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    1 / Contexts

    Straddling the historical, political, and cultural frontiers between the Japanese occupation and the nationalist incursion, City of Sadness proves a particularly dense, even baffling, film. One can hardly begin to appreciate its complexity without understanding the circumstances of the Taiwanese film industry, the historical situation of Taiwan, and the multiple rewritings of that history.

    The History of Taiwan

    Taiwan, originally named Tapanga by the aborigines, is an island initially inhabited by nine ethnic groups of aborigines belonging to the Malayo-Polynesian system. The island was later renamed Formosa by the Portuguese. Since the 6th century, Chinese have settled on the island. Because the Chinese government originally prohibited official settlement of the island, Chinese émigrés were either fugitives or poverty-stricken peasants from the south-coast provinces.

    With the coming of European imperialism to the Pacific, settlement of the island by both the Dutch and Spanish began in 1624, and the island entered its first period of colonial occupation. Han immigrants from mainland China played the role of mediators between the colonials and the aborigines. Like in many other colonized countries in Asia and Africa, the Western imperialists were interested only in colonial exploitation of the island’s resources. While Taiwan became a supplier of raw materials for the Dutch, the development of the island had to wait until 1661 when Taiwan fell under the control of the Chinese. During this period, the population of Chinese immigrants rose to nearly three million. At this time, Taiwan shifted from an “immigrant society” to a “native society” (the terms are from anthropologist Chen Qinan). Painstaking assimilation or integration among various clans and subethnic groups gradually occurred. Also, the Chinese government changed its prohibition policy and encouraged emigration to Taiwan. The aborigines during this period were either “assimilated” into the dominant Han culture or forced into the interior.

    In 1895, about the time of the birth of cinema, China ceded Taiwan to Japan at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War. At the advent of the 20th century, Taiwan entered another colonial period, gradually becoming what the Japanese Empire saw as a showcase of colonial modernity. During this time, infrastructure was built on the island, driven by colonial desires. The colonial government stepped up its rule in the early 1940s by forcing the Taiwanese to adopt Japanese names and speak only the Japanese language. To this day, many older people in Taiwan can speak Japanese and this is one of the many languages heard in City of Sadness. With Japan’s defeat and surrender Taiwan was passed on to the Nationalist government on the mainland. The Taiwanese celebrated their liberation from Japan, but it soon became clear that the Chinese authorities only intended to maintain the colonial structures of exploitation. When the Taiwanese rebelled in 1947, they were met with machine guns and mass arrests, known as the February 28 Incident.

    In subsequent years, Taiwan went through a series of economic and land reforms, gradually building a strong economy in spite of an authoritarian government. After Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), died, political and social reforms rapidly unfolded. In 1987 the martial law imposed by the Nationalists since 1947 was revoked, making it possible for writers and filmmakers to broach the subject of the February 28 Incident.

    The February 28 Incident

    World War II came to its bloody conclusion in 1945. Japan was reeling from its fifteen years of violent war as well as the atomic atrocities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the Allies’ earlier meeting in Cairo, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union officially agreed that Taiwan’s governing power should be resumed by China upon Japan’s surrender. On the 25th of December in 1945, the native-born Taiwanese cheerfully celebrated their reunion with mainland China, a scene literalized early in the film. Undoubtedly, they were anticipating the freedom and democracy that would be brought to the island along with the landing of the Nationalist government.

    In the course of fifty years of colonial rule by the Japanese and several decades of separation from China, Taiwan’s social, legal, and cultural system had evolved into something different than that of China in the 1940s. The most disparate conflict was in language. The official language in Taiwan had been Japanese during the colonial period, and most Taiwanese under fifty years of age could neither speak nor understand Mandarin, despite the fact that the provincial dialect, Taiwanese Amoy, shares the same writing style. Lacking a means of verbal communication—as well as a mutual understanding of cultural and social specificity—a deep-seated bigotry developed between the Taiwanese civilians and the new Nationalist government. The ensuing confusion and complexity is represented in a notable scene from City of Sadness where a conversation between two characters necessitates translations between four languages.

