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Unveiled History of the Taiwanese in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness

Unveiled History of the Taiwanese in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film A City of Sadness (1989) is the first part of his Taiwan trilogy. The film is an attempt of the director to reveal historical events that took place in Taiwan during the middle of the former century (1945-49). Specifically, Ling (21) emphasizes that “the film A City of Sadness is a version of a narrative about the 228 Incident.” Scrutinizing the representation of history in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s approach, it is necessary to accentuate that “discussion of the 228 Incident is forbidden in the public media and daily conversation” (Ling 20). This fact is not surprising given that the silenced political event involved mass killings of the Taiwanese who came for a peaceful demonstration against the government in 1947 (Ling 20). In this regard, Jinhua informs that A City of Sadness “launched a clear political intervention in reality” (243). Simultaneously, “the lack of reliable and authentic evidence of the past event, the contemporary political situations also made the telling of 228 Incident a big puzzlement” (Ling 21). In a word, even though this film is attributed to the genre of a historical drama, it differs from a typical description of historic events (Ling 23). This paper is aimed to detect narrative and supportive technical strategies that are utilized by Hou Hsiao-hsien with the purpose to reveal the authenticity of events in the conditionof missing historical evidence, which affected the national awareness of the Taiwanese.

To begin with, it is appropriate to refer to political events that underlie the discussed film. For example, Jinhua reveals that:

A City of Sadness lifted the curtain of taboo covering the great scar in Taiwan’s   history: February 28, 1947, when the KMT government killed thousands of civilians    in order to put down an uprising. It is in fact the first Taiwan film in the post-Cold War construction and deconstruction of the nation-state narrative (246).

In such circumstances, the film director pursues a challenging goal: to deliver both internal and external struggle of the Taiwanese. This approach predefines the need to overcome “the tension between official history and popular memory” (Lin 234). This paper will illustrate the remedies and strategies utilized by Hou Hsiao-hsien to achieve his aspirations. As many other artists, Hou is quite sensitive to collective identity, popular culture of the audience, and thus he can choose the best ways of fulfilling their demand. In particular, one should understand people’s endeavor to write “the self into history” (Lin 234). In this regard, A City of Sadness is the author’s attempt to help the Taiwanese localize their culture despite the expanding tendency of a globalized culture. The process of promoting for national awareness stipulated the emergence of the Taiwanese New Cinema in the 1980s (Lin 234). Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films are aligned with the mainstream tendency in cinematography and, simultaneously, they are stand-alone projects that caught the attention of international critics. Several examples retrieved from the discussed film to detect the reasons of its uniqueness and success are provided below.

Hou Hsiao-hsien develops narration through the image of the Lin family. The central role is given to Lin Wenqing (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a deaf and dumb photographer married to a nice woman, Kuanwei. This hero was not disabled at his early childhood; therefore, he managed to learn reading and writing. Thanks to this ability, he is capable of communicating with his wife and the rest of people. The use of speech impairment of the main hero was aimed to show silenced political and social issues, which, nevertheless, start to become prominent and vocalized. Undoubtedly, the image of Lin Wenqing is quite important in the film since it symbolizes the Taiwanese nation that has been witnessing their unfair political events for many years without any ability to reveal their attitude and resentment to those events.

In this regard, Wenqing’s profession, a photographer, is not an arbitrary choice. Instead, the film director selects the proper profession for his protagonist. Being a photographer means being attributed to the media, which also silenced the events. Wenging takes pictures, thus, imprinting historic events piece by piece. In this regard, the main hero is a direct witness of the incidents; however, he can neither learn more about those events nor reveal them to others. Therefore, it is possible to presume that this character embodies the Taiwanese nation during and after the 228 Incident.

Nonetheless, at the end of this film, the audience starts to understand that the handicapped protagonist is, in fact, capable of turning from a silent viewer to an individual who endeavors to shape the existing reality. For example, being imprisoned, Lin Wenqing writes a note to his family: “when I am dead, I belong to the beautiful future of my country” (Jinhua 246). In addition, the inmate claims that that his wife and son can be proud of him because he will die as an innocent person (246). Hou Hsiao-hsien constructs a parallel between the mass killings along with the corresponding censorship and the spirit of a warrior that was inherited by Lin Wenqing from his ancestry. In this way, the limited psychical abilities of the main hero embody the hurt and humiliated Taiwanese nation, which managed to stand for its freedom.

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While discussing Hou Hsiao-hsien’s approaches towards depicting the historical changes in the Taiwanese community, it is important to stress that the film displays two viewpoints: macro- and microhistory (Hung 4). Macrohistory refers to the general course of development of a nation at the international political stage. At the same time, A City of Sadness reveals considerable internal shifts in the national awareness of the Taiwanese. Drawing a parallel between the two contexts, Lin (234) emphasizes that the Taiwanese citizens strive to localize their culture and thus find, construct and shape their national identity. Similarly, Hung (13) argues that “women are attempting to “enter” history.” These two premises illustrate the process of change at the national macro and microlevels that the citizens undergo simultaneously. In this regard, it is natural to deduce that A City of Sadness represents a simultaneous approach towards preserving the local culture and embracing the life of the external world that grants women with greater power.

