Yidingmu Police Station, Taipei, the morning of February 28, 1947. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (1989) was digitally restored and rereleased in theaters across Taiwan earlier this year. Running two hours and thirty-seven minutes, the melancholic art-house film shows in painstaking detail the dissolution of a Taiwanese family prompted by political regime change following World War II. In 1945, the Japanese surrendered Taiwan; soon after, Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang party (KMT) would retreat from China to the island, violently suppress native uprisings, and officially claim the island as its own in 1949.
“This island is so pitiful. First the Japanese and then the Chinese. They all rule us but none take care of us,” one of the film’s protagonists says in Taiwanese, a language that the KMT banned from schools. The English subtitles were less subtle: “They all exploit us and no one gives a damn.”
I attended a sold-out showing on opening weekend. In a somewhat surreal coincidence, the rerelease date coincided with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Just hours before I saw the film, I’d biked to a public square where a crowd of mostly Taiwanese people waved Ukraine’s blue-yellow striped flag. When Ukraine’s anthem was played, everyone put their hands on their hearts. One Ukrainian mother said to me, “Taiwanese people know what it’s like to have a crazy neighbor.”
Today China claims it will take Taiwan by force; the threat of regime change is never far. In Hong Kong, where the film was also rereleased this year, protesters, among them high schoolers, have been imprisoned and sentenced for subversion. But to be fair, in Taiwan—a country ruled by six successive colonial powers—it would be difficult to find a release date that didn’t take on a deep sense of resonance and foreboding. The year City was released, 1989, the Chinese Communist Party killed thousands of nonviolent protesters in Tiananmen Square. In contrast, Taiwan was on the cusp of freedom. It burst with national awakening. Soon, activists who read Mandela in prison would be released and run for election—and win.
City was the first film in Taiwan to represent the events of 2/28—a sequence of numbers known to every Taiwanese person today, though for decades it could barely be whispered. On February 27, 1947, a state agent beat a Taiwanese woman selling contraband cigarettes. When a crowd formed to defend her, a policeman fired into it, killing a man. People across the island began to revolt on the twenty-eighth, and in the days following, an estimated eighteen to twenty-eight thousand people were killed by the KMT. For nearly four decades, in a period now known as the White Terror, Taiwan would be ruled by a one-party dictatorship—the second longest time any country has been subjected to uninterrupted martial law. (Syria has recently surpassed Taiwan.)
In the years following City’s release, Taiwan has become a democracy. It’s considered the freest country in Asia and among the freest in the world. Just this week Freedom House released a report measuring people’s access to political rights and civil liberties. Taiwan is ranked sixth in the world, above both France and the United States. China is listed among the bottom ten nations. Whereas “6/4” is scrubbed from the internet in China—even the candle and ribbon emojis disappear from the available pool on phones and computers on June 4—the Taiwanese government has made 2/28 a national holiday. Schoolkids get that day off.
City views the trauma of regime change through the stories of two fictional Taiwanese families. In the first, the oldest of four sons leads a local gang whose territory is stolen by mainland Chinese rivals. At the start of the film, he wonders at the misfortune that has befallen his brothers—one has become a lunatic, another went missing in the Philippines while serving as a war medic for Japan, and the youngest is deaf. “Maybe my mother’s grave is not in the right spot,” he muses in Taiwanese.
The other family is a brother–sister pair, Hiroe and Hiromi; even their names nod to their cultural affinity with the now-ousted Japanese. Hiromi is a nurse; Hiroe is an intellectual-revolutionary with Marx on his bookshelf. He’d lobbied for Taiwanese rights under Japanese colonialism and, under his new anticommunist Chinese overlords, ramps up his activism.
The intersection of these families, and the heart of the film, is the tender love between Hiromi (played by Xin Shufen), whose diary provides the voice-over, and the deaf-mute photographer Lin Wen-ching (a strapping young Tony Leung), the youngest of the four sons. Lin’s deafness literally and metaphorically reflects the silence enforced by the KMT. Lin meets Hiromi through Hiroe, who is his best friend. The young couple sends money to support Hiroe’s dissident work. By the end of the film—it’s implied but never shown—both men are executed by the regime. Hiromi will raise her and Lin’s child alone.