    Instead of resolving the tension, the Nationalist government exacerbated it through its authoritarian rule, depriving native Taiwanese of the right to share political power. Within two years after Taiwan’s return to China, Taiwanese had a taste of the Kuomintang (KMT) corruption that precipitated economic depletion. The spark for the massacre came when officials from the government tobacco monopoly, backed by about a dozen police, confiscated the goods of a woman selling smuggled cigarettes. The woman was mercilessly beaten by a policeman when she resisted their actions. Their brutality outraged bystanders, sparking clashes in which a man was killed. The next day—February 28, 1947—an incensed crowd gathered in the streets of Taipei, and subsequent rebellions erupted in many parts of the island. Martial law was declared, and troops fired on the crowds. The rebellion was ultimately suppressed, but the army followed up in subsequent days and months by arresting and executing those thought to be involved. Many of those killed were the island’s elites. This mass erasure of Taiwan’s political and intellectual leaders and their associates became known as the February 28 Incident, or 2.28 Incident, in Taiwanese history.

    With the lengthy Executive Yuan task force report on the February 28 Incident, which was released on its 45th anniversary in 1992, the KMT government admitted that its army killed an estimated 18,000 to 28,000 Taiwanese in the 1947 massacre. The report also amounts to an apology for government handling of the uprising and the subsequent four decades of Nationalist rule in Taiwan. Along with the release of the report, the taboo imposed upon the matter for four decades became a symbol for native-born Taiwanese of political struggle against the authoritarian government.

    Taiwan Cinema

    From the Birth of Cinema to the New Cinema

    Cinema arrived on the island of Taiwan in 1901. For the first twenty years, only the Japanese made documentaries and feature films. In order to keep the colonial structure intact, the Japanese excluded any Taiwanese actors until 1922 in a film called The Eyes of Buddha (Fotuo zhi tong 佛陀之瞳). The first film produced locally came in 1925 with Whose Fault Is It? (Shei zhi guo? 誰之過?). Gradually, a vertically integrated industry formed using Taiwanese talent and capital. This was, of course, tightly controlled by the Japanese, and the local films drew on Japanese conventions in the silent era. For example, the benshi, the narrator who sat next to the screen and supplemented the music and images in Japan, was adopted and retermed as bianshi (辯士) by the Taiwanese. They also used another Japanese convention called the rengasi (rensageki in Japanese), which was a curious hybrid of film and theater that used cinema to stage spectacles for the stage. The industry was interrupted in 1937 by the Sino-Japanese War, and virtually nothing was produced until after the Nationalist government took over the island in 1945.

    With the end of civil war in 1949, Shanghai filmmakers sympathetic to the Nationalists accompanied Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan, and after the economy stabilized these exiled filmmakers formed the heart of a new film community in Taiwan in the 1950s. Like other industries on the island, the film industry slowly developed in this period with the help of government subsidy. Mandarin and low-budget dialect films constituted the core of the nation’s film production. A bilingual film system only lasted for a short period. Dialect film production in Taiwanese soon declined for two reasons: (1) the government’s implementation of a new language policy that excluded local dialects in the public discourse, and (2) the low-budget fare of dialect films were outclassed by the government-subsidized Mandarin films.

    By the 1960s, modernization rapidly expanded on the island. Economic development, civil education, and industrialization were held as the major projects by the authorities. In 1963, the government’s Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC) introduced “healthy realist” pictures. These optimistic films, such as The Oyster Girl (Ke nü 蚵女, 1964) and Beautiful Ducklings (Yang ya ren jia 養鴨人家, 1965), upheld a new moral economy promoted by the party-state in contemporary society. Meanwhile, Taiwanese screens were still dominated by more popular genres such as martial arts and period pictures from Hong Kong. In addition, there were also romantic melodramas, usually based on the stories of a woman author named Qiong Yao (瓊瑤). The Qiong Yao romantic melodrama achieved huge popularity in the early 1970s, pushing the healthy realist pictures off the screen. The anxiety of reconciling modernity and tradition vis-à-vis rapid socioeconomic change was present in these melodramas, manifested through the conflict between the individual and society.

