Edward Yang’s “Taipei Story”, which was released in South Korean theaters a few days ago, is a melancholic urban drama about loneliness and disconnection. Although it initially requires considerable patience from us due mainly to its slow narrative pacing and detached storytelling, the movie slowly lets us immerse into its calm, realistic presentation of the Taiwanese society during the early 1980s, and you may reflect on a number of dry but undeniably haunting moments in the film after it is over.
The movie, which is set in Taipei during the early 1980s, mainly revolves around a woman and a man who have known each other for a long time: Chin (Tsai Chin) and Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien). Chin has worked in some small construction company, but the company is recently acquired by some bigger company, and Chin’s position in the company has been quite uncertain especially after her direct superior left the company. Lung, who has been one of Chin’s close friends since their childhood years, has run a small textile business, but things have not been going particularly well for him, and he is seriously considering going to US and then working with his brother-in-law there.
After being reminded again that she will be demoted to the position of a mere secretary, Chin eventually leaves the company, but she is frustrated again with how uncertain her life is at present. Her former direct superior, who is considering starting her own company now, may hire her someday, but she does not promise anything to Chin, and Chin comes to wonder whether she should move to US along with Lung.
However, it turns out that Lung’s current situation is not exactly good enough for him and Chin. When Chin’s father desperately needs lots of money due to his recent considerable business failure, Lung is willing to help him as much as he can for old times’ sake, but Chin is not particularly pleased about this because she does not love her father much as reflected by her small private scene with her mother, who is mostly wordless but speaks volume via her phlegmatic silence.
And it is revealed to us that Chin’s personal life has been rather complicated. While she lets Lung stay in her neat apartment from time to time, she has also been emotionally involved with a certain male employee in the company. At one point, she and that guy, who is incidentally married, has some private talk while having a dinner outside, and that later leads to a little ironic moment which brought chuckles from me and some other audiences around me.
Discerning that she cannot go further with that guy, Chin tries to get closer to Lung, but it only becomes more apparent that they are incompatible with each other regardless of whether they really love each other or not. While Lung often clings to those good old days in the past, Chin wants to move onto the next step of her life as soon as possible, and their personal difference becomes more evident when he happens to join a drinking party along with her and her colleagues.
After realizing that Lung is not that willing to go further along with her, Chin chooses to try something different later in the story. She goes to an abandoned place where her younger sister and some other young people have stayed without permission, and she subsequently has some fun time along with them, but then she only finds herself sensing the generation gap between her and these young people, though she gets a bit closer to one of them and subsequently has a little nice time along with him outside the city.
As leisurely moving from one episodic moment to another, the movie gradually establishes the realistically drab but vivid urban atmosphere on the screen, and Yang and his cinematographer Yang Wei-han effortlessly conveys to us the sense of loneliness and disconnection via thoughtful scene composition and smooth camera work. For example, I particularly like a certain brief shot early in the film which effectively emphasizes the emotional gap between Chin and one supporting character, and I also appreciate the melancholic poignancy of a key scene unfolded at a rooftop during one evening. Although the mood becomes a bit more intense during its last 30 minutes, the movie firmly sticks to its calm and detached attitude as before, and what eventually happens in the end is quietly devastating to say the least.
Most of the main performers in the film, who are uniformly solid on the whole, are not particularly familiar to many of us, but I must say that it is rather amusing to see Hou Hsiao-hsien, who would become one of the leading Taiwanese filmmakers just like Yang as making a number of acclaimed films such as “A City of Sadness” (1989), “Three Times” (2005) and “The Assassins” (2015). In case of Tsai Chin, who married Yang around the time when the movie came out (They later divorced in 1995, by the way), she holds her spot well beside Hou, but, so far, she only appeared in two movies after this film.
On the whole, “Taipei Story” is your typical arthouse film just like many of Yang’s works including “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991) and “Yi Yi” (2000). Although it looks rather modest compared to “A Brighter Summer Day” and “Yi Yi”, it is an admirable work with interesting aspects nonetheless, and I was glad to watch it at a local arthouse theater at last night. Yes, it is one of those ‘slow’ films, but it will impress you a lot once you accept what it is about as well how it is about.