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Why anyone who cares about Taiwan should watch “A City of Sadness”

"A City of Sadness" is not only one of Taiwan's most renowned films, but also a great way to learn about the island.

By , 24 Feb 17
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Still from A City of Sadness.

Let’s say you’re someone cares about Taiwan, and you had to pick only one movie from the island to watch. What should it be?

Our answer: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 historical drama A City of Sadness, which follows a family’s experiences during the infamous 228 Incident.

But wait, why should you watch this movie from 30 years ago about some random historical event? Here’s five reasons.

1. It’s a great intro to Taiwan’s modern history

The 228 Memorial Museum in Taipei.

The 228 Incident — a 1947 uprising of native Taiwanese against Chinese Nationalist (KMT) authorities that came to the island after WWII — is one of Taiwan’s most important historical events. During 228, KMT troops killed between 18,000 and 28,000 Taiwanese, ushering in a period of repression known as the White Terror that lasted until 1987 and defined Taiwan’s political landscape.

A City of Sadness is remarkable for being the first movie to ever address the 228 Incident.

When A City Of Sadness came out, the KMT was actually still in power, and nobody had been allowed to talk publicly about 228 for 40 years — much less make a movie about it.

Ever been to 228 Peace Memorial Park in Taipei? Heard of the 2005 “228 Hand-in-Hand Rally” in which 2 million people formed a 500km human chain from one end of Taiwan to another?

You can probably thank A City of Sadness for those things, because it got people talking again about a whole suppressed part of Taiwan’s past.

Understanding modern Taiwan’s history requires understanding 228 — and “A City of Sadness” is a great place to start for that.

2. You’ll learn why bringing up Taiwan’s past gets really touchy

An implied execution.

Naturally, resurrecting memories about an incident in which different segments of a society killed each other is bound to ruffle some feathers.

Director Hou Hsiao-hsien premiered “A City of Sadness” outside Taiwan in part to mitigate potential interference by KMT authorities, who would likely find it embarrassing. When it won the prestigious Golden Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival, A City of Sadness became too famous to silence — and went on to be a box office hit at home.

However, still not everyone was satisfied.

Though “A City of Sadness” was the first film to ever depict 228, it does so in a rather indirect way. The film constantly implies that violence is happening, but never shows it in the foreground. For example, in one scene, a character languishes in prison and his cellmates are taken out to be shot — but the actual execution takes place offscreen.

As such, some native Taiwanese criticized “A City of Sadness” for being too muted. These critics felt that the film didn’t go far enough in confronting the KMT regime’s brutality by instead choosing to frame 228 in less politically inspiring terms of family dynamics and romance.

Regardless of where your own sympathies and opinions lie, watching “A City of Sadness” will give you a feel for all the different ways that people, even to this day, disagree about how to tell the story of Taiwan’s past.

3. It reveals the complexities of Taiwanese identity

“A City of Sadness” is a film that reveals Taiwan’s social divisions but also reminds us that those divisions aren’t black and white.

The most simplistic way to divide Taiwan’s society is into native Taiwanese (“benshengren”, whose families were on Taiwan pre-WWII) and mainlanders (“waishengren”, whose families came over to Taiwan with the KMT after WWII) — which happen to be the two “sides” of 228.

Within that framework, you could claim that A City of Sadness is a movie about native Taiwanese — after all, its protagonist family falls into that category. Most of the film’s dialog is either in the Taiwanese dialect (distinct from Mandarin) or Japanese (Taiwan was a Japanese colony between 1895-1945), since that’s what native Taiwanese at the time generally spoke.

In fact, one of the film’s most poignant scenes (video above) reveals the intimate linkages between language and Taiwanese identity. During this scene, a group of native Taiwanese accost a deaf-mute character (who’s also native Taiwanese) on a train. Trying to root out mainlanders to enact revenge on, they ask the deaf-mute character to speak either Taiwanese or Japanese — languages that mainlanders wouldn’t know. Unable to hear, he at first says nothing before haltingly blurting “I’m Taiwanese” when he realizes what’s happening.

From all this, you might think that Director Hou Hsiao-hsien is native Taiwanese… and you’d be wrong. Hou was actually born in Guangdong to a family of mainlanders who fled to Taiwan in 1948 along with the KMT.

Though 228 commemorations and usage of the Taiwanese dialect are often associated with Taiwan independence advocates, Hou is anything but. He’s collaborated extensively with mainland Chinese filmmakers (impossible for a Taiwan independence supporter) including on his latest film The Assassin… which funnily enough touches upon reunifying a secessionist region of Tang-era China with the central government.

This shows that, while “A City of Sadness” highlights the different groups that make up contemporary Taiwanese society, it also teaches us that these groups aren’t absolutes. Just because someone’s a mainlander doesn’t mean they can’t be horrified about 228, and just because someone’s native Taiwanese doesn’t mean they automatically support Taiwan independence — whatever being “Taiwanese” is, it’s much more complex than that.

4. It marks a rebirth of Taiwanese cinema

Director Hou Hsiao-hsien.

During the White Terror from 1947-1987, Taiwanese cinema was subject to government censorship and restrictions on the usage of Taiwanese dialect in dialog. Action flicks and romantic melodrama replaced socially conscious, artistic films during this era, and almost no films gained recognition outside the Chinese-speaking world.

However, in the 1980s, Taiwan became to democratize — and its film industry underwent a phase called the Taiwanese New Wave in which a new class of young directors started making films that gave a more realistic, localized portrayal of Taiwanese life.

Hou Hsiao-hsien was one of these young directors… and A City of Sadness was the first of these New Wave films to gain significant foreign accolades from foreign critics and festivals. This recognition validated the efforts of New Wave directors, and established Taiwanese cinema as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

If you’ve enjoyed more recent Taiwanese movies like Cape No. 7 or Monga, you can partially thank A City of Sadness for making them possible. Many of Taiwan’s post-2000 directors cut their teeth under New Wave directors like Hou Hsiao-hsien, an opportunity they might not have had if A City of Sadness bombed and the New Wave fizzled into obscurity.

5. You can sound really cultured afterwards

Fun fact: A City of Sadness was filmed in Jiufen, the same northern Taiwan town that inspired Spirited Away.

OK, so admittedly we here at Cinema Escapist probably aren’t the only people who’d recommend A City of Sadness as a must-see movie for anyone who really cares about Taiwan.

If you ever take a class about Taiwanese literature/film/culture, stick around in some Taiwanese cultural organization long enough, or talk with other people interested in (or from) Taiwan, this movie will inevitably come up… I guarantee it.

So rather than being clueless in those situations, why not watch the film first (or go back and re-read this article so you can at least have some basic talking points)? It’ll help you understand Taiwan through a new, richer lens…and give you brownie points for sounding really cultured.

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Watch the film’s trailer

If you’re interested in watching A City of Sadness, you can buy it off Amazon with our affiliate link. We thank you for your support!


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