Review: One Couple’s Promising ‘Taipei Story,’ Slowly Undermined


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Tsai Chin as Chin in “Taipei Story,” a film directed by Edward Yang that is having an official theatrical release in the United States before being released on DVD.

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Janus Films

The too-brief filmography of the Taiwanese director Edward Yang is one of the most vital in all of cinema. Yang, who was in his 30s when he began his filmmaking career in the 1980s, made seven features; his final film, the intimate but also nearly epic “Yi Yi” (2000), was until recently the only one to have received a proper release in the United States. (He died of cancer in 2007.) His most challenging masterpiece, “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991), was released in theaters stateside in 2011 and on DVD and Blu-ray last year; now, a restoration of “Taipei Story” (1985), Yang’s spectacular second feature, is having an official theatrical release in the United States before being released on DVD.

The central story is of Chin (Tsai Chin, a Taiwanese pop star and the director’s wife at the time), a young woman who hopes her professional advancement can lift her out of a dreary family home, and Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien, himself a great director and also a writer of this screenplay), her seemingly aimless, baseball-obsessed boyfriend. The opening scene shows them looking at a potential new apartment for Chin; “not bad,” is the ultimate verdict, and that sentiment is about as good as it gets for these two. Almost as soon as Chin moves into the place, she loses her job and briefly engages a jaded architect at her former company in what could be the prelude to an affair.

The presence of a jaded architect in any film brings to mind Michelangelo Antonioni, and Yang had a clear affinity with that Italian filmmaker. Yang’s scenes of alienated urban structures are frequently staggering; throughout his body of work, he had a real knack for making the banal look uncanny. His approach to narrative yields frequent surprises in terms of emotional impact. Scenes end or are suspended after an uncomfortable truth between characters comes to light, or after an awkward question is asked. He doesn’t withhold information as a rule but applies this device to heighten the viewer’s involvement. Yang’s frequent use of cutting on the down beat, so to speak, gives the action a musical quality; the rhythms pop like bebop.

As we learn more about Chin and Lung, our impressions of them shift. The once seemingly ambitious Chin allows herself to be pulled into listlessness and hedonism, while Lung, a onetime baseball player now working as a fabric seller and weighing a move to the United States, is running himself ragged trying to do right by everybody in his circle. He tries to bail out Chin’s father, a crooked and lazy businessman who is indebted to some loan sharks, and comes to the aid of a former teammate, who is driving a cab day and night to support three kids and a wife who is gambling his earnings away. Lung can’t seem to get anything going for himself, though, and his quick temper can sometimes get the better of him. “You’re living in a fairy-tale world where only your pity can save us,” an ex-lover chides him late in the film.

The film charts a slide in its characters’ lives from “meh” to miserable to potentially catastrophic. Yang’s perspective imbues the narrative with a powerful, increasing sense of dread. The film’s finale lives up to that feeling, but in a way the viewer won’t see coming — very much like life itself.

Ultimately, “Taipei Story” is bleak yet exhilarating. Yang’s vision was bitter, but hardly without compassion, and he pulls it off here with a quiet confidence that he used to yield greater dividends in his subsequent film, the even more complex “The Terrorizers” (1986). Now, maybe that will be the next of Yang’s films to soon become more accessible to audiences here.

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