In City, scenes unfold in Shanghainese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Mandarin—undermining the official narrative of a single national language. For that reason, too, diary entries, songs, notes, and diverse legends permeate the film. Like currents flowing against the tide, these are counterforces to the language of heads of state—what Orwell called the enemy of sincerity.
For survivors of state violence, Hou suggests, there are few resources, little information, and often only official lies. In one scene, a woman and her three children receive a piece of cloth from Wen-ching, who has just been released from prison on charges of collaboration against the regime. We don’t know who this woman is; she appears just this once. We see a close-up of her face and, less clearly, her children standing behind her as she unfurls the cloth, sobbing when she reads the following words, written in dried blood:
LIVE WITH DIGNITY,
YOUR FATHER IS INNOCENT
Who wrote this? Why was their father arrested? Was he executed? On each of these questions, Hou leaves us in the dark, though I believe he does so to make a point about the confounding, fragmenting force of state violence. Within this void the cloth tells the truth.
Hou is interested in the private pains of upheaval. Prisoners write poems before they die. Hiromi writes in her diary. Wen-ching writes notes. The two lovers write to each other, having no other way to communicate. These texts appear in large block print that occupy the entire screen in a way that recalls old silent films.
Why so much text? The film’s screenwriters, Hou, Chu T’ien-wen, and Wu Nien-jen, were born after the violent uprisings and grew up during a time when it was forbidden to talk about them. To write City, they sifted through diaries, letters, and private archives. The film thus stands as a reflection on what remembering feels like: sifting through text. That activity is soundless. You must imagine the lives of people who have dared to leave a trace.
Consider, in contrast, the simple yet poignant narratives of the White Terror that have emerged in the mainstream news since government archives opened in the early 2000s. The BBC reported one such story. “My most beloved Chun-lan,” a father wrote on the night before he was executed, to his five-month-old daughter, “I was arrested when you were still in your mother’s womb. Father and child cannot meet. Alas, there’s nothing more tragic than this in the world.” He wrote that in 1953. The government confiscated it and never delivered to his family. His daughter would receive it fifty-six years later, at age fifty-six. She cried when she read it. “I finally had a connection with my father,” she told BBC. “I realized not only do I have a father, but this father loved me very much.”
Narratives like these have a beginning (arrest, execution), middle (prolonged, multidecade separation between father and child; suspended wondering), and end (cathartic reception of the letter; connection established). One of the central precepts of trauma healing holds that we reclaim events of loss through narrative. Hou refuses a narrative, thus refusing reclamation, suspending us in the psychic trauma of his generation.
For this reason, perhaps, in Hou’s films we don’t always realize when a scene has ended. One moment which I love most is sensual and innocent: Wen-ching and Hiromi sit close together on the floor, looking at each other, delighted and full of longing: two shy, sensitive people finding their way to love. In the background, the old-timey German lied “Lorelei” plays on a phonograph. Steps away, their male friends sit around a table, eating zongzi (a sticky rice dish eaten in the summer). They complain bitterly of the bribery and corruption that marked and followed 2/28, which has included nepotism; the KMT has fired locals—calling them slaves to the Japanese—and awarded those coveted government positions to family members.
But the two gorgeous young lovers are in their own world, talking about the music. Hiromi explains to Wen-ching—in a letter, written in her notebook—the legend of Lorelei. He writes back, telling her he knew the song before became deaf, then recounts how it happened. He was eight when he fell from a tree. A happy kid who lived in his own world, he at first didn’t even realize he had lost his hearing; his father had to tell him by writing it down. Hiromi looks surprised, and the camera cuts to a flashback, a child imitating a Beijing opera singer. This almost montage-like scene has no argument, no dramatic tension, no climax. It is all private logic. The effect is such that even the present moment of rapturous love has the feel of memory, recovered too late, useless yet still dazzlingly vivid.
