Thursday, July 23, 2020

Edward Yang | 青梅竹馬 (Qīngméizhúmǎ) (Taipei Story)

a world without now
by Douglas Messerli

Chu T’ien-wen, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Edward Yang (screenplay), Edward Yang (director) 青梅竹馬 (Qīngméizhúmǎ) (Taipei Story) / 1985

Edward Yang’s 1985 cinematic work, Taipei Story, is a fragmented narrative about a city’s past and future played out in its landscape and, particularly, in the lives of its two central characters, Chin (the off the screen Taiwanese pop star, Tsai Chin, and Yang’s wife at the time of the filming) and Lung (played by the director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who also, with Yang and Chu T’ien-wen, wrote the script to this movie).
     The film begins in a slightly older high-rise apartment that has clearly seen better days. One almost might describe it as a kind of compromise between Chin, an assistant to a real estate operator working in a company obviously devoted to high-end real estate deals, and Lung, a former teenage baseball star, who still hangs out with some of his old buddies and helps to coach members of the newest teen league.
     Lung, however, is even more entwined to family, almost locked up, one might say, with family commitments. He works as a fabric seller, but is about to travel to the US where his brother-in-law is a wealthy businessman who Lung hopes will allow him to buy his way into participating as a business partner. Together the couple declare the property they are surveying as “not bad,” which as critic Glenn Kenny succinctly summarizes, “is about as good as it gets” for this still-unmarried couple. Without saying why, Yang makes it clear from the onset of his film that both Chin and Lung are delaying their wedding plans for reasons which will later become more apparent; if for no other reason, neither of them is quite ready for total commitment to each other. Furthermore, Lung will soon be away for several months while Chin plans to redo the place.
     It is clear that Chin is a more-than-capable worker representing a bright new hope (a term suggested in Yang’s later masterwork A Brighter Summer Day (1991). But no sooner does she rent their new somewhat dreary dwelling, than her office superior, Mrs. Mei, is let go and Chin herself is told by the new owner of the company for whom she works, that she is in an odd place in their business structure, being neither an executive nor secretary.
     She is encouraged to become a secretary, which also explains why Mrs. Mei was let-go. The new owners represent, quite obviously, a thing of past, with patriarchal values that will soon have no room in the future Taiwan. (It might be of interest to remind ourselves that the current present of that country is Tsai Ing-wen, a female who this year was re-elected with an increased percentage of the vote.) Before Chin can be fired, she resigns, and, one might suggest, to lift her spirits, starts up a deeper relationship with an architect friend, Mr. Ke (Ko I-chen), who also works for her former company. Looking out the window of his office he laments that he designed several of the buildings that lie below the tower in which he works, but can no longer remember which ones. In Yang’s film, even the somewhat recent past has given way to a future that has little meaning for those who cannot, for whatever reason, completely embrace it.
     In Ke’s case, it is an unloving wife a home that leads him to despair, which even a drink of beer with Chin is somewhat allayed. Chin, for her part—although trying to reach Mrs. Mei on occasion—keeps telling herself and others that she is simply taking a break between jobs, but we sense her inner despair of losing the upward mobility she has previously sought.
     Her brief affair with Ke is only one of the many problems she now faces, including a search for her missing daughter—whom she finally locates and offers a room in her new apartment—as well as the return from the states of Lung.
      After visiting his brother-in-law and sister, Lung is even more intent on buying his way into a partnership and moving to the States with Chin. Yet, even in his upbeat dreams of his own future, we sense the dangers that he may face he making such a radical move: his wealthy in-law lives in a mansion in a state where, so he tells it, you can drag a black man onto your property and claim he has trespassed with an intent to do harm and then legally kill him. In short, in retelling this horrific tale, Lung hints at his own reservations of making such a move and, were he to relocate, suggests the racism he might have to face.
     Where she was once a force in helping him make such decisions, Chin now appears rather passive about both her own and Lung’s futures, even though we suspect that she would rather stay in the world she knows.
      Lung, in the meanwhile, with the intent, so it seems, of making an offer to his US relative, determines to sell his decease father’s house, a well-built building of the old days that will surely go for a high price.