    Toward the end of the 1970s, another popular genre called “social realism” emerged. Films like The Queen Bee (Nüwang feng 女王蜂, 1981) and Revenge of Women (Nüxing de fuchuo 女性的復仇, 1981) featured sex, violence, and gang subcultures. The display of explicit violence and misogyny appeared to respond to government censorship of sexuality onscreen. This low-budget fare soon declined after the recycling of similar stories and banal spectacles of sex and violence.

    The Emergence of the New Cinema

    Beginning in the late 1970s, the local film industry was confronted with a set of challenges. Though Taiwanese society had been through tremendous changes in the previous decade, local cinema did not show an interest in making movies that were sufficiently topical. The audience gradually became tired of the standard commercial fare and its repetitive clichés. A related challenge to the film industry came from the popularity of home videos. Because the copyright law had only recently gone into effect, inexpensive, bootleg videos were a cheap form of entertainment; many households could easily rent or purchase videotapes of movies and television programs from the United States, Japan, and Hong Kong. The final challenge to Taiwanese film was the new cinema from Hong Kong. The Hong Kong New Wave had renewed Hong Kong cinema with generic innovations and star power. In the early 1980s, Hong Kong movies engulfed local films and became the mainstay of the film market.

    These financial pressures forced the industry to seek new ways of competing with Hong Kong films. The first initiatives were taken by CMPC with the support of fresh, young directors. Under the supervision of the CMPC, a portmanteau film called In Our Time (Guangyin de gushi 光陰的故事), composed of four distinct episodes by four new directors, was produced in 1982. It represented the first break with the old mode of filmmaking. The film is a review of social change in Taiwan over three decades. Unlike standard Taiwanese fare, this film cast non- or semiprofessional actors instead of famous stars and did not follow a traditional narrative structure or fit into any generic category. Because of these innovations, In Our Time is considered as a prelude to the New Cinema movement.

    Yet the New Cinema did not materialize until other innovative films appeared and achieved broader recognition. In 1983, Growing Up (Xiaobi de gushi 小畢的故事), directed by Chen Kunhou (陳坤厚) and produced by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and another portmanteau film entitled The Sandwich Man (Erzi de da wan’ou 兒子的大玩偶, directed by three young filmmakers, including Hou) attracted a great deal of attention. Composed of three distinct episodes, The Sandwich Man can be regarded as the hallmark of the movement. The film portrays Taiwan during the Cold War period when the country developed its economy with the assistance of aid from the United States.

    Despite the unifying focus on the workers, their misery, and their lack of social capital, each episode is different in style. The Sandwich Man attracted considerable attention in the local press, which viewed it as a break from mainstream cinema. With the commercial success and critical acclaim of Growing Up and The Sandwich Man, these new directors were granted opportunities to make more films.


    From 1983 through 1989, approximately ten filmmakers participated in this movement, each developing his (they are exclusively male) own particular style and making his own contribution to the New Cinema. For example, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s strongly autobiographical films—The Boys from Fengkuei (Fenggui lai de ren 風櫃來的人, 1983); A Time to Live and a Time to Die (Tongnian wangshi 童年往事, 1985); “Son’s Big Doll,” the first episode in The Sandwich Man (1983); A Summer at Grandpa’s (Dongdong de jiaqi 冬冬的假期, 1984); and Dust in the Wind (Lian lian fengchen 戀戀風塵, 1986)—reveal a realism that is startling in its authentic and artistic portrayal of rural life in Taiwan. Because of his unique observational, documentary-like style—the use of deep focus and long takes, nonlinear narrative, elliptical editing, and portrayal of the daily lives of the Taiwanese—Hou Hsiao-hsien has been acclaimed as the leading auteur of Taiwan cinema by local film critics. His personal victories on the international film festival circuit, including his receipt of the Golden Lion at Venice for City of Sadness, represented a triumph and vindication of the Taiwanese New Cinema.

