#879 Taipei Story
1985 // Taiwan // Edward Yang
Criterion Collection (LINK)
A City of Disillusion
Taipei Story, the second feature by the Taiwanese auteur Edward Yang, has been Yang’s most obscure work to see for quite some time due to its inaccessibility. Unless screened in film festival, one could only find the film in a extremely fuzzy quality of video bootleg format. Thankfully, the newly 4K restored version of Taipei Story by the World Cinema Project is an eye-opener. The once “unwatchable” night scenes of Taipei, the deserted dark road and hanging street lamp, the heavy traffic and neon billboard sign, are now absorbing and dazzling in looking. Hence we could at last fully appreciate the portrait of the city as Yang’s intended.
The fabulous tracking shot following the bikers roaming on the night roadway alongside buildings with glaring signs of words of “Republic of China” is mesmerising, it very much alludes to the traffic shots in Fellini’s Roma (1972). But the Taipei in Yang’s illustration is stripped of the ostensible glamorous, it’s a city displaced in time. The mottled exterior of the old mansions unveiled at dark by the travelling headlights of cars is the evidence of the past, while the ubiquitous tall buildings form an uncharacteristic network of a modernised city. Under this conflicting nature of city, the protagonists are stuck in its time and space.
Lung (played by Hou Hsiao-hsien, another prominent figure in the New Taiwanese Cinema as a director) recently moved back from Los Angeles, is now finding a new flat with his “childhood sweetheart” (the literal translation of the Chinese film title) Chen (Tsai Chin) in the opening scene of the film. The relationship of the adult couple, as in other Yang’s films like That Day on the Beach (1991) and The Terrorizers (1986), is alienated and lack of solid foundation, and either or both would resort to their previous lover as a recall to the unalterable past. Lung is still in contact with his schoolmates Gwan (Ke Su-yun) who lives in Tokyo and has already had a baby from a now-divorced marriage. On the other hand, Chen has an intimate relationship with her architect colleague Mr. Ke (Ke I-cheng) who is married. There is no satisfaction in the relationship, and Lung is constantly gloomy in looking.
It’s the future that is their major concern, yet Lung still clinging on his past as a little league baseball player. He now works at a cloth-selling shop (not textile business as he insists during a conversation), and has intention to emigrate to America where his sister and mother are settled down already. But he gives the emigration money to Chen’s alcoholic, failed businessman father (Wu Ping-nan) for paying back the loan sharks. How determined for Lung to move forward and leave Taiwan behind? Hou Hsiao-hsien maybe not the best choice for actor, but he surely embodies the character’s staggering hesitation as his own.
For Chen, her recent unemployment after the company is bought and reformed is another blow to their financial difficulty. The independent intellectual woman is a signature in Edward Yang’s films which largely focused on the middle class in the contemporary society (except A Brighter Summer Day which took place in the 60s). In Taipei Story, it gains a vivacity when the unemployed Chen follows her teenage sister Ling (Lin Hsiu-ling) and Ling’s biker friends to the night-club and partying in a vacant house. But still Chen is engulfed by loneliness.
The script, written by Yang, Hou and Hou’s longtime collaborator Chu Tien-wen, depicts a form of aimless drifting in a culturally conflicting city. Emigration is the McGuffin, apparently the couple would never leave the city behind, it’s not their willful decision but a result imposed by the unexpected. The camera frames the characters unobtrusively, often in still, creating a sense of distance and disconnection, yet the compassion from the director is still palpable. It’s one of the “coldest” film amidst Yang’s oeuvre, his later works would be imbued with more angst but ended with the most empathetic Yi Yi (2000). Taipei Story signifies the beginning of the New Taiwanese Cinema, it embraces both the pain and joy of living amidst the past and present of Taiwan, and the city would never look more disillusioned without Yang’s microscopic observation.