Taipei Story (1985, Edward Yang)

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One important, vital aspect of my heritage that took me far too long to understand was the role of the Taiwanese dialect, specifically Taiwanese Hokkien. For many years, my parents spoke to each other semi-frequently in a language that sounded similar to the Mandarin that I knew, but which was generally unintelligible to me. I must confess that I still know very few words of Hokkien, but more important to me is the context in which my parents used it. Whether they intended it as such or not, I always felt as if they were keeping some form of secret from me, discussing things in front of my sister and me that we couldn’t understand, whether we wanted to or not.

Taipei Story, Edward Yang’s second masterful feature, doesn’t traffic in this level of a language barrier, but its use of language is no less revealing. In its portrayal of two estranged partners – Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien) and Chin (Tsai Chin) – living in a rapidly modernizing Taipei, the film switches frequently and consistently between Hokkien and Mandarin Chinese. Without perhaps no exceptions, the conversations that only involve Lung, whether it be with childhood friends or elderly acquaintances, utilize Hokkien, while all conversations involving Chin – except those, crucially, with her parents – use Mandarin.

Though it is never stated outright in the film, my general impression of the role of Mandarin in Taiwan is that of the language of modernity – notably, Hokkien was banned in schools until roughly around the time this film was made. Accordingly, the business world of Chin and the deadbeat society of Lung are carried out in entirely different manners of speaking.

Yang is wise to never make Taipei Story a simple story of the struggle between the memories of the past, which Lung is never able to shake off, and the promises of the future. The conflict is complicated by both parties: Lung constantly tries to move to the United States, in a way not dissimilar to that of my own father, while Chin falls in with the youthful biker gangs that her younger sister hangs out with. Both members of the couple, to put it plainly, strive to capture and retain something of their youth while still prospering in the modern capitalist society of the mid-’80s.

In Yang’s vision of Taipei, this seems to be little more than a fantasy, as one has to choose between one or the other. But of course, this is never approached in a didactic or obvious manner, allowing for, as the film puts it, fleeting moments of hope to linger. That the film is maybe the most tragic of the Yangs I’ve seen is a testament to this sense of latent fatalism, of people too caught in the past, whether they realize it or not.

Through these inextricably entwined journeys, Yang shoots with his particular combination of intimacy and distance that never fails to surprise and move me. A shot from the other side of a mammoth office building, two perfectly rhymed tracking shots, numerous gazes down onto the busy streets of Taipei, all coalescing perfectly with the immaculately posed figures quietly discussing troubles in an apartment, or on a playground, or at a bar.

Those figures move inexorably towards their ends – one trading the world of physical architecture for the digital architecture of big data, the other beaten in a final attempt to prove his own sense of self-worth over the generation already overtaking him – but they do so with an inordinate sense of care on the part of Yang. Not one interaction, one small gesture ultimately feels out of place, and what resonates is the forlorn face of Lung, the implacability of Chin, each equally conveying an overwhelming sadness.

January 2018 Capsules

Millennium Mambo
“Dream of a dove flying.”

Always on the cusp of something but stranded in the moment, many beginnings but no endings.

A Man Escaped
There’s something very vital about the subtitle of A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth, which I can’t recall reading before I actually saw the film. Lifted from a scene almost exactly at the midpoint of the film, it is one of the points where the film becomes its most clear and removed from the (terrific) abstraction that otherwise characterizes it. Through the words of Jesus through John, as spoken by our hero Fontaine, the escape that he succeeds at is directly equated with spiritual salvation, even as his predecessor is being shot at that very moment. This divergence between the realm of the spiritual and the realm of the actual is key, layering ideas of transcendence that never distract from the intense, slow procedure of escape but rather enhance and contextualize them. Without more than a hint of background given to Fontaine, the viewer must draw the reason, the emotion from the struggle to survive itself, and the cell becomes its own crucible. Whether it is faith, chance, sheer will, or a combination of all that enables Fontaine to make his escape, there is no way to describe that feeling of cathartic release other than overwhelming grace.

The Hole
Yes, those musical sequences. Even if they weren’t so delightfully varied, so transcendently effervescent and yet grounded in the dilapidated Taipei that traps the protagonists, their programming alone is nothing short of masterful. I hadn’t noticed the placement of them at ~15 minute intervals, but what matters is their complete harmony with the emotional tenor of the film’s development, coming just after what would be considered an emotional crescendo in a regular movie and acting as the logical extension of that.

But, of course, this is still the realm of Tsai Ming-liang. The overtly apocalyptic tone and scenario feels like his trademark vision pushed to a kind of breaking point, and it’s remarkable to see his locked-down perspectives open up to no small degree, boasting pans, extended tracking shots, and even what appears to be a handheld shot, hurtling through a mall as it follows a squad of exterminators. But these don’t disrupt the stasis so much as heighten it, fleshing out the spaces so as to render them all the more claustrophobic yet cavernous. Decay and madness come hand in hand, the malaise is literalized, and any method of escape, no matter how fleeting, is what matters.