    Fig. 2. Hou Hsiao-hsien starred in Edward Yang’s Taipei Story.
    Fig. 2. Hou Hsiao-hsien starred in Edward Yang’s Taipei Story.

    Another leading auteur of the New Cinema is Edward Yang. Regarded as Hou’s cinematic equal, Yang was remarkably different from Hou in terms of style and subject matter. Unlike Hou, who always focuses on males, childhood, adolescence, and rural life, Yang was concerned with women, the newly emerging middle class, and urban society. Yang made seven feature films: That Day, on the Beach (Haitan de yitian 海灘的一天, 1983), Taipei Story (Qingmei zhuma 青梅竹馬, 1985, which starred Hou), The Terrorizer (Kongbu fenzi 恐怖分子, 1986), A Brighter Summer Day (Gulingjie shaonian sharen shijian 牯嶺街少年殺人事件, 1991), A Confucian Confusion (Duli shidai 獨立時代, 1994), Mahjong (Majiang 麻將, 1996), and Yi Yi (Yiyi 一一, 2000). In these works, Yang consistently addressed the social and personal problems that confront the urban, intellectual, and cultural elite in the increasingly industrialized, Japanese-influenced, and Westernized Taipei.

    Because of Yang’s urban emphasis, the cinematic language he employed was similar to the modernist aesthetic associated with European art cinema. In discussing his work, critics often invoked Michelangelo Antonioni, an observation Yang detested. Detached camera movement, long takes, nonlinear narrative, multiple diegeses, location shots, and paratactic editing, were the hallmarks of Yang’s techniques. His skillful utilization of modernist tropes, sharp observations on Taiwan’s high-tech, capitalistic, alienated urban life, and retrospective look at the island’s tremendous social changes were also important elements in his films.

    Form and Substance

    New Cinema directors, all of whom grew up in the post–World War II era during Taiwan’s socioeconomic restructuring from an agricultural society to an industrialized and capitalist society, examined the various problems that the Taiwanese people had to cope with in an increasingly modernized society. In order to create a cinema that entailed a more realistic relationship with history and memory, most new films were shot on location. Under a similar notion, minor or nonprofessional actors were cast to evoke a more “true-to-life” atmosphere.

    Clearly influenced by Italian neorealism, the new directors were committed to a quasi-documentary style in their filmmaking. They drew deeply on their life experiences to construct their narratives and in their deployment of mise-en-scène. Their narratives often pitted the working or peasant classes against a background of deprivation and misery. Almost every new film tried to reconstruct history to some extent. The look at the rural, agricultural past was nostalgic; the view toward the urban, industrial present was bitter. As a result, a set of thematic binary pairs can often be found in these films: rural (backward, peaceful) vs. urban (advanced, turbulent); peasant/working class (innocent, benevolent) vs. middle class (sophisticated, manipulative); past (good) vs. present (bad).

    In addition to these themes, an unprecedented concern with the daily lives of local people has been shown by the new directors, particularly with respect to native cultures and languages. Because of the power struggle between the Chinese Communists and Nationalists over the four decades since World War II, the Nationalist Party insisted that the government in Taiwan represented the true China and, therefore, the real Chinese culture. Moreover, when the Nationalist army first came to Taiwan in 1945, a bloody conflict arose between the Taiwanese and the mainlanders, climaxing with the February 28 Incident. As a result, the government privileged the so-called Middle Kingdom, a culture developed by the Yellow River Valley inhabitants in China after 2000 BC, as the single culture that everyone in Taiwan must accept as their own; thus the native languages (Taiwanese Amoy, the major Fujian dialect spoken in Taiwan, and Hakka) and cultures were officially suppressed.

    The New Cinema directors responded to a rise in public consciousness to return to the native and regional cultures. They used actors who speak the Taiwanese Amoy dialect to portray real-life ordinary people. Hou Hsiao-hsien may be the filmmaker who has dealt most carefully with the trilingual phenomenon (Mandarin, Taiwanese Amoy, and Hakka) in Taiwan. His Summer at Grandpa’s, A Time to Live and a Time to Die, and City of Sadness present multiple dialects to oppose the government’s forced monolingualism.

