Directed by: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Written by: Chu T’ien-wen & Wu Nien-jen
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Sung Young Chen, Jack Kao, Li Tian-lu
Amid the ruins of forced control, a vacuum can begin to form as the future becomes malleable and the people in charge of it might not always have the best intentions for everyone involved. A sad reality we see in the aptly titled City of Sadness where we witness the lingering impacts of war on a community. Methodically paced and all-encompassing, it allows for a meditation of the circumstances and what it means for the future.
Following the end of 40 years of Japanese occupation, Taiwan has found freedom and must establish itself as a nation once again. In the town of Taipei, three brothers begin to make something of their lives after losing the fourth one through war. Taking different paths and meeting different ends, they experience the harshness the world has to offer and try to push through.
With the title City of Sadness, you just knew it would not arrive with a flurry of thrills and the story measures up because of the melancholic mood set for nearly the entire 157-minute runtime. The setting and era of this feature do not set up the circumstance of there being a happy ending because history tells us so. The pain emanating from this story appears in the hope for something positive happening in the lives of these people, only to realize they will eventually be trading in one form of ownership for another. While this entire story encompasses relations between sovereign nations, it focuses mostly on four brothers and their reaction to the whirlwind happening around them.
In reality, the focus falls on three brothers with the fourth won dying in war, which immediately displays the painful circumstances this family has already endured. As the story progresses, we see the other three brothers react in different ways to their reality, as happiness comes at a premium. Lin Wen-Heung (Chen Sung-young) carries the family name as the eldest brother, who produces the greatest opportunity for them to survive with his ownership of a restaurant. Lin Wen-ching (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) came back from the war with a physical impairment but has aspirations to be more in life and then we have Lin Wen-leung (Jack Kao) who also came back from war but battles post-traumatic stress disorder. They each have their own aspirations and hopes, but reality will eventually begin to set for them, as to what their life will eventually be.
As the film carries on, the craft on display could not be denied but I found the story to be far too inaccessible for me. While the concepts it wanted to tackle felt grand, the presentation of the feature lacked the urgency necessary to utilize such a long runtime. It eventually hits the right notes because of the talent involved but the slower pace it utilizes does not work as well as the filmmakers believed it would.
This criticism does not take away from the importance of the story being told. Allowing these four brothers to be a representation of the pain suffered by an entire nation succeeds in humanizing the issue on a micro-level. In these terrible circumstances, they must find a way to defend themselves and their loved ones because there’s no cavalry coming to save them. Their nation is vulnerable and they must either fight back or succumb to the reality of someone else swooping and assuming control. The film’s balance of this grand and personal style of storytelling allows the weight of the circumstances to feel palpable because we know the impact it will have on the brothers we come to care for.
A City of Sadness sets up a story with an inevitable ending but certain moments tease you into believing a different reality could possibly take place. The struggle and pressure faced within these four brothers stretch as they must each fight their own personal battles along with the national crisis occurring. A powerful blend of the inter and intrapersonal battle occurring. With its long runtime, its large story feels incredibly verbose at times, which dings it during certain scenes but the overall experience demonstrates a vital story reminding us of the perils of imperialism and the negative outcomes it can have on a formerly occupied state years down the road.