Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness, released in 1989, was the first Taiwanese film to deal with the “White Terror” that Chiang-kai-shek’s Kuomintang imposed upon Taiwan. In that sense, it is a politically courageous work, but it also happens to be beautifully made and moving to watch.
This film has a large cast of characters, but it mainly revolves around three brothers: Wen-heung (Sung Young Chen), Wen-leung (Jack Kao), and Wen-ching (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who live in a port city in northeastern Taiwan. In the film’s opening scene, we hear the radio broadcast of Hirohito announcing Japan’s surrender, ending World War II, while a woman is giving birth. The symbolism of this is obvious: Taiwan, which has long been under Japanese occupation, is being reborn. Hope, however, soon turns to bitterness. The allies, without consulting the Taiwanese, turn the island over to China, which was then under the control of Chiang, who placed the country under the rule of his general, Chen Yi. The latter begins dismissing Taiwanese from government positions and replacing them with mainland Chinese. This, combined with rampant corruption, causes resentment from the people that ultimately explodes into violence.
During the Japanese occupation, the brothers’ father resorted to criminal activity to support his family. After the war, Wen-heung tries to run a legal business. Wen-leung, however, becomes involved with smugglers from Shanghai. Wen-ching, who is deaf, works as a photographer. Although the brothers are non-political, they are eventually drawn into – and ultimately destroyed by – the political convulsions wracking their country. (Trotsky: “One cannot live without politics any more than one can live without air.”)
A City of Sadness has a non-linear narrative that can be hard to follow sometimes. Nevertheless, if you stay with it, this film is deeply rewarding to watch.