A City of Sadness (1989) is a landmark film in the Taiwanese New Wave as it was the first film made in Taiwan that dealt with the 2-28 Incident and the beginning of Martial Law in 1949 that didn’t end until 1987. Hou Hsiao-Hsien made this film after directing nine features in Taiwan and was awarded the prestigious Golden Lion at the 1989 Venice Film Festival. A City of Sadness was written by two key screenwriters from the Taiwanese New Wave: Chu Tien-wen and Wu Nien-Ju, both of whom worked with Hou and Edward Yang (the other great director from this film movement) before and after A City of Sadness. The first film of a trilogy by Hou that would deal with Taiwan’s tragic past (followed by The Puppetmaster (1993) and Good Men, Good Women (1995)), A City of Sadness does the seemingly impossible task of distilling an unrepresentable experience into the fate of one family struggling to make sense of their situation following WWII.
Hou opens with the Japanese ceding control of Taiwan to Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Government and introduces us to four brothers of the Lim family. The eldest is Lim Wen-heung (played by Chen Yung-sung) who runs the family business, a restaurant called “Little Shanghai” and a miniscule trading company; second in line is Lim Wen-sung who was a doctor before being drafted by the Japanese in WWII and disappeared in the Philippines during the war; third is Lim Wen-leung (Jack Gao) who has returned from WWII with debilitating mental problems and ends up joining a Shanghai mob; and the fourth is Lim Wen-ching (played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai) a deaf and mute photographer, the black sheep of his family and has strong left-wing beliefs. Hou moves between the Wen-heung’s business problems and Wen-leung’s perils and Wen-ching’s affiliation with left-wing dissidents and his romance with Hinomi (played by Hsin Hsu-fen), who works as a nurse and provides the narrative locus for the film. Her voice-over structures the narrative and delivers key plot information throughout the film.
One of the most fascinating aspects of A City of Sadness is how Hou is able to represent Taiwan’s existential crisis allegorically through the Lim family’s struggles. Rather than transpose the narrative strategies of written history, Hou distills the existential anguish that is Taiwan’s history — a nation that was violently tossed around from world power to another — into a family drama, inviting viewers to identify with these images, an allegorical strategy that makes sense of senseless past. Wen-heung’s livelihood as a small-time business owner is constantly being thrown into disarray by either the changing policies from the government-in-transition or the politically connected Shanghai mobsters. His struggles to maintain his business and provide for his family are always already contextualized by the political and social turmoil of Taiwan as a nation. Wen-leung’s mental disability from shell-shock scrambles around trying to eek out an existence, a living example of the way war inscribes itself onto bodies. His shell-shock is yet another allegory for Taiwan itself as a nation being constantly bombarded by superpowers. Wen-ching, deaf and mute, a sensitive soul with leftist sympathies is yet another analogue for the nation of Taiwan. A figure that is silenced, unable to speak because of a past trauma who struggles to negotiate the treacherous contemporary chaotic terrain and find peace and dignity.
Hou allegorical strategy is coupled with his trademark narrative ellipsis, a distinctive style used here to elude to historical trauma rather than directly re-enact it. The infamous 2-28 Incident (the name used by the Kuomintang to describe this massacre) was a short anti-government uprising that began with a 40 year-old widow (Lin Jiang-mai) who was selling illegal cigarettes. When she demanded the Tobacco Agents return her cigarettes pulled a gun to her head which attracted hoards of bystanders to come to her aid. The Taiwanese were already disgruntled because of high unemployment, corruption of the Nationalist government, and inflation that this struggle functioned as a catalyst for the citizens to express their rage. One person was accidentally killed and the following day anti-government forces rallied together, gaining control of Taipei in protest. Eventually the Kuomintang cracked down on the revolt, imprisoning all of the rebel leaders he could find and left-wing intellectuals associated with anti-government activities and sentiments. The total death toll remains a mystery but estimates vary from 10,000 to 30,000.
Depicting this massacre might fall into the category of intolerable images wherein artistic representation is understood as trivializing an event that cannot be captured by images or any sort of representation alone. Reality is always a surplus that images cannot fully render. Or depicting the 2-28 Massacre could be construed as intolerable in another sense: the images are too real and shocking for spectators to see, especially one such as this which became a taboo topic for the Taiwanese, an event that was officially acknowledged by the government until 1995, six years after A City of Sadness was released. Hou treats the material with tact but doesn’t suppress the anguish and pain that this event caused. He shows the effects in nearby spaces and the way the massacre altered the existence of every Taiwanese citizen irrespective of politics. The massacre is a primal scene, a historical trauma whose effects were felt much long after.
The film ends with Hinomi, who has now married Wen-ching, writing her relatives about her husbands capture. Because of Wen-ching’s affiliations with left-wing dissidents the government imprisoned him. Wen-ching’s fate allegorizes the fate of so many Taiwanese who struggled against their situation in the hopes of a better nation. At this point in Taiwan’s history there was no hope in sight so it would have been dishonest for Hou to hint at utopian potentials. The film ends as it began, with overwhelming sadness.