“In ten years, this place will be the center of the world. The future of Western civilization lies right here. And do you know what the odd thing is? We used to study history, the 19th century with the glorious age of imperialism right? Just wait ’till you see the 21st century.”
These words, said in English by an arrogant British industrialist in voiceover towards the close of Mahjong, of course shouldn’t be taken strictly at face value; Yang’s own Yi Yi four years later acts in many ways as a repudiation of a great number of the statements made in this and A Confucian Confusion, effectively the sister film to this. But it acts as a key signifier for Yang’s own intentions: in every work of his save perhaps A Brighter Summer Day, Yang sees the future of Taipei as its past and present, continually reflecting on the former as directly affecting and molding the latter. This is reflected most obviously in the familial relationships, which dominate practically all his films and especially this one, but it reveals itself in so many other ways: the scattered rock memorabilia (especially the Beatles), the past entanglements of multiple characters, and most importantly in language. Here, too, Yang gestures towards the future: Hokkien is phased further out, and English shares center stage with Mandarin. The effect is like a less overtly reflexive version of Mountains May Depart‘s third act: slightly uncanny, immensely focused on the minutiae involved in translation (skewed or otherwise), and eventually incredibly moving. It’s no accident that the two final definitive acts almost eschew language all together: Yang’s cinema is nothing if not at turns impossibly alienated and unbearably intimate, and Mahjong contains both of these impulses at their fullest force.
A City of Sadness
Even besides the obvious narrative and thematic implications that come with language and communication in A City of Sadness, its imprint on reinforcing Hou’s style feels paramount. Taking place at a much more contemplative pace than the naturalistic conversations found elsewhere (especially in scenes with co-writer Wu Nien-jen), the viewer is forced to consider not only what Tony Leung and Xin Shufen write to one another, but how they communicate by other means: the little glances, the manner in which they pass the pen and pad of paper back and forth. It feels so indicative that the words are not shown in inserts of the paper, but in intertitles: even their most inconsequential words are imbued with an additional, almost transcendent power. And the one exception, the message given by Leung to the widow, the words of a man who he never heard or spoke to, accrues its power from the materiality of his final statement, from the imprint of the ink.
The Taipei that Hsiao-kang grew up in has almost vanished. Gone are the motorcycle rides that acted as a reprieve from daily existence, the skywalks, the flooded apartments, the street stands. They’ve been supplanted by the high-end condos like Vive L’Amour‘s, only that the erotic potential is gone; even the streets feel sterile now. So Hsiao-kang can only go almost literally underground, with offspring in tow; they wander the construction sites and gleaming supermarkets, eating from plastic takeout trays and fitfully drawing mosquito nets around their meager living conditions. It’s not much, but it’s the home he knows, and the only home he can imagine.