The principal discovery being made by Taiwanese directors is their own history […] This new field of inquiry […] must negotiate the coexistence of colonizer with colonized; Confucianism with capitalism, democracy, and socialism; China with Japan and America; and personal identity with corporate and national identities.
– Jonathan Rosenbaum1
Edward Yang’s 1985 film has two different names. Its Chinese title is Qing mei zhu ma, an idiomatic phrase coined by poet Li Bai that means “Green plum, bamboo horse”, an oblique reference to a couple whose love has emerged out of childhood games and trivia.2 It is applied by Yang ironically, for the film’s two main characters, Lung (Taiwanese New Wave filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien) and Chin (Tsai Chin), are long-time sweethearts who are excruciatingly distant from each other. Its English one is Taipei Story, an apparent reference to Yasujirō Ozu’s Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953), a film that, like Taipei Story, explores a nation and city’s marked departure from traditional values. The film’s separate titles illuminate two distinct yet overlapping truths about Yang’s masterful Taiwanese New Wave film.
Taipei Story opens with Chin looking at a new apartment with Lung. She wants to escape her father’s smothering, oppressive influence. “Times have changed. An unmarried woman moving out?” her father (Wu Ping-nan) says to himself, illustrating his unflinching devotion to values from a bygone Taiwanese era. Like most apartments up for sale, this one is completely empty. But Yang immediately imbues it with an extraordinary sense of emotional constriction and unavailability: Lung clings to the dark, peripheral spaces offered up by the shadows against the apartment’s walls, while Chin keenly investigates it for herself. “We could put speakers here, to hold the tape deck, VCR, speakers and TV,” Chin says calculatedly. Lung does not even bother responding.
This scene clinically, yet poetically, sets the film’s tone. Yang’s intentions – cloaked in a meticulously wrought, visually arresting style that perhaps influenced Sofia Coppola’s Tokyo-set Lost in Translation (2003) and Spike Jonze’s Shanghai-inflected vision of a future LA in Her (2013) – come through immediately: the encroachment of consumerist values in Taipei carries harrowingly bad consequences, the worst of which relate to breakdowns in human communication and emotional and psychological harmony. And the rest of the film is dedicated to seeing this process out: characters’ faces often remain expressionless; they seldom stand close to one another; they speak in muffled or hushed tones; and, at most, they exchange fleeting glances that overflow with feelings of melancholy and lost opportunities. Lung and Chin’s painful exchanges exemplify this most clearly.
Lung is a former champion baseballer whose glory days have since vanished. Nevertheless, his life consists of trying to recapture those same feelings of purpose, of joy and camaraderie. Lung spends his time watching baseball tapes, attending Little League matches and even helping out an ex-teammate (Wu Nien-jen, another Taiwanese New Wave filmmaker) with his wife’s gambling addiction. His life as a fabric manufacturer brings him little satisfaction, and he accordingly plods around Taipei with little sense of urgency for the present. Chin, in contrast, busily occupies herself in modern Taipei, rushing from location to location – often wearing a dark, dense pair of sunglasses – in order to seize opportunities, meet new people and party with similarly minded friends. She has established herself as a mid-level executive in a thriving corporate enterprise run by the steely, self-assured Mrs. Mei (Chen Shu-fang). However, when the company is taken over by new management, Chin is told that her only place in the corporate structure is as a secretary, a role that she firmly rebukes.
For local critics, accustomed to a diet of optimistic melodramas,3 action and martial-arts pictures, Taipei Story was a breath of fresh air that “helped change the face of Taiwanese cinema”.4 Though, at the time, the film was not all that popular in Taiwan, nor was it seen by many around the world due to poor global distribution. Needless to say, its box-office record was meagre. Yang remembers a common disappointment of audiences: “What? You call this a love story? People breaking up?”5
“But’s that’s how I looked at the city at the time – we were breaking away from the past,” Yang says.6 However, he hardly romanticises the past, either. Chin’s father is a relic of the past; he evokes not an ounce of sympathy in us. He orders Chin around without a second thought, telling her to “get [him] a beer” and to serve it. His wife (Mei Fang) is barely seen, except when framed in Ozu-like compositions, cooking or cleaning up. His bottlecap business has also collapsed, owing to his lack of “quality control”, a sign of his deceptive ways.
When shady loan sharks come for Chin’s father, he has no way to pay them. Equipped with his own set of traditional values – altruism, loyalty, beneficence – Lung bails him out. But in the process, he gives up the money that he and Chin had set aside to emigrate to the United States. “He’s ruined our plans, and you helped him?” Chin spits at Lung. Her reaction is not entirely clear: is she so incensed because Lung helped her cruel, self-serving father, or is she against the very idea of giving up things for the sake of others?
Yet, even then, Lung is not a paragon of virtue. He is intemperate, physically lashing out at a Westernised corporate trader who makes a snide remark about his baseball history, and he fails to express appreciation for Chin on numerous occasions. “I’m home late and you don’t want to know why,” she says, as Lung remains transfixed by old tapes of American baseball.
Like Chin and Lung’s relationship, Taipei is a city besieged by uncertainty and coldness. Its identity, its essence, is being pulled in all sorts of different ways by a multitude of internal and external forces: by American culture (as symbolised by Wall Street-styled corporate offices, broadcast TV news, Michael Jackson and Kenny Loggins music) and Japanese influence (seen in the karaoke bars, neon-lit Fujifilm advertisements and the characters’ use of Japanese language), by the old values of family and unblemished faithfulness and by the new ones of efficiency, individualism and financial accumulation. Belying this political, cultural and economic jostling is a profound anxiety – for what Taipei and Taiwan should be, and for what human relationships should consist of. Yang’s haunting coda, drenched in simultaneous delirium and resignation, suggests no definitive answer.
• • •
Taipei Story (Qing mei zhu ma, 1985 Taiwan 119 minutes)
Prod Co: Evergreen Film Production Company Prod: Huang Yung, Lin Jung-feng, Liu Sheng-chung Dir: Edward Yang Scr: Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chu T’ien-wen, Edward Yang Phot: Yang Wei-han Ed: Wang Chi-yang, Sung Fan-chen Prod Des: Tsai Cheng-pin Snd: Tu Tu-chih Mus: Edward Yang
Cast: Tsai Chin, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wu Nien-jen, Lin Hsiu-ling, Ke Su-yun, Ke I-cheng, Mei Fang, Wu Ping-nan, Chen Shu-fang
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 339. ↩
- Andrew Chan, “Taipei Story: Modern Planning,” The Current, 31 May 2017, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4628-taipei-story-modern-planning ↩
- John Anderson, Edward Yang (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005), p. 12. ↩
- ibid., p. 9. ↩
- Edward Yang, “Taiwan Stories,” New Left Review 11 (September–October 2001), https://newleftreview.org/II/11/edward-yang-taiwan-stories ↩
- ibid. ↩