Hou Hsiao-hsien draws attention to the fact that in the Asian culture, females are usually depicted as passive participants of political, cultural, and private events (Hung 58). To be more precise, the film director strives to replace this mode of representation by depicting the meaningful role of women in the Taiwanese society. In these terms, the major female character in A City of Sadness is Kuanmei (Hsin Hsu-fen), the wife of the protagonist, Lin Wenqing. The image of Kuanmei is full of contrasts. On the one hand, she is portrayed as a housewife, which is a typical position of a Taiwanese woman. This character fits the realities of the discussed nation, which means that Hou Hsiao-hsien gives much attention to the both historical aspects of societal changes: macro- and microlevels of the Taiwanese national awareness.

On the other hand, the main female character of A City of Sadness is represented as a connector between her dumb and deaf husband and the rest of the world. In this way, Hou Hsiao-hsien utilizes Kuanmei as a remedy to convey his message to the audience (Hung 71). This idea suggests that, despite being on the suburbs of history, females are given an important role in this discussed film.

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Another example that proves the crucial role of Kuanmei as a messenger in A City of Sadness is that she is the narrator, the one whose voice the audience hears while viewing this film. The woman writes notes in her diary; the dates lack chronological order, but they are all meaningful in expressing the life of a woman in a broader political context as well as in a narrower, private viewpoint. For instance, Kuanmei narrates her life story, connecting it to the political events that took place in her state. In this regard, one should refer to a spot created by Hou Hsiao-hsien to reinforce the meaning of the main heroine’s words. Specifically, at the beginning of the film, one may observe a shot which depicts a family going down the road, while the voice of Kuanmei narrates her feelings about the life situation (7.10: 7.47). The voice in this long episode shows that she is happy to anticipate the positive implications of the changes undergone by her family.

This long non-edited shot reveals a serpentine road that leads the Lin family to a new life. This strategy is utilized to display uneasy historic events that not only the depicted family but the entire Taiwanese nation was supposed to come through. What is more, the camera is in front of these people, which means that the audience does not know what is in front of them. In other words, the future is represented as a hidden and unclear object. This strategy accentuates the sense of uncertainty and worries that are supposed to occupy the minds of travelers even though this aspect is not directly vocalized.

Hence, there is an air of sadness in the woman’s calm and tender voice, which corresponds to the title of the film and stresses the topics it evokes. In other words, Kuanmei is sad and hopeful at the same time. There is probably no better description of the nation that undergone repressions and lack of liberties in the past. In spite of previous misfortunes, the Taiwanese nation strives to move forward to an unknown future. In this way, Hou Hsiao-hsien effectively blends the macro- and microhistories of the nation.

The choice of the female character as a narrator is the best fit because it allows achieving the author’s goals, which are strongly related to pathos appeals. Without a doubt, using the image of a tender loving woman to evoke the viewers’empathy and thus increase their interest in the film is a well-thought approach of Hou Hsiao-hsien. In these terms, some critics argue that Kuanwei is used merely as a mode to narrate micro-and macrohistory in a way that triggers empathy and compassion towards the Taiwanese (Hung 73). Nevertheless, this paper advocates an idea that the director  endeavors to alter and increase the role of women in Taiwan. This approach is realized by the aforementioned well-crafted positive image of Kuanwei, her pleasant voice, and the type of narration that is simultaneously hopeful and lacking a clear vision of how the future should be developed to fulfill the needs of her family.

Moreover, the discussed spot, as well as other scenes in A City of Sadness, is accompanied with the pleasant music that is aligned with the femininity of voice and narrative tone. This is another example why the female character in the film should not be considered merely as a means of delivering the main ideas. On the contrary, Kuanwei is a focalizer, who encourages viewers to continue the change from being submissive to becoming independent objects and creators of their own life-path and well-being.

In this regard, there is a monologue that depicts a story about a young woman who kills herself not to be conquered by the aging. Consider an example, “in the Meiji Era, a woman killed herself by flinging herself into a waterfall. She wasn’t tired of life. She hadn’t lost the will to live. She just couldn’t face the loss of her youth. Once lost, nothing means anything” (30. 17: 30.51). Hou Hsiao-hsien deploys the motives of folklore to point to a similarity between the female’s inner struggle and the struggle of the Taiwanese nation.

The present story is narrated by Kuanwei’s tender and feminine voice in the same ambivalent tone of blended sadness and approval. Further, the moral of this story is revealed: “…to all young people…during the Meiji Era. A time of idealism and heroic spirit. The flowers hither and thither. And I’ll soon follow them. The same will come to pass for us all” (31.26). This allegory conveys the message that the spirit of heroism is an essential determinant of the Taiwanese culture. Consequently, all the beauty and respect come from the sense of braveness.

