Taipei Story and Terrorizers: Edward Yang's Early Works

15/02/2023

Ben Jordan reviews two early works by Taiwanese auteur Edward Yang

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By Ben Jordan

In the echelons of East Asian cinema few names are as lauded as Edward Yang. The Taiwanese auteur may have had a relatively short career, but his 7 feature films released between 1983 and 2000 were more than enough to ensure his legacy is not forgotten. In this review I will focus on two of Yang’s earlier works, Taipei Story (1985) and Terrorizers (1986), though a compelling article could arguably be written about any of his films.

The release of Taipei Story in 1985 coincided with a period of transition in Taiwan, and throughout the film Yang paints the titular city in a state of upheaval. I was reminded of the early work of Wong Kar-wai when watching it, particularly his debut feature As Tears Go By (1988). Both Wong and Yang are preoccupied with the crisis of identity experienced by their compatriots, and in Taipei Story Yang scrutinises the neon streets of 1980s Taipei with the same sardonic eye that Wong would turn to Hong Kong in 1988.

Though I was not initially sold on this film, I was surprised to find myself warming to it over the course of its run-time. There are certain scenes in Taipei Story that lack the clear sense of purpose that underpins some of its more distinguished moments, but in spite of this it ultimately won me over with its inventive blend of drama and romance.

Its protagonists, Lung (played by fellow Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien) and Chin, make for a believable couple and their domestic drama acts as the framework for a nuanced social commentary on the contemporary state of Taiwan. There is a clear conflict implicit throughout this film between a more conservative perspective on Taiwanese identity, that turns to China for answers, and the influence of the free market capitalism espoused by the Reagan-era America of the 1980s.

Furthermore, there is a clear progression to both of the protagonists throughout Taipei Story, and some of its most interesting scenes came when they debated the viability of the American Dream. By the end of the film I found myself rejecting my previous optimism, and ultimately feeling as pessimistic as its characters. Part of the reason why the film has such resonance is because of its director, who pulls out all the stops here on his sophomore feature. But Taipei Story is also distinguished by its performances, and the intimate way that Yang depicts its titular city. It is a rare film that provides its audience with the opportunity to occupy a particular space at a particular time: like the New York of Taxi Driver (1974), Taipei also comes to feel like a character over the course of the film.

However, in spite of a few distinguished moments, Taipei Story ultimately still has the feel of a sophomore feature. For the first hour or so of its runtime I was bored. Scenes splutter into motion only to go nowhere, and it was only after a significant turning point in Lung’s character (after the bar-fight) that I found myself invested in the film. Even though Yang ultimately repaid my patience, I only wish that the cohesion of its second-half was as apparent in its first. Though Taipei Story is finely crafted, it is relatively underwhelming when compared to the heights that Yang would reach later in his career with Yi Yi (2000).

I felt a similar way about the director’s next film, Terrorizers (1986). Though also set in Taipei, the city feels drab compared to its depiction in Taipei Story. The pacing of both films is very slow, and this is coming from someone who likes Tarkovsky. Perhaps I should have come to expect this by now. My experience watching Terrorizers was remarkably similar to my experience watching Taipei Story: for the first hour of the film, I was bored, but after I gave myself over to it I found that my patience was ultimately rewarded. Though Terrorizers is a more exciting film than Taipei Story, its disparate structure means that it is not as easy to follow as its predecessor. Terrorizers follows a set of four distinct characters, who come to find their lives intertwine in increasingly irrevocable ways over the course of the film. There is a depressed novelist and her husband, a budding photographer, and a young woman with a penchant for sadistic prank calls. The convoluted structure of the film, combined with its editing, meant that by the end of it I barely felt like I knew (or cared) about any of its characters, to the point where even now I cannot recall a single one of their names.

However, Terrorizers is ultimately worth watching for its surprisingly violent ending alone, which is also remarkably evocative of Taxi Driver. Though it lacks the neon streets and political subtext of Taipei Story, Terrorizers is far from a bad film, and it is easy to forgive Yang for his slow start when you consider how accomplished some of his later works (such as Yi Yi) are. Though I am not eager to revisit either film anytime soon, watching Taipei Story and Terrorizers helped to give me an insight into both Yang and Taiwan, which is perhaps more important than ever now that it finds itself in a game of geopolitical tug of war between America and China once again.