Classic Movie Review: Taipei Story

Taipei Story
Directed by Edward Yang
Starring: Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Chen Tsai, Su-Yun Ko
Theatrical Release Date: April 22nd, 1985
Criterion Collection Release Date: May 30th, 2017

There is such an abundance of longing lingering within each frame of Edward Yang‘s 1985 film Taipei Story. It is impossible to neglect since each scene that passes tends to be more sorrowful than the last.

The Taiwanese nights, filmed impeccably and beautifully by Wei-Han Yang, tend to be grieving and pulsating with life. Still, nothing seems to truly satisfy the city (it always wanting more on its way to modernity and being globalized) or the characters (who are not pleased with the present). Hence, their infinite longing. There is always going to be a particular something, be it the past, a career, or an ex-lover, that will be in the way of not only happiness but of contentment as well.

Yang’s characters here suffer from variable grievances and are suffocating from harsh regrets that have rendered their lives almost to the point of being devoid of meaning. These people are trapped. The sad thing is that they know it, but are desperately clinging on to some hope that is all but elusive.

Yang was not only a filmmaker of tremendous emotional power but a screenwriter with a gift for observing (he penned the script for Taipei Story with the film’s star and would-be renowned Tawainese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou). The same glance or gesture can generate the same amount of passion as it does devastation. What Yang invests in is human emotion, interaction, and relationships. All of that is on display here from the film’s initial scene.

We meet Lung (Hou, in a rare screen role) and his girlfriend Chin (pop sensation Chin Tsai) looking at a potential apartment. They’ve known each other since grade school, but it doesn’t seem like it. So many questions ensue. Are they still lovers? Are they cheating on one another? Are they mad at each other? Or are they merely going through the rituals a relationship requires of them? The way they conduct themselves and interact with each other in this scene sets the tone for the entire film and conveys its message: are we truly being open and honest with one another and ourselves? And do the ones supposedly closest to us truly recognize what pains us?

Lung is Taipei Story‘s most interesting character. The entire film finds him longing for something tangible or intangible. That something could even be blatantly standing right in front of him but he’ll remain oblivious to it. This is because the past seizes his thoughts about what could have been and the future distracts him with false hopes and much fright.

Once a former baseball star, he now realizes that the past is gone and he’s attempting to fathom what the future holds. The future could provide a random and unreliable business proposition that his brother offered him in America and the prospect of moving there with Chen. These are hopeful plans that remain simply plans. Probably now in his late thirties or early forties, Lung is incapable of identifying with his current self and would rather pass time with recollections of youthful pleasures.

He frequents his former little league team’s practices. Watches them. Probably living through them the few moments he sees them. His former coach even praises Lung’s older self and even he can’t comprehend why the youth is the way they are. It’s apparent that Lung and Chen aren’t living in the moment. Even Chen refuses to appreciate the present. She may have fears that Lung still has ties with his ex-lover (Su-Yun Ko). She has an all-consuming insatiable infatuation with climbing the corporate ladder so she can move out of her father’s home that is visited frequented by loan sharks that he hasn’t paid yet. Only when we witness Chen and Lung encounter Chen’s sister’s group of friends (followers of Hedonism) the film begins to peel away its sorrowful tone and embrace an upbeat one.

It’s the freedom and carefree expression that this group of people possess. They’re willing to put their plans for the future on hold in order to savor a beer and a game of darts at a local bar with their friends. They don’t worry about what tomorrow brings when they celebrate a friend’s birthday all night long. Taipei Story is about learning how to find balance in life. Learning how to absorb the present just for a bit is a task maybe too large for Lung and Chen. Take away their longing for the past and their future prospects and you have two terrified souls.

By the time A Brighter Summer Day comes around in 1991, and especially more pronounced in his 2000 masterpiece Yi Yi, Yang would have analyzed more astutely the joys and surprises life offers, along with life’s tragedies and the inevitable disappointments. He was attaining masterful strokes in his direction. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 59 due to colon cancer, robbing us of many films that would’ve contemplated life.

In Taipei Story, especially, he dwells extensively on the sorrow of two people with large aspirations confined to a city that’s on the verge of modernity and which isn’t slowing down for anyone. The film could be his first that makes him aware of his true potential. By crafting a film that initially seems to be inextricably tied to a specific time, place, and culture, Yang, which he does with his later films even more masterfully, transcends his Tawainese roots on his way to embracing a cinema that is more novelistic and universal, insisting that we become more attuned to the brilliance that life offers us all in the present.

**** out of ****


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