When City was first released, an estimated 50 percent of the country’s population flocked to theaters to see it, resulting in the improbable box-office upset of a kung fu movie starring Jackie Chan. Early international acclaim for A City of Sadness included the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion Prize: City was the first Chinese-language film to receive this honor. (In September, Tony Leung received a lifetime achievement award at Venice, where three of his films have won the Golden Lion, City being his first.) Meanwhile, in China, City was banned until 2012, when it received a small showing at a film institute in Beijing. This year, the digital restoration was shown at film festivals and in Beijing and Shanghai, marking the first time that ticket-buying audiences could see the film. The few showings available were immediately sold out.
Yet, despite City’s canonical status in Taiwan, domestic critical reception was, and continues to be, uneven. Critics have argued that City fails to show the scale or barbarity of the killings of 2/28. It doesn’t show, for instance, how masses of Taiwanese people on the streets were bundled into burlap sacks and tossed into the harbor. It doesn’t show ordinary citizens getting stabbed by Chinese soldiers. It doesn’t show the Butcher of Kaohsiung, as he was named, a Chinese general who sprayed machine-gun fire into a crowd. When Hou does show street violence, it is enacted by local gangs and not by the KMT government: a band of vengeful Taiwanese randomly beat up people while shouting “Death to mainlanders!” This is a reference to the two million migrants from China to Taiwan after 1945, some of whom faced discrimination.
Were critics right? Partially. For me, the harshest thing I can say about A City of Sadness is also the most unfair: it’s no The Battle of Algiers, a film that confronted with lucidity the totalizing character of violence. Violence cleanses: that’s the ideology of its perpetrators, from the agents of the state to insurgent terrorists. Like City, Battle dealt with colonial occupation; like City, Battle dealt with its own country’s watershed moment of the twentieth century. But Battle, which premiered twenty-three years at Venice before City, exposed with complexity the levers of power, portraying a French general and his rationale for torture with care. In contrast, you won’t find in City anything about Chiang Kai-shek, who famously said, “I’d rather kill a hundred innocent people than let one communist escape.” The name of his campaign in China to exterminate leftists quite literally translates to “cleansing social movement.” Neither Chiang nor any high-ranking Chinese soldier appears in the film, much less articulates his strategy or beliefs; on occasion, a policeman or soldier rounds up dissidents or hauls someone off to get executed. In City, the human origins of power appear shadowy, opaque, without substance.
In Hou’s defense, City would never have been released had it featured a Chinese general describing a program of cleansing and torture. Besides, Hou’s style is elliptical and indirect—which also happens to be useful to evade censorship. “Nothing is worse than having something there for the sake of exposition or explanation,” he has said.
What, then, are the politics of the film? Above all, I think, Hou describes the inherent worth of preserving a free mind amid totalitarian conditions. Though many of the women in City are seen performing traditional roles—preparing vegetables in the kitchen, raising children—Hiromi’s diary provides the story of her inner life as well as the written narration of her family’s story. The seasons change, from winter to summer to winter again, but she keeps writing. Similarly, despite Wen-ching’s inability to speak and hear, he never stops observing his surroundings. The quiet takes in which we watch Wen-ching developing photos is a metacommentary on the patience required to witness the world with open eyes. For these two idealists, the mind triumphs in spite of physical and social stumbling blocks.
They also both continue to contribute to Hiroe’s doomed resistance movement. Three quarters into the film, Hiroe escapes prison and creates a little socialist utopia in the hills. When he’s not harvesting rice—trousers rolled up, stepping gingerly behind a water buffalo plowing a rice paddy—he’s writing pamphlets. These will spell his demise when he is eventually located, arrested, and executed by the KMT. But for now he has created a free world. When Wen-ching visits, he replies, “In prison I vowed to live for friends who have died.” A few beats later: “The only thing that matters is your beliefs.”
Michelle Kuo is a writer and professor based in Taipei. She teaches at National Chengchi University, and her book Reading with Patrick was the runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
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