Two couples wake up, shamble through their respective apartments. A photographer (Ma Shao-chun) pricks up his ears at the sounds of a stake-out. Each consecutive image struggles to keep pace with its clipped edits: in Shot 1, he picks his jacket up off a tatami mat; in Shot 2, he picks up his camera; in Shot 3, a pair of army boots lies dormant by the front door. This last image cuts before the sounds of dampened footsteps can visually coalesce with the wearing of boots, laces untied.
The other couple continue with their day in an unseemly fashion, the man (Lee Li-chun) a lowly lab technician and the woman (Cora Miao) a struggling writer. “Writing a novel shouldn’t be so deadly,” her husband chides her as she lies on a nearby couch, despondent. The action, while couched in warm domesticity, is tainted with unease.
The opening elisions between cause and effect cumulatively build into a comprehensible scenario: four principal characters, each connected by the scattershot blast from a rooftop shootout that is clumsily snuffed out before it can begin. The young photographer surreptitiously takes photos of the crime scene, pointing his lens towards a young woman (Wang An) leaping from the desiccated building and limping away with a sprained ankle. Routine has been fractured; the intermittent clicks of a camera upset the film’s sequential lock step initially disrupted by the image of unworn army boots.
As was the wont of Edward Yang, the narrative here is irritated and made up of discordant ricochets; Kong bu fen zi (The Terrorizers, 1986), like at least two other Yang films I can recall, ends in bloodshed. The murders don’t stick, however. In his magnum opus, Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian (A Brighter Summer Day, 1991), the sequence that imprinted on my mind was that of a slow pan, encroaching its way towards a revelation. Almost as if disinterested in the ensuing conversation between the films’ two main characters, our gaze is diverted from the image of a girl walking off-screen and toward the lacquered varnish of a day-lit doorframe, which displays a light-etched reflection of two people conversing. Wooded bumps and a white shine make an obscured conversation all the more fascinating, the impenetrable doorframe a truer, mirrored harbinger for impending destruction than the camera’s own untainted visions.
Similar scenes appear in The Terrorizers, of course. The title itself refers to a necessitated jostle, each character attempting to reframe their surroundings, refracting Taipei in a similar fashion to Yang’s elliptical, intuitive filmmaking. As he waits for an impending draft notice, the young photographer passes the time by freezing it. Without context and purely as a result of each obsessive moment, he constructs a shrine to the aforementioned limping girl, referred to as “White Chick” due to her Eurasian heritage. This shrine – a large mosaic portraiture taped together with A4 print sheets – flutters according to the breeze from a nearby (off-screen) opened window, through which the daylight illuminates the photos. The writer finishes her novel, prompted partially by a prank call (courtesy of “White Chick”) that fuels her suspicion of her husband’s non-existent promiscuity, all the more ammunition to leave him. Each of these endeavours yields a greater unrest, an attempt to reckon with clipped encounters through conscious, painstaking meddling, expulsive yelps into a dulling void.
Each of the principle characters is roughly within the ages of 17 to 35, in a film realised by a then-39-year-old filmmaker in tune with an ever-changing cultural landscape. The Terrorizers was completed seven years after the Kuomintang National Party, Taiwan’s presiding, right-wing political force, began to lose its iron grip over the martial law it had instituted. Post ‘79, Taiwan began to form something resembling a democratic society, prompting Yang’s return to the homeland after postgraduate studies and computer programming work in the US. The government’s loosened grip on censorship instigated the banding together of childhood friends Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wu Nien-jin and Yu Wei-yen, a ragtag group of artists/collaborators reckoning with an ineffable something permeating the air of a reforming Taiwan. With reform came Westernisation (under the diplomatic influence of Jimmy Carter) and urbanisation, as evidenced in this film’s images of a largely concrete Taipei lined with out-of-place shrubbery and looming mountains, made increasingly opaque through an indiscernible concoction of fog and fumes.
This governmental reform wasn’t exactly ideal, however. When describing the aftermath of 1979 to the New Left Review, Yang expressed a simultaneous nostalgia and scepticism when speaking of this unknowable present, feelings never properly reckoned with throughout his filmography: “Under authoritarian rule, you can go underground with a feeling of purpose. But now everything looks fair, yet there’s no real participation in the system.”1
It’s no surprise that Yang would consequently turn to childhood oppression in A Brighter Summer Day. In the contemporary void that The Terrorizers occupies, there exists no point of friction, nothing to terrorise. The opening shootout is alarming largely because of the unnerving quiet surrounding it, as if each dubbed gunshot were sucked into a pervading vacuum, without substance or place. Such a vacuum eliminates any and all reverberations, whether emanating from a petty prank call to a long-laboured-over book. Each gesture yields a similar result, resembling that of a hollow yelp, for no-one and nothing in particular. The “post”-ness that surrounds the characters – post-martial law, post-autocratic rule – was, it seems, a transitioning purgatory that never seemed to end. The above interview excerpt comes from an article written in 2001, a year after the premiere of Yang’s swan song, Yi Yi. As per the above excerpt, Yang refers to The Terrorizers and its surrounding themes in present tense. Although the official period of martial law ended in 1987, a year after the film’s release, Yang maintains that this transitional unease never subsided. The modern, concrete jungle of Taiwan is a cracking facade, housing pasted over gambling dens with still visible, yet unacknowledged, bullet holes and remnants of ricochets – untied, frayed strands, cracks whose bullets have since dissipated.
The film’s final ten minutes attempts to tie together all prior loose threads into a filmic tapestry, not too dissimilar from the photographer’s mosaic. The lab worker husband goes on a killing spree, murdering “White Chick”, her accomplice and his wife’s new-found lover in the process. It’s a disruption: the first time in the film when a cohesive flow takes place, a tangible atrocity. A policeman (Ku Pao-ming), previously established as a close childhood friend of the technician, is rushing his way to the crime scene. There are no ellipses, and actions are clear, until they aren’t.
The policeman wakes up, as if the preceding actions were a bad dream. Having housed his distraught lab technician friend for the night, he stands, shaken, finding him slouched over in the bathroom, blood dribbling from the back of his mushy head and into a reddening bath, gun slipping out of his hand. The opening sequence has been reflected through a cracked mirror; initially, with a faltering attempt to rework the stake-out into something comprehensible, only to revert back into clipped elisions, that same present in which gunshots evaporate into a void. Like the wind disrupting the wholeness of a photographic mosaic, or the lingering shot of unworn shoes, the frictionless moments persist.
Cut back to the writer, sitting up in bed with her lover. She flinches, shaking towards a fit of closed-mouth gurgles. She leans over the bed and lets out a vomitous retch. The film cuts to credits mid-expulsion, disallowing the relief of an action fulfilled. Cause without effect, action without reverberation. Tension is held, laces untied.
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The Terrorizers (1986 Taiwan 109 mins)
Prod Co: Central Motion Pictures Prod: Lin Teng-fei Dir: Edward Yang Scr: Edward Yang, Hsiao Yeh Phot: Chang Chan Ed: Liao Ching-song Snd: Tu Tu-chih
- Edward Yang, “Taiwan Stories,” New Left Review 11 (September–October 2001), https://newleftreview.org/II/11/edward-yang-taiwan-stories ↩