By Fiona Lai

A City of Sadness (1989, Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

About the film

A City of Sadness (悲情城市, Bei Qing Cheng Shi) , is a historical-drama film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien with Mandarin, Hokkien, Shanghaiese, Cantonese, and Japanese dialogue.

The film is inspired by 228 Incident by Kuomintang in Taiwan during the Post-World War 2 period where the citizens experience the sociological changes within the country. The story captures the Lin family’s experiences during the “White Terror”, focusing on the hardships the Taiwanese went through.

Here are some of the examples of such changes:

(The History of Taiwan: Postwar Era and The 228 Incident)

Quoted from the video, the Taiwanese felt a sense of freedom during that period without a ruling government after going through modernization from the Japanese colonial rule.

Taiwan was prospering and the mainland Chinese started going over to Taiwan to work. However, China’s hostile relationship with the Japanese during the post-world war 2 period led to an unacceptance of the influence that the Japanese has done to the Taiwanese.

Being a historical film, Hou established and put together the relationship types of different characters while going through the changes.

However, one would think at first that the film purely focuses on the Taiwanese but as the story progress, it also showcases the despair that the Japanese went through too.

(A clip of Hinomi’s conversation with Shizuko regarding about her Japanese identity)

Hinomi starts losing touch in her Japanese national identity, she felt that she was shifting more towards the Taiwanese culture and wanted to remove what’s Japanese by giving Shizuko a sword, a symbol of the Japanese. A sword is used for protection and by giving up the sword shows that Hinomi feels a sense of sercuity in Taiwan.

Creating realism

In order to connect with the audience and capture them, there were no tighter shots other than the medium close up while trying to capture the characters’ emotions. However, because of a lack of first hand experience of the World War 2 trauma and lack of tighter shots of the characters, I was unable to relate fully to the characters.

Conversations were long shots to give the audience a sense that they are not part of the conversation but rather just over-listening.

Violent scenes were in long or extremely long shots, this beauty at work as Hou was able to capture the emotional pain that the Taiwanese had went through with this framing. By capturing it from a distance, I was unable to look away yet with the pain the characters were going through as it gave me a sense that I was watching helplessly from afar.

To set the mood in, Hou used a beautiful and delightful melody which makes me tranquil and think of a samurai (a symbol of the Japanese)

Known as Taiwan’s Godfather, I am impressed by Hou’s capability to put together such a complex film. Not only did he cover the historical changes, as the movie progresses, he showcased the culture and ties between the Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese visually and verbally.

Wen Ching’s inability to speak symbolizes that the Taiwanese were voiceless and quietly conform themselves to society. During the trial, we could only watch him helplessly as he is in trial. It is utterly unfair and tangles with our heartstrings to watch how there was no way he could escape the punishment he would face.

Giving hope – light

The film started out with barely any electricity showing that there is it was a start of a new era of change for the Taiwanese. When the lights were back, a baby was born symbolizing hope.

However, at the end, there was a flicking lamp in the background. Flicking light normally symbolizes evil presence or hope. In this case, it was showing the audience that we should always have a beacon of hope for the future.

An excellent quote from Hou

“I didn’t make A City of Sadness because I purposely wanted to open up old wounds’…but because I know that we have to face ourselves and our history if we are ever to understand who we are and where we’re going.” – Hou Hsiao-Hsien, the director of the film.

I agree with Hou, this is the reason why we learn history and social studies in school. In order to grow and develop socially, politically and economically, we need to learn from our mistakes or review past events to further understand our country.

结束. The end.

About the author:

Fiona, who believes that in life good and bad things happen. They are full of pain and happiness.  Also, she accepted the author’s invitation to this blog without creating an account so she is now using a kind-hearted cutie’s account.


Marrosefilms. 2010. City of Sadness: Movie Poster. [image online] Available at: http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/denton2/courses/c505/temp/city-sadness.gif [Accessed: 23 June 2013].

Youtube. 2010. The History of Taiwan: Postwar Era and The 228 Incident (2/7). Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9TPF2qNvW20 [Accessed: 23 June 2013].

Youtube. 2013. A City of Sadness (悲情城市) Clip. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ha6n_gklegI [Accessed: 23 June 2013].

Bao, Y. 1989. A City of Sadness. [online] Available at: http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/denton2/courses/c505/temp/city.html [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].


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