    Another thematic reorientation by the Taiwan New Cinema was the direct reference to political and social taboos. Behind this phenomenon we may find the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the political, social, and diplomatic reform policies that followed, as well as growing demands for more radical reforms from civilian movements. Three films made in 1989—City of Sadness, Banana Paradise (Xiang jiao tian tang 香蕉天堂), and Gang of Three Forever (Tongdang wansui 童黨萬歲)—touched on political controversies that were considered highly sensitive and forbidden in public discourse before 1987.

    In addition to the realist approach to subject matter, the New Cinema stands out for an additional reason: its continuing effort to explore the medium’s specificity. Rather than conform to the myth that filmmaking should follow generic conventions to fulfill audience expectations, the new directors negotiated commercialism and art. They attempted to make films that sometimes agitated the audience, sometimes promoted thoughtful reflection.

    Clearly influenced by Western modernist movements, the narrative structure in these films is more fragmented than linear, the editing is more obtrusive than continuous, and sentimental expression has been suspended to block emotional identification. Offscreen sound has been used frequently to convey a sense of alienation (especially in the films of Hou and Yang); the frequent use of close-ups is replaced by long takes and long shots that make for a more distanced perspective. This is particularly clear in the manner in which scenes of action are constructed, as we argue below in our analysis of the representation of violence.

    However, differences exist among individual directors, even though most of them share a common purpose—exploring the full potential of filmmaking. Wan Ren, for example, despite his quite modernist approach, still emphasizes melodrama in his films. His first work, the episode in The Sandwich Man called “The Taste of Apples” (Pingguo de ziwei 蘋果的滋味), successfully conveys the bitter taste of the postcolonial mentality, not because of detached camerawork and fragmented narrative, but because of his use of conventional ways of creating dramatic ironies and comic effects. Another filmmaker, Zhang Yi, concentrates on depicting female psychology in a classical realist tradition. Jade Love (Yuqing sao 玉卿嫂, 1984) is one good example that shows his use of a classical realist narrative to articulate his criticism of feudal patriarchy.

    Rejecting the stereotypical concept of filmmaking dearly held by the veteran directors as commodity and as political propaganda, the New Cinema strives for medium specificity in documenting the social and cultural realities of Taiwan. Yet this bourgeois-humanistic ideology in redirecting the look of Taiwanese cinema did generate debates when a new critical regime came into power with the rise and success of the new films. The critical regime of critics trained in Western academic contexts contested the interpretive authority of veteran critics and their institutional territory, the newspaper column. Their attention to and support of the new filmmakers involved less of an ideological struggle (i.e., Westernized aesthetic taste) than a larger question of survival and of power over the discourse. As a result, it is not surprising to see that the attack on the new films came from the veteran critics. Based on the domestic commercial disasters of the most celebrated filmmakers, such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, who were criticized for their idiosyncratic and elitist taste, critics dismissed them as hardly relevant to the majority of working-class consumers.

    Although the veteran critics’ remarks can be easily dismissed for being simplistic and insensitive to artistic expression, it is exactly their take on the distinction between high art and low culture that provoked an interesting reconsideration of the New Cinema. As Taiwan approached the 21st century, the New Cinema almost became an obsolete term in discussing film in Taiwan. Given the fact that the New Cinema did not renovate the industry or build up a solid reservoir of domestic films to compete with commercial product, domestic filmmaking remained vulnerable. Taiwan’s film market continues to be dominated by Hollywood entertainment films. Many filmmakers who participated in the New Cinema have either ceased making films altogether or were recruited into television production. Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, on the other hand, became the most internationally celebrated Taiwanese filmmakers, as evidenced by Hou’s coups at the Venice Film Festival for City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster (Xi meng rensheng 戲夢人生, 1993).

