Edward Yang (1947-2007) was one of the two major figures of the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’. Compared to his compatriot Hou Hsiao-hsien, Yang completed only half as many films in a career ended by his early death aged only 59. His films have not always been easy to find in the UK, apart from Yi Yi (2000) and the earlier A Brighter Summer Day (1991). These two films are both excellent and available on Blu-ray/DVD, but as far as I know there are no other titles available on disc. For that reason, I was delighted to discover The Terrorizers as part of MUBI’s ‘library’ offer.
I think I have seen the film before, during an NFT season at the time of its release, but if so I remembered nothing. This isn’t surprising. As with some of the early films by Hou Hsiao-hsien, I think I struggled to understand such films at the time. I’m intrigued to discover that among the few reviews listed by IMDb, there is one which claims The Terrorizers as the ultimate ‘postmodernist’ film and that seems a good call for a mid 1980s film. I hadn’t realised that Frederic Jameson wrote a famous essay on Yang, quoted here in a piece by Jonathan Rosenbaum from 1997:
Taiwan is somehow within the world system as its citizens are in their city boxes: prosperity and constriction all at once; the loss of nature . . . What is grand and exhilarating, light itself, the hours of the day, is nonetheless here embedded in the routine of the city and locked into the pores of its stone or smeared on its glass: light also being postmodern, and a mere adjunct to the making of reproducible images.
— Fredric Jameson, ‘Remapping Taipei’, in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (1995)
I confess that Jameson offers densely argued ideas for me but I can see that there are some familiar postmodernist concerns in Yang’s films. Rosenbaum argues that four filmmakers are central to a visionary cinema that properly attempts to investigate modernity both in the world and in cinema. As well as the two Taiwanese directors mentioned here he picks out the Iranian pair, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. It’s an interesting argument but here I want to just focus on The Terrorizers. In the essay by Jimmy Weaver, linked on IMDb, Taiwan is seen as the ‘hyper-globalised’ city in which accidental collisions and contacts occur in an urban environment rather than causal connections in a traditional narrative. Weaver then focuses on formal questions to distinguish Yang’s filmmaking. In a contrasting essay on Senses of Cinema, James Waters focuses more on Yang’s approach being a response to the end of martial law in Taiwan and the ‘opening up’ of the country, especially to American and other western cultures. Waters titles his essay ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ – a reference to the use of the Platters song in the film. Both these approaches have interesting things to say and can inform our analysis.
The narrative features eight central characters and three or four narrative strands which come together finally in a process of ‘collisions’. The film begins early in the morning in Taipei. A young man rises, looks out of his window and realises that there is a police stakeout across the road. He dresses, picks up his camera and goes out to shoot pictures, leaving his girlfriend dozing after reading all night. Meanwhile a woman awakes after sleeping on a couch. Her husband is dressing for work and they are clearly sleeping separately. She appears to be a novelist. The young man captures images of a girl escaping from the building staked by the police and injuring herself as she jumped. The girl is bi-racial and she collapses on her way home. The novelist’s husband drives to work and comes across more police cars racing to the stake out and then passes the girl on the pavement. When he gets to work, in a medical laboratory, he learns that his boss has died and this will possibly mean he will be promoted. We are 12 minutes into the film and we’ve met five characters as well as a bunch of police with one in charge. He will become a sixth character. Two more are yet to emerge. The novelist and the lab technician each have their own story which also impinges on their relationship. The roles of the girl (referred to as ‘White Chick’), the photographer and the police officer are not yet clear but will eventually introduce three more narratives and then will collide with the story of the husband and wife.
I’ve tried to outline the structure, but I’ve had to go back and replay that opening 12 minutes which confused me at the time and I would need to watch the whole film again to confirm all the aspects of the narrative which I’ve no intention of ‘spoiling’ heree. All that I will say is that the film ends with what seems like a resolution, but then restarts and contradicts what we have just seen.
Making sense of this film means abandoning the simplified cause and effect narratives of classical cinema and embracing what would later become a form of global postmodern narrative over the next twenty years. This type of narrative is all about accidental connections and is often represented by that phrase about a butterfly flapping its wings and starting a chain of events around the world. It is all linked to chaos theory. In this film that moment might be characterised by a prank telephone call made by White Chick when she is bored at home convalescing from her fracture under her mother’s watchful care. Her random phone call precipitates an escalation of one of the main narrative drives in the film. The chaos of the interconnected lives in the film is a signifier of postmodernity. Though each pair of characters know each other, the connections to characters in other pairs is better seen as random.
The 1980s is seen as the decade in which Taiwan gradually emerges from an agrarian past into an urban future and the ‘New Wave’ films mark both the loss of identity of the city dwellers and their consequent sense of isolation. It’s interesting that both Yang and Hou were born in mainland China in 1947 but were brought to Taiwan by their parents to escape the conclusion of the Civil War in 1948-9. Yang was born in Shanghai, the once and future global city of postmodernity. For young filmmakers, the European New Wave filmmakers of the 1950s/60s were important – Edward Yang has explained that he saw many European films in cinemas sponsored by the Kuomintang government in Taiwan as part of their campaign to present the country as the ‘real China’ in the 1960s/70s. Because of this, several commentators have suggested that Yang was influenced by Antonioni, citing both Blow-Up (UK-Italy 1966) and L’eclisse (Italy-France 1962). I can see that there are grounds to make such a connection, but watching the film my own thoughts were more about connections to some of Wong Kar-wai’s work in the 1990s. Wong is often quoted as part of a ‘Second Wave’ of New Hong Kong cinema so his films are perhaps influenced by Yang, especially Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995).
The sense of dislocation and alienation is also worked out in the geopolitical history of the 1980s in which Taiwan becomes more isolated diplomatically after the US recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taiwan had already been expelled from the UN and so the contradictions of living in a country beginning to prosper economically and enjoying more sense of political freedom (i.e. less sense of repression) are contradicted by a feeling of abandonment by American foreign policy. This must have been particularly difficult for Yang who had trained as a filmmaker in the US. If I want to understand this situation I’m going to have to try to find access to more of Yang’s work. The Terrorizers has certainly encouraged me to do so.
I like that you mentioned Wong Kar-wai rather than Antonioni as a connection, because that gorgeous ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ montage feels so much like Wong in terms of its mood and the way it connects disparate people through music. Actually, if we wanna dig a bit deeper, Wong’s long-time cinematographer Chris Doyle got his break shooting Edward Yang’s debut, so it seems certain that Wong would have been aware of Yang’s cinema.
And to get a clearer sense of that cinema, may I recommend (if you haven’t yet seen it) Yang’s Taipei Story? Again it shows him to be a master of mood, and visuals, without so much of the puzzle-structure of The Terrorisers. I know it’s available on The Criterion Collection, and stars Hou Hsiao-hsien in the lead role… highly recommend it!
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