The idea about a strong spirit and heroism is rather time-sensitive. Specifically, the urge to localize the culture with the purpose to conserve authenticity in spite of the global tendency towards cultural penetration requires certain anchors. In other words, it needs determinants which can be utilized to depict the Taiwanese people. Besides, the citizens need to know what personal characteristics they must possess to ensure that their individual and collective selves are well-aligned. In this regard, the film director proposes a concrete answer to this question. The growing generation needs to adopt the spirit of braveness of their ancestry.

An interesting peculiarity is that the notion about the heroic spirit is revealed through the image of a young female rather than a male warrior. This choice complies with the feminine tone of A City of Sadness and the image of Kuanwei, the focalizer. This strategy illustrates the author’s endeavor to cover both political and individual historical realms of the Taiwanese.

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Furthermore, to reveal the macro-economic context of the historical processes, Hou Hsiao-hsien applies the theme of education as a means to show enlightenment of the nation (13.10: 13.30). Thus, there is a scene that depicts a lesson where children are being taught reading. At first sight, there is no logical connection between the discussed events and this shot. Hence, considering that the information about the 228 Incident was hidden and/or distorted (Ling 20), this scene is a metaphor of the director. Specifically, in this way, A City of Sadness shows that the Taiwanese were armed with skills to learn about that horrible political event due to advanced education and liberated information about the true historic events.

Moreover, the scene is depicted from aside, which implies that a viewer, who perceives the reading lesson, is not directly involved in this process. This idea is in compliance with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s background since he does not belong to the Taiwanese (Ling 21). Besides, this means of representing the enlightenment of the nation is more convenient for the audience, the majority of whom is not directly involved in the described political events.

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Although the narrative and technical strategies that are used by the director to describe the historical events that took place at the breakthrough of the national awareness of the Taiwanese, some critics argue that this film lacks a clear historical ground. For example, after conducting a thorough analysis of the discussed film and later works of the director, Jinhua (249) concludes that Hou Hsiao-hsien is “caught in the struggle between history and reality.” Moreover, it is appropriate to emphasize that struggle and certain fuzziness of the narration may occur due to the fact that this film director was not a direct witness of the events covered in A City of Sadness. The fact is that “the KMT is involved in enabling and disabling writings of the Incident –for example, making available some but not all documents, producing official versions, or commissioning some other unofficial ones” (Ling 21). Besides, not being a Taiwanese and struggling to find the direct evidence of those events, Hou Hsiao-hsien realizes that the excessive use of allegories and pathos appeals may replace the missing elements of the puzzle.

Given the circumstances (the lack of testimony of mass killings), this approach is justified. Another important choice that helped conceal the missed testimony is the choice of narration. Using non-chronological narration that comes as a first-person description of the life in a diary is a good way to avoid challenges that are caused by missed information.

In these conditions, it is not surprising that this film receives much criticism since it does not directly describe the events of the 228 Incident. For instance, there is a corresponding opinion that “Hou did not experience the heartbreaking February 28 Incident himself; he lacks historical knowledge and can only rely on his collaborators” (Hung 1). Evaluating the plot, one should admit that this point of view is correct. Hence, it is important to remember about the circumstances which predefined the lack evidence.

What is more, even the critics of A City of Sadness admit that it is well-constructed in terms of meeting the demand of viewers (Hung 1). Specifically, the director succeeds in finding the effective means of communication with the viewers. Indeed, the choice of words in the narration is well-crafted. Listening to the melodic voice of Kuanwei, one can hardly believe that an average person is able to put her story into words in such a professional mode. In this regard, one should point out that the narration is conducted in a literary style; it is not a colloquial speech, which is more common for movies, especially while enlightening the aspects of personal experience and expectations for the future. Thus, this particularity is another piece of evidence that proves the proper choice of narration –a diary style, which implies that certain parts of written revelations could be revised or well-thought before being revealed to the public.

Summing up the above-mentioned analysis, it is appropriate to stress that A City of Sadness by Hou Hsiao-hsien is a historical drama that can be attributed to the Taiwanese New Cinema, which emerged during the 1980s. The cinematography of this time is characterized by a shift in the self-awareness of the Taiwanese. In addition, it depicts the conflicts between the inherited burden of the past popular culture and the new encouraging realities for increased liberty. At the same time, A City of Sadness is a stand-alone project that makes an excessive use of allegories and the first person narration, which is done in the form of well-thought diary stories written in a literature style. Such an interesting approach towards depicting historical events is a distinguishing characteristic of the film. Besides, Hou Hsiao-hsien utilizes the female character as a focalizer, who depicts the story and evokes viewers’empathy. This unique approach is stipulated by the lack of direct evidence of the underlying events (mass killings of the Taiwanese demonstrators by their government). Despite the fact that this peculiarity evokes much criticism, Hou Hsiao-hsien succeeds in attracting audience’s attention towards the process of reshaping the national identity of the Taiwanese people.