A City of Sadness

dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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Hou Hsiao-hsien's powerfully moving mini-epic about a Taiwanese family during the Nationalist "White Terror" of 1945 to 1950 has been hailed as one of the supreme masterworks of contemporary cinema.


By the late 1980s, Hou Hsiao-hsien had become recognized internationally for his signature filmmaking style — consisting of spare dialogue, long, lingering shots, extraordinarily precise compositions and a remarkable use of deep focus — and his highly specific but universally resonant stories of intergenerational conflict and change. With A City of Sadness, Hou takes on a far broader historical canvas: the period of the "White Terror" between 1945 and 1950, when Taiwan became host to the Nationalist Chinese government-in-exile as they fled from their defeat at the hands of Mao's Communists — an era of political repression that reached its brutal culmination in the "February 28 Incident," the 1947 massacre of thousands of Taiwanese civilians by Nationalist soldiers. Focusing on four brothers, each of whom represents a different response by the Taiwanese to the Nationalist government — with particular emphasis on the gentle, deaf-mute Wen-ching, movingly played by Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung Chiu-wai — Hou keeps the famous historical events off-screen while showing the tragic ruptures they create within the microcosmic world of the family. A Taiwanese mirror of the "scar films" then being made in a Mainland China just recovering from the Cultural Revolution, Hou's beautiful, tragic, and ineffably moving City is "one of the supreme masterworks of the contemporary cinema" (Jonathan Rosenbaum).