The Terrorizers (1986) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Coincidence followed by tension

Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang’s “The Terrorizers”, which is currently being in shown in South Korean theaters, is a haunting urban drama which is subtle and deceptive in its gradual accumulation of anxiety and tension around its main characters. Because I came into the screening room without much information on the story and characters, I kept wondering where its seemingly laid-back narrative is exactly going, and then I was caught off guard as observing what has been so delicately and thoughtfully established during the first two acts leading to a series of calm but striking moments during the last act.

The story begins with a small-scale police raid on an illegal gambling spot located somewhere in the middle of Taipei in the 1980s. Although we do not get much detail on the raid, it is apparent that those small-time criminals have no way out at all as surrounded by local cops, and we see one of them trying to escape along with some young girl but eventually getting arrested by the cops already waiting for them.

The young girl, who happens to get herself injured during the escape attempt, draws the attention of a young male amateur photographer who happens to be around the cops. This anonymous lad, who later turns out to be from some rich family, wants to pursue his aspiration to become a professional photographer more, but his parents expect him to pay more attention to other things including the upcoming military draft, and his relationship with his girlfriend becomes quite deteriorated as she gets frustrated a lot with him usually putting his photography above all else. After her girlfriend subsequently leaves, he keeps focusing on his photography, but he also becomes curious about who that young girl is.

We later get a glimpse into the daily life of that young girl, who, due to her injury, gets stuck in a small residence where she and her mother have lived. Her mother is not so pleased to know that the young girl gets herself into another trouble, but the young girl and her mother have been pretty estranged from each other. At one point, her mother shows some care and affection as playing a certain famous pop song in the background, but that is all in the end, and the young girl still remains in isolation all day long while her mother is frequently absent for working outside.

However, it slowly turns out that the main focus of the story is a couple who comes to go through a serious crisis of their married life. Li Lizhong (Lee Li-chun) is a doctor working in some big hospital in the city, and he is looking forward to taking the position of his recently diseased direct boss, but his wife Zhou Yufen (Cora Miao) is not so delighted about the possibility of her husband’s promotion. She was once an aspiring young writer, and now she is trying to follow her aspiration again, but she often feels uncertain and frustrated while not getting much support from her husband, who is mostly occupied with how to beat a few potential competitors for his promotion.

And then something happens on one day. Bored with being stuck in her residence, the aforementioned young girl begins to try a series of prank phone calls, and then she comes to try on the telephone number of Zhou and Li’s apartment, which merely draws her attention by coincidence as she rummages in a telephone book (Yes, young folks, there was such a thing like that in the 20th century). To her, it is just a harmless prank phone call, but that prank phone call touches something inside Zhou’s mind, and we soon see Zhou going through a slow but gradual change in her life as stepping forward bit by bit. Starting to work at her ex-boyfriend’s company, she finally decides to apply for some prominent contest for new writers, and, to her husband’s bafflement, she also comes to have more doubt on their married life.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned young amateur photographer happens to encounter the young girl. When they happen to spend some time together in his new residence, the young girl is touched to see how much he has paid attention to her as reflected by one certain thing on the wall, but she eventually goes back to her old criminal life. While quite disappointed with that, the lad comes to decide to rectify what she did to Zhou and Li, and that is how Li belatedly comes to realize how much he and his wife have been distant from each other.

The mood accordingly becomes more tense as how one incident leads to another with more consequences around the main characters in the film, but Yang keeps sticking to his usual phlegmatic attitude, and he generates some interesting moments as simply observing empty spaces for a while at times. Like his other notable film “Taipei Story” (1985), the movie feels vivid and vibrant whenever it musingly looks at the people and locations of Taipei, and we are accordingly immersed more into its palpable and distinctive urban atmosphere. As a matter of fact, we are so emotionally involved in the story and characters during its third act that we are quite devastated by what shockingly but inevitably happens at the end of the story.

Like many of Yang’s notable films such as “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991) and “Yi Yi” (2000), “The Terrorizers” is your typical slow film which will definitely demand some patience in the beginning, but it is a very rewarding experience on the whole. I am glad that I and other South Korean audiences had the opportunity to watch Yang’s several films on big screen during last 3 years, and I sincerely wish that this will lead to more attention to his exceptional works and their immeasurable influences on many other filmmakers out there.

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