000 Taiwanese, ushering in a period of repression known as the White Terror that lasted until 1987 and defined Taiwan’s political landscape.
"A City of Sadness" is the first movie to address the 228 Incident. When the movie came out, the KMT was still in power, and nobody had been allowed to talk publicly about 228 for 40 years — much less make a movie about it.
Ever been to 228 Peace Memorial Park in Taipei? Heard of the 2005 “228 Hand-in-Hand Rally” in which 2 million people formed a 500 km human chain from one end of Taiwan to another?
You can probably thank "A City of Sadness" for those, because it got people talking again about a suppressed part of Taiwan’s past.
Understanding modern Taiwan’s history requires understanding 228, and “A City of Sadness” is a great place to start.
2. You will learn why bringing up Taiwan’s past can get touchy
Resurrecting memories about an incident in which different segments of a society killed each other is bound to ruffle some feathers.
Hou premiered “A City of Sadness” outside Taiwan in part to mitigate potential interference by KMT authorities, who would likely find it embarrassing. When it won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival, "A City of Sadness" became too famous to silence and went on to be a box-office hit at home.
But not everyone was satisfied.
Though “A City of Sadness” was the first film to ever depict 228, it does so in a rather indirect way. The film constantly implies that violence is happening, but never shows it in the foreground. For example, in one scene, a character languishes in prison and his cellmates are taken out to be shot — but the actual execution takes place offscreen.
As such, some Taiwanese criticized “A City of Sadness” for being too muted. These critics felt that the film didn’t go far enough in confronting the KMT regime’s brutality by choosing to frame 228 in less politically inspiring terms of family dynamics and romance.
Regardless of where your own sympathies and opinions lie, watching “A City of Sadness” will give you a feel for all the different ways that people, even to this day, disagree about how to tell the story of Taiwan’s past.
3. It reveals the complexities of Taiwanese identity
“A City of Sadness” is a film that reveals Taiwan’s social divisions but also reminds us that those divisions aren’t black and white.
The most simplistic way to divide Taiwan’s society is into native Taiwanese (“benshengren,” whose families were on Taiwan pre-WWII) and mainlanders (“waishengren,” whose families came over to Taiwan with the KMT after WWII) — which happen to be the two “sides” of 228.
Within that framework, one could say "A City of Sadness" is a movie about native Taiwanese — after all, its protagonist family falls into that category. Most of the film’s dialogue is either in Taiwanese dialect (distinct from Mandarin) or Japanese (Taiwan was a Japanese colony between 1895 to 1945), since that’s what native Taiwanese at the time generally spoke.
One of the film’s most poignant scenes reveals the intimate linkages between language and Taiwanese identity. During this scene, a group of native Taiwanese accosts a deaf-mute character (also native Taiwanese) on a train. Trying to root out mainlanders to enact revenge on, they ask the deaf-mute character to speak either Taiwanese or Japanese — languages that mainlanders wouldn’t know. Unable to hear, he at first says nothing before haltingly blurting “I’m Taiwanese” when he realizes what’s happening.
From all this, you might think that the director, Hou, is native Taiwanese. You would be wrong. Hou was actually born in Guangdong to a family of mainlanders who fled to Taiwan in 1948 along with the KMT.
Though 228 commemorations and usage of the Taiwanese dialect are often associated with Taiwan independence advocates, Hou is anything but. He has collaborated extensively with Chinese filmmakers, including on his latest film "The Assassin," which touches upon reunifying a secessionist region of Tang-era China with the central government.
This shows that while “A City of Sadness” highlights the different groups that make up contemporary Taiwanese society, it also teaches us that these groups aren’t absolutes. Just because someone’s a mainlander doesn’t mean they can’t be horrified about 228; and just because someone is native Taiwanese doesn’t mean they automatically support Taiwan independence. Whatever being “Taiwanese” is, it’s much more complex.
4. It marks a rebirth of Taiwanese cinema
During the White Terror from 1947 to 1987, Taiwanese cinema was subject to government censorship and restrictions on the usage of Taiwanese dialect in dialogue. Action flicks and romantic melodrama replaced socially conscious artistic films during this era, and almost no films gained recognition outside the Chinese-speaking world.
However, in the 1980s, Taiwan became to democratize, and its film industry underwent a phase called the Taiwanese New Wave in which a new class of young directors started making films that gave a more realistic, localized portrayal of Taiwanese life.
Hou was one of these young directors, and "A City of Sadness" was the first of these New Wave films to gain significant foreign accolades from foreign critics and festivals. This recognition validated the efforts of New Wave directors and established Taiwanese cinema as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.
If you have enjoyed more recent Taiwanese movies like "Cape No. 7" or "Monga," you can partially thank "A City of Sadness" for making them possible. Many of Taiwan’s post-2000 directors cut their teeth under New Wave directors like Hou — an opportunity they might not have had if "A City of Sadness" bombed and the New Wave fizzled into obscurity.
5. You can sound really cultured after watching it
Cinema Escapist is probably not the only website who would recommend "A City of Sadness" as a must-see movie for anyone who really cares about Taiwan.
If you ever take a class about Taiwanese literature, film or culture, stick around in some Taiwanese cultural organization long enough, or talk with other people interested in (or from) Taiwan, this movie will inevitably come up. I guarantee it.
So rather than being clueless in those situations, why not watch the film first (or go back and re-read this article so you can at least have some basic talking points)? It will help you understand Taiwan through a new, richer lens, and give you brownie points for sounding really cultured.
This article was originally published in Cinema Escapist as "Why anyone who cares about Taiwan should watch “A City of Sadness" and has been edited by The News Lens.
Editor: Olivia Yang