The film communicates emotion and repression masterfully, living under a psychotic, militaristic, and violent regime. It’s a film that spans generations of family characters, who all, one-by-one, get picked off by the military with no reason given – senseless violence and a provocative look at life under oppression of this nature. The craft of the production design and blocking makes each scene feel crucial and that urgency is felt through every scene and performance. And Tony Leung is excellent here, taking a vulnerable stance against a vicious, fascist government that’s unafraid of its citizens. It’s the film at the birth of a nation and shows the messy fallout from an occupying government leaving citizens out for ransom. It’s a horrifying realization and perspective on how large-scale cultural change can impact people. Hsiao-Hsien Hou conveys this through embittered personal memory, and the threatening atmosphere.
In many ways, it relates to the stylings of an Edward Yang film and takes a similar tone to Ann Hui’s masterpiece Boat People. A City of Sadness is the study of a living city that is forced to adapt or suffer to oppressive regimes. It tells the story through Wen-ching’s (Leung) family, who have grave doubts about their future. Hsiao-Hsien uses the elongated runtime to put the audience in front of the Wen-ching family and friends and listen to their concern. It reaches into the ideas of the myth of human justice and how helpless they are in the face of overwhelming terror. Many of these dinner table scenes are enthralling, capturing the mood of the people and their unmovable ideas. Hsiao-Hsien juxtaposed the Taiwanese immigrant struggle against the KMT’s senselessness through the quiet struggle and unending depth of sorrow with loved ones disappearing without a reaction. It’s a script grappling with the kidnappings and murders but coming up with no discernable answers, so it wallows in the pain of its aftermath.
As for the craft, it’s a film that understands the overarching ideas and we see this in the editing structure. It’s not a film of big, dramatic moments and that might seem uneventful for the uninitiated, but engaging in this story displays the silent despair that comes from living under the destructive, overnight power of the KMT. Hsiao-Hsien doesn’t emphasize the violence, but hides it much like the KMT do to its people. One minute Wen-ching is surrounded by family, but in the blink of an eye can lose everything he once cherished. Leung, who has to be the one to fight back out of desperation, also conveys this unnerving silence and never fully reconciling with these human atrocities because it happens so quickly.
The production design elements build the culture of mainland China and show the pride and lifestyles they’ve built. It’s a connected community that shares and we see this in the interior dinner table scenes juxtaposed to those same spaces being encroached on by the KMT. Seeing once proud people reduced to lost souls is the most difficult reality to take and is what makes Hsiao-Hsien’s A City of Sadness a gripping and memorable experience.
★★★★½/ Out of 5★s (89)