Taipei Story

Taipei Story ★★★★

"It cannot be said that Taipei is a modern and Western-style city, in the same way that one could affirm this of Shanghai, for example. Rather it is an example of some generally late-capitalist urbanization (which one hesitates, except to make the point, to call postmodern), of a now classic proliferation of the urban fabric that one finds everywhere in the First and Third Worlds alike." - Frederick Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic

"How was Los Angeles?"
"It's just like Taipei."

A very lazy viewer could point to the Western pursuits of the two main characters in Taipei Story and draw the conclusion that the film is a comment on American influence on the far east. Chin (Tsai Chin) has a career real estate development and her estranged lover, Lung (Hou Hsiao-Hsien) can't get over his once promising career in baseball. I think doing so would largely ignore both the individual history of those things in Taiwan, but more importantly, would be ignorant of the "global" shift that began in the 1980s (perhaps earlier) and informs our postmodern and neoliberal present. I unfortunately missed the big Olivier Assayas event that happened in New York last week, but Taipei Story, a wildly different experience cinematically, speaks to the global interconnected/disconnected form of his films.

Formally, Yang is obviously more in line with someone like Antonioni. The pristine and empty developments that Chin tours are reminiscent of the locations in L'Eclisse. There's always been a lingering, perhaps forced, critical connection made between later Taiwanese art house fare (I think of someone like Tsai as younger and "more rebellious" than Yang and Hou) and Antonioni. In the art film world, East Asian films with long static shots became a "thing" towards the start of the 21st century and critics followed this explosion with comparisons to the Italian giant and refused to avoid phrases like "urban alienation" or words like "ennui." These critics are not entirely incorrect, but Hou's character in this film has a very different experience than say, Lee Kang-sheng's character in Rebels of the Neon God or any of the men in Antonioni's eros trilogy. Hou's character is haunted by a very specific nationalist dream, one that has become outdated not in a "new Taipei" but in a new global landscape that has reshaped cities such as Taipei. Taiwan's little league baseball championship is incompatible with a world of high rises. He is uncomfortable in Chin's apartment. He exists in-between these spaces, which are of course largely figurative. They do play out with material consequences, though. Lung meets up with an old teammate, who lives in a highly dense and undeveloped slum. The old teammate works as a cab driver, ironically a profession slowly disappearing in 2017.

Lung cannot move forward, but it is not as though Chin is entirely composed and confident in this world. She is pursued, somewhat aggressively, by her former boss. She laments that he only asks her out for drinks. A line like "you're always drinking, is it a habit or a hobby?" surely resonated with the group of hungover 20something Brooklynites that made up most of the screening's audience. On a similar note, Yang's party sequences are exceptional. They are not loaded with conflict (though there is one bar fight - soundtracked by Michael Jackson!) but instead embedded with a combination of excitement and dread. There is a social function to these sequences, of course, but a sense of anxiety lingers. Maybe it says something about me that I respond to them so well.

Taipei Story along with its followup, The Terrorizers, showcase Edward Yang at his very best. A filmmaker very much tuned into the physical alterations of the urban landscape around him, but also aware of and speaking to the global consequences that produced such changes. Another Edward, Edward Soja described capitalism as the auteur shaping and making space, urban or otherwise. Yang's films during this period are documents of these changes. The spaces the characters inhabit seem tainted by the same residue of disappointment that contaminates their personal lives. One could describe these urban spaces as symbolic, but I prefer to think of the spaces and the feelings as creating the conditions for each other. The characters here aren't depressed and lethargic because of the city, but the city and the capitalism-as-auteur that reshapes it, constructs the precise conditions where these feelings are felt.