Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.
A City of Sadness aka 悲情城市 aka bēiqíng chéngshì
dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien (1989) scr. Chu T’ien-wen and Wu Nien-jen cin. Chen Huai-en with Tony Leung, Sung Young Chen, Jack Kao, Li Tian-lu
In 100 words: Within a career that pushed the limits of patient, absorbing filmmaking, Sadness stands as Hou’s most coherent, most perfectly constructed, and most moving film. The film dwells on its silences, often punctuated by violence that ends as quietly as it began while its dusty palette evokes a broken world that lives up to the title. Hou’s careful geometric frames, and slow camera pans refuse to invade the characters’ spaces, which then lets the audience observe each shot like filmed theater. And the film’s story builds so quietly, that once we reach the end, we feel unexpectedly yet powerfully knocked out.
Other Movies for Context: God knows how much I love Hou Hsiao-hsien, even when his filmography feels uneven to me. There’s so much to glean from his patient long takes and unfussy mise en scene. A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985) was a very good pre-Brighter Summer Day Taiwanese youth movie that lacked some of Hou’s trademark long takes. Dust in the Wind (1986) feels like the start of the Hou we know, with his Mark Lee Ping-bin partnership, but it felt less absorbing and more dull. The Puppetmaster (1993) feels like the nadir of Hou’s work, while Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) is the other peak of his career. Millennium Mambo (2001) is my personal favorite from his work, while Three Times (2005) has the most magnificent 30 minutes of Hou’s career. I had little patience for The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), but I had a bit more for The Assassin (2015).