      But no sooner does he collect the payment than he runs into an baseball-playing friend of his youth,  Ch’en (Wu Nien-jen) who is now working almost full time in order to feed his children and to pay the bills of his endlessly gambling wife. The kind-hearted Lung gives him money to help the children eat, and later arrives with a large package of groceries, only to find the children alone in the house, while in a nearby café Ch’en’s wife is once more sitting at the gambling table. Pulling her away from the inn, and demanding that she properly attend to her crying children, Lung finds himself as serving the traditional role of a male figure in a family that has forsaken all traditional ties. Soon after, the wife commits suicide, suggesting that familial order and the behaviors that attend it are a thing of the past or, possibly, destroy those would live differently
     Hardly has Lung put in a call to his brother-in-law than he discovers that Chin’s father (Wu Ping-nan), whom Kenny correctly describes as a “crooked and lazy businessman” is about to be taken to collection by loan sharks who have long backed his gambling debts.
     Lung feels, simply out of the moral obligation for his relationship with the man’s daughter, that he is obligated to pay the debts, which leaves him with hardly any money left to buy his way into a business. Moreover, his telephone calls to his brother-in-law have not been returned for weeks.
     When Chin hears of obeisance, she is furious for his naivete. It is clear that she feels no commitment to her father or the past that he represents. Only later do we learn that as a child she often suffered beatings from the man so that he spare her mother the same tortures.
     Meanwhile Lung discovers that his former lover has now arrived from Japan to Taipei, he refusing her insistence that he continue the brief affair he had with her upon his stop-over in Japan from his US trip; he has lied about spending any time in Japan to Chin. Even his ex-lover rejects Lung’s connections with the past: “ “You’re living in a fairy-tale world where only your pity can save us.”
     Apparently, Lung cannot even entirely leave a woman connected with his past. It is an inferno which he cannot escape just as Chin is now unable to escape purgatory, the break she has taken from her search for her ideal job which might bring her both power and money.
       When Chin discovers the truth, the two fight, and Lung is sent packing with no longer anywhere he can go. He has even sold his car in order to raise the payment to help bring him the new future he imagines for himself.
       Mrs. Mei finally contacts Chin, and shows her around the new office space into which she is planning to move into with a new company, in which Chin will obviously serve a major role. But for the first time Chin actually remains quietly passive, as if she has lost all will to move on with her life.
       Indeed, in searching yet again for her missing daughter in the empty shell of a building in which she tracked her down the first time, Chin discovers only a young man studying for his entrance exams for college.
       The two immediately hit it off, and almost inexplicably she joins him on his scooter on a long trip through a partying night including her formerly missing daughter, during which, deeply inebriated, she falls into a kind of intense sleep. When Chin attempts to return home, she finds the young man waiting outside the building and quickly rushes away to escape him.
        Frozen-in-space, so to speak, a bit like Lung has equally has nowhere to turn, she calls her ousted lover for help. Together the two take a taxi to their apartment, only to discover that the boy has finally disappeared. But when Lung leaves, he discovers Chin’s obsessed would-be suitor again waiting for her. Lung impulsively grabs him insisting that the youth recognize his one-night relationship is over.
       Lung hails a taxi and is off to wherever he might go in a world that proffers him little possibilities of future, perhaps yet another night on the floor with his old baseball friend Ch’en and his children. Yet he finds that now Chin’s own past is following him in the form of the boy on his scooter. Ordering the taxi to stop, Lung leaves the vehicle as the cabbie speeds away, wanting no part of a confrontation.
     The older baseball player approaches the younger would-be student and beats him for his impudence. The fallen boy is seemingly left behind, as Lung begins to walk—not for the first time in Yang’s film—down the long road that might return him, at least, to civilization.
      Suddenly, the young man returns and again Lung rebuffs him, continuing on his march towards his destination. As he soon discovers, however, he is bleeding on the side of his lower stomach, at first just a few trickles, but then quite profusely.
      Confused, but also somewhat abashed by the fact that he unknowingly has been knifed by the kid, Lung continues for several more steps before the camera goes temporarily black before opening the lens again in its penultimate scene where we see a couch and other derelict household objects left near a curb for garbage pickup.
    Lung, now coughing and bleeding intensely, painfully pulls out a cigarette and