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A City of Sadness: The Great 1989 Taiwanese Film at LACMA

A City of Sadness

An extraordinarily ambitious sociohistorical epic, comparable in its impact to the Godfather films, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 A City of Sadness traces the tragic personal and political fortunes of the people of Taiwan in the years following World War II, when the Japanese ceded control of the island nation to Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist government. Working from a screenplay by Chu T’ien-wen and Wu Nien-jen (the key screenwriter of the new Taiwanese cinema of the ’80s and ’90s), Hou focuses on a single family, the Lins, and their three grown sons: the eldest, bar owner Wen-Heung (Chen Sown-yung); the middle child, Wen-leung (Jack Kao), a shellshocked combat vet falling under the sway of some stylish Shanghai gangsters; and the youngest, Wen-ching (Wong Kar-wai regular Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a shy, deaf-mute photographer with the heart of an anti-government rebel. The story is largely told, however, through the eyes of Hinomi (Xin Shufen), a nurse who tends to the victims of a war just ended and another just starting to erupt, as the brief optimism engendered by the end of Japanese colonialism gives way to the Nationalists’ violent, anti-Communist witch-hunts. Produced only two years after the end of martial law in Taiwan, Hou’s film was the first to directly address these long-suppressed events (including the “228 Massacre,” in which government security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators). It may also be the work in which this master filmmaker achieves the most exquisite balance between the violence of his subject matter and the beautiful stillness of his tableau style. One of the greatest movies of the ’80s, A City of Sadnesshas remained among the most difficult to see, never commercially distributed in North America and still absent from English-subtitled DVD. On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, it screens at LACMA in a newly struck 35mm print. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bing Theater; Sat., Sept. 26, 7:30 p.m. lacma.org/film)

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