2018 First Watches

Renewed Appreciation: Collateral

Shorts: “The Grandmother”

  1. Taipei Story (1985, Edward Yang)
  2. Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi)
  3. The Hole (1998, Tsai Ming-liang)
  4. Millennium Mambo (2001, Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  5. A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson)
  6. Legend of the Mountain (1979, King Hu)
  7. Insiang (1976, Lino Brocka)
  8. The Exterminating Angel (1962, Luis Buñuel)
  9. The Fate of Lee Khan (1973, King Hu)
  10. Unknown Pleasures (2002, Jia Zhangke)
  11. The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962, Robert Bresson)
  12. Western (2017, Valeska Grisebach)
  13. The Commuter (2018, Jaume Collet-Serra)
  14. Mysterious Object at Noon (2000, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  15. In the Midst of Life (1963, Robert Enrico)
  16. Félicité (2017, Alain Gomis)
  17. Jamaica Inn (1939, Alfred Hitchcock)
  18. Hallelujah the Hills (1963, Adolfas Mekas)
  19. Last Men in Aleppo (2017, Feras Fayyad)
  20. All the Money in the World (2017, Ridley Scott)
  21. 12 Days (2017, Raymond Depardon)

2018 Omnibus Log

001. Millennium Mambo (2001, Hou Hsiao-hsien) Laptop, Fandor 01 Jan – 8.0
002. A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson@) Laptop, Blu-ray 02 Jan – 7.9 [slight]
003. Taipei Story (1985, Edward Yang) Laptop, Blu-ray 03 Jan – 8.9
004. Western (2017, Valeska Grisebach^)† Laptop, Screener 04 Jan – 6.9 [parts]
005. The Hole (1998, Tsai Ming-liang*) Laptop, DVD 05 Jan – 8.7
006. Unknown Pleasures (2002, Jia Zhangke*) Laptop, DVD 05 Jan – 7.1 [slight]
007. Legend of the Mountain (1979, King Hu) Laptop, Screener 06 Jan – 7.8 [parts]
008. Mysterious Object at Noon (2000, Apichatpong Weerasethakul*) Laptop, Blu-ray 07 Jan – 6.8 [parts]
009. Félicité (2017, Alain Gomis^) Northwest Film Forum, DP 07 Jan – 6.2 [slight]
p001. The Girl in the Café (2005, David Yates) Television, DVD (Class) 08 Jan
010. 12 Days (2017, Raymond Depardon^)† Laptop, Screener 08 Jan – 5.2 [parts]
011. The Exterminating Angel (1962, Luis Buñuel$@) Laptop, Blu-ray 08 Jan – 7.3
p002. An Autumn Afternoon (1962, Yasujiro Ozu) Laptop, FilmStruck 09 Jan
012. The Commuter (2018, Jaume Collet-Serra)† AMC Pacific Place, DP (Friend) 09 Jan – 6.9
013. The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962, Robert Bresson$@) Laptop, FilmStruck 10 Jan – 7.1
p003. The Day He Arrives (2011, Hong Sang-soo) Laptop, DVD 11 Jan
014. Hallelujah the Hills (1963, Adolfas Mekas^$) Laptop, Fandor 11 Jan – 6.0 [slight]
015. +Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock) Projector, iTunes (Club) 11 Jan – 8.9 [same]
t001. Pilot (2011, Luck) Laptop, Amazon Prime 12 Jan
016. In the Midst of Life (1963, Robert Enrico^$) Laptop, YouTube 12 Jan – 6.3 [parts]
017. All the Money in the World (2017, Ridley Scott) Regal Meridian, DP 13 Jan – 5.8
018. Last Men in Aleppo (2017, Feras Fayyad^) Laptop, Screener 14 Jan – 5.9 [intermittent]
019. +Collateral (2004, Michael Mann) Laptop, Blu-ray 15 Jan – 7.4 [up from 7.2]
020. Insiang (1976, Lino Brocka^) Laptop, Blu-ray 15 Jan – 7.6
s001. Coney Island at Night (1905, Edwin S. Porter) Television, File (Class) 16 Jan – 6.2
021. The Fate of Lee Khan (1973, King Hu¢) Laptop, DVD 16 Jan – 7.3
022. Jamaica Inn (1939, Alfred Hitchcock¢) Laptop, DVD 16 Jan – 6.0 [parts]
s002. The Grandmother (1970, David Lynch) Laptop, Blu-ray 17 Jan – 7.1
023. Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi^$) Laptop, Blu-ray 18 Jan – 8.8

2018 Viewing Log

January
Millennium Mambo (2001, Hou Hsiao-hsien) – 8.0
A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson) – 7.9
Taipei Story (1985, Edward Yang) – 8.9
Western (2017, Valeska Grisebach) – 6.9
The Hole (1998, Tsai Ming-liang) – 8.7
Unknown Pleasures (2002, Jia Zhangke) – 7.1
Legend of the Mountain (1979, King Hu) – 7.8
Mysterious Object at Noon (2000, Apichatpong Weerasethakul) – 6.8
Félicité (2017, Alain Gomis) DP – 6.2
12 Days (2017, Raymond Depardon) – 5.2
The Exterminating Angel (1962, Luis Buñuel) – 7.3
The Commuter (2018, Jaume Collet-Serra) DP – 6.9
The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962, Robert Bresson) – 7.1
Hallelujah the Hills (1963, Adolfas Mekas) – 6.0
+Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock) – 8.9 [same]
In the Midst of Life (1963, Robert Enrico) – 6.3
All the Money in the World (2017, Ridley Scott) DP – 5.8
Last Men in Aleppo (2017, Feras Fayyad) – 5.9
+Collateral (2004, Michael Mann) – 7.4 [up from 7.2]
Insiang (1976, Lino Brocka) – 7.6
The Fate of Lee Khan (1973, King Hu) – 7.3
Jamaica Inn (1939, Alfred Hitchcock) – 6.0
The Grandmother (1970, David Lynch)
Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) – 8.8
The Servant (1963, Joseph Losey) –