In the BFI Modern Classics publication, A City of Sadness, Bérénice Reynaud provides a comprehensive, articulate, and insightful critical analysis of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s seminal and artistically groundbreaking film on the once-taboo subject of the ‘hidden’ history of Taiwan, providing a compelling examination of the film through the intrinsic social context of a culturally broader Chinese experience. A City of Sadness was released in the latter half of 1989, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square government crackdown (June 4, 1989) in Beijing, and was based on a nationally traumatic historic event (the February 28, 1947 incident that ushered the era of the Kuomintang-imposed White Terror campaign of the 1950s depicted in Hou’s subsequent film, Good Men, Good Women) that was only was only made possible to be openly discussed two years earlier with the lifting of Taiwan’s 40-year martial law in 1987. The author explains:
The ‘sadness’ of the title alluded to the troubled years between the end of the Japanese occupation of Taiwan in 1945 and the official takeover by the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Yet this ‘sadness’ has even more distant causes – the division of China and Taiwan’s progressive alienation from the mainland since the nineteenth century. And, as fate would have it, A City of Sadness reached the world at a moment when, once again, the Chinese psyche was hurting.
Reynaud further cites Chiao Hsiung-ping’s (Peggy Chiao) article, The Camera-swept Back Alleys of History: An Interview with Hou Hsiao-hsien, to expound on the film’s theme of loss and sadness:
As he was working on the editing in the spring and summer of 1989, Hou ‘immediately sensed the connection between Tiananmen and the massacres alluded to in the film, wondering “Why do such tragedies keep befalling the Chinese people?” and hoping that this film would evoke the same pain and anger in its audience’.
It is this pervasive sentiment in the film that is reflected in the author’s comment:
Overall, A City defines a vertiginous elliptical arc, which goes from one feeling of loss – the loss of Taiwan by the Japanese – to another – the loss of the mainland by the Kuomintang.
Reynaud further illustrates the reflection of the film’s essential theme of loss by analyzing the compositional similarities between Hou’s work and that of Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu, whose uniquely identifiable aesthetic was unknown to Hou until the late 1980s (Hou’s first Ozu film experience was with I Was Born But…, which immediately captivated him, and became his personal favorite), after Hou had already directed seven feature films.
Reynaud also incorporates Japanese film historian Shiguehiko Hasumi’s comparative evaluation that the “practical lesson bequeathed [by] Ozu’s cinema [to Hou is] the research of a lost present… One has the feeling that [Hou and Ozu] were two directors having…found comparable cinematic solutions, one because he was trapped in the present, and the other because he is trapped in the past” as a foundation to further propose the idea of the influence of classical Chinese landscape painting in Hou’s visual style. Specifically, Reynaud cites traditional Chinese artistic imagery that are characterized by the lack of a master gaze and compositions that internally reflect a 2/3 spatial Void that can also be seen in Hou’s penchant for framing decentralized action, dead space, and distanced and alienated shots. By correlating Hou’s cinema to the convergence of both Japanese and Chinese aesthetics, the author provides an astute observation on the unique cultural history of Taiwan that, in turn, is innately manifested in Hou’s inherently Chinese, but also distinctively native, Taiwanese cinema.
Acquarello, 2003 [reprinted]