When encountering a film as acclaimed as Hou's City of Sadness, the result is often respectful admiration rather than immediate emotional impact. This is especially true when the subject is historical material that you may not be familiar with. This was certainly the case when I watched my first Hou film, The Puppetmaster (1994), nearly a decade ago. However, City of Sadness, despite being difficult to fully comprehend and absorb on first viewing, has a rare affecting power to match its political and social insight.
Hou's patient style is crucial to this affect. The first hour of the film is the most difficult, as Hou is putting into play many of the characters and situations without the usual exposition that we expect from historical dramas. One reason for this is that Hou is clearly speaking directly to a Taiwanese audience that does not need this exposition. Made in 1989, shortly after the loosening of four decades of strict censorship and martial law, City of Sadness was one of the first films to deal with Taiwan's past (and was very successful commercially as a result). Although it has the feel of an epic of vast historical scope, the film actually takes place within a four year period. It begins with the end of World War II and Japanese rule in 1945 to the establishment of Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese nationalist government-in-exile in 1949 following the loss of mainland China to Communist forces. Hou concentrates on one family and how these historical events impact their lives. It reminded me of Tian Zhuang-Zhuang's The Blue Kite (1993), although usefully serving as a reminder that Chinese government oppression preceded the Communist rule.
The restraint Hou shows early in the film allows the last half of his work to have the force it does. The main event depicted, apparently for the first time in cinema history, is of the massacre of native Taiwanese committed by Kuomintang troops on February 28, 1947. But because of how Hou has quietly established the spaces of his characters, particularly the hallway of a hospital where two main characters work, he does not need to indulge in massive amounts of violent spectacle to have the desired visceral effect. Hou does not deviate from his long take, long shot approach, continuing to view the violence with the same perspective of the earlier scenes.
Adding to this distance is the lead character, played by Tony Leung, who is deaf and mute. All of his communication takes place through writing, which Hou renders through inter-titles, not unlike the style of silent films that he would later recreate more throughly in Three Times (2005). As many critics have noted, he becomes an audience surrogate, often forced to watch rather than influence events. It also brings a poignancy to his relationship with his leftist friend's sister, a romance that recalls the later work of Wong Kar-Wai. Leung's character is also a photographer, a chronicler of the personal histories, a role that extends to delivering news of the execution of fellow travelers to their loved ones. If he is an audience stand-in, he is also a representative of Hou himself.
When film critics and scholars discuss the most important artists of the last few decades, Hou and Abbas Kiarostami typically top the list, and despite their differecnes they both share an important quality. Like Kiarostami, Hou's distance does not result in alienation of feeling, but rather its intensification. Likewise, the small amount of actual violence shown does not mitigate the critique of oppression. Rather, it functions as an implicit statement against films that rely on gruesome extravagance. With City of Sadness, the result is an aesthetically beautiful film that uses its stylistic brilliance to convey its ideas about society and politics.