Unspoken Truths — A rarely seen masterpiece screens at UCSB

DVD. Netflix. Video on Demand. Thousands of cable and satellite channels. It’s hard to believe that in this current climate, when most movies are available to us, that some films of the last 30 years remain impossible to see. It’s even more incredible when it’s a film like “City of Sadness,” one of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s greatest films, an important part of Taiwanese history, a winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and a gorgeous work of art to boot.

So film buffs will rejoice to know that a special new print of “City of Sadness” — still not on DVD, and no hope of it being so — screens this Tuesday at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. The last time it played Santa Barbara was as part of a Hou retrospective at the SBIFF in 1998. I wouldn’t recommend waiting another 12 years.

“This is one of the great, great masterpieces of cinema,” says Michael Berry, the East Asian Studies professor who will be introducing Hou’s work on Tuesday. “It’s the kind of film that you can walk away from and the images haunt you.”

“City of Sadness” follows the Lin family through four years of life in Taiwan. The decade was tumultuous, and not well-known in the West. From 1895 to 1945, Taiwan was colonized by the Japanese. But when Japan lost World War II, Taiwan was ceded back to Chinese rule, only to be colonized by the mainland Chinese, who were engaged in a civil war with what turned out to be Mao’s army. When Chang Kai-Shek fled the mainland, Taiwan became their domain and the Taiwanese felt betrayed. At the same time, America and the West recognized Taiwan as the “free” China, compared to “Red” China.

“This created a huge cultural tension for the Taiwanese people,” says Berry. “Some of the major political and cultural hurdles that have haunted Taiwan since that period have its roots then.”

The film’s emotional core is the 228 Incident — February 28, 1947 — a small, violent episode that exploded into riots, thousands dead, and then led to martial law and political oppression. The spark that started the fire — the beating death of a street vendor by authorities — features in “City of Sadness” and is witnessed by a member of the apolitical Lin family. By the end of the film, the once-close-knit family unit will be tragically changed forever.

One of Asia’s best-known leading men, Tony Leung (“In the Mood for Love,” “Hero”) plays one of the Lin’s four brothers, a deaf-mute photographer — possibly a stand-in for the director, and one of Hou’s main metaphors for the country’s inability to talk about the events up until his film. Hou’s mastery of space, light and shadow, and camera movement, assisted by his cinematographer Huai-en Chen, came into its own here, the film he’d been preparing to make for the first part of his career.

Despite being picked up by the same distributor as Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” the film lay neglected, and now rights issues, dissolved production companies and endless legalities mean that it’s rarely seen. With redone subtitles and a clean print, the film has a chance to find a new audience. For one night only.

“City of Sadness”
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Yi Fang Wou, Nakamura Ikuyo, and Jack Kao
Length: 157 minutes
Playing: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at UCSB’s Campbell Hall
Cost: $6 general, $5 UCSB students

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