    The question of how and why New Cinema was eventually rejected by the audience requires further investigation. The more productive and fruitful approach to examine this question will rely upon reconceptualizing our understanding of national cinema in Taiwan. The question of art cinema and popular cinema in relation to the industrial and commodity system in Taiwan seems to be the main issue underlying the many objections raised against the new directors, a consideration that has been ignored for too long and too easily. These are, of course, questions beyond the scope of the present project. By raising these issues, however, we hope to at least provide a provocative backdrop for our analysis of City of Sadness.

    The City of Sadness Controversy

    The rapid political and social restructuring of the late 1980s and the rescinding of martial law in 1987 gave the public an opportunity to pressure the government to disclose the files of the February 28 Incident. The dialogism surrounding the rewriting of the February 28 Incident has become a major discursive battlefield in many political debates. In 1992, in response to increasing demands, an official report was published in which the government admitted that its army killed an estimated 18,000 to 28,000 native-born Taiwanese in the 1947 massacre. This document not only acknowledged that corruption and misrule were fundamental causes for the riot but also overwrites the original official report published in 1947, The 2.28 Incident Investigation Report, which insists that the riot was instigated by the Chinese Communist Party and therefore justified the violent suppression as an unavoidable chapter in the continuing struggle against Communism.

    However, political scholars and historians from the opposition have indicated that despite its figures, the 400,000-word 1992 document is still written in the logic of historical determinism that refuses to acknowledge that the contradictions and strong arm of colonialism should be held responsible for the “unavoidable” conflict.

    In addition to the government’s report in 1992, other efforts at recollecting the memory and history of the incident have emerged. For example, a 686-page collection of eyewitness accounts and supporting documents was compiled by the Taiwan Provincial Historical Commission in November 1991. The multiple discourses competing for the legitimate authorship of documenting the February 28 Incident seem to imply the problematic of a total history and, consequently, the concomitant problematic of a total filmic representation of the February 28 Incident.

    Death of the New Cinema

    Death of the New Cinema, a book published in Chinese in 1991, provides an example of a counteranalysis of City of Sadness influenced by the exigencies of political debates. Given the success of City of Sadness and Hou’s status as the most renowned filmmaker in Taiwan, Death of the New Cinema was written by a marginalized group of film critics as an alternative voice to the unified critical discourse surrounding City of Sadness. They argued against City of Sadness for its ambiguous representation of Taiwan’s history from 1945 to 1949, and its depiction of the February 28 Incident in particular. The book argues that, rather than directly confronting the brutality of the Nationalist regime, the film displaces politics with individual romance, family saga, and a life-death cycle that seem to contribute to universal values rather than provoke political consciousness.

    Considering the specific historical, political, and critical contexts that mobilized farmers, workers, students, and intellectuals to engage with social movements on issues of ecology, labor unions, education, and politics in the late 1980s, it is not surprising to see a polemical counteranalysis like this emerging in film criticism. Although several articles in the book totally misread the film and end up stalled in a vulgar ideological cul-de-sac, the book’s overall attempt to destabilize the “legitimate” discourse of the New Cinema must be considered as an important register in formulating dialectical analysis about the new cinema itself, and the political and social reform in Taiwan at large.

    Hou’s distinct style and narrative structure in City of Sadness are not significant merely for their breathtaking aesthetic qualities. Imbricated in this style are discursive elements such as photography, sound, writing, and female voice-over that privilege the formation of a dialogue responding to the polysemy of this historical period’s recent reconstruction. The political context in late 1940s Taiwan leaves no space for militant resistance; the crackdown on Hinoe’s encampment in the narrative can be taken as a diegetic representation of historical fact. However, it is the nature of this representation of history, which its multiple levels of textuality—from mise-en-scène to sound to intertitles—that make City of Sadness an exceedingly complicated narration of the Taiwanese nation. Rather than directly competing with the pedagogical narration of the Nationalist regime in resisting their political hegemony, these discursive textualities formulate a double writing, as well as a challenge to the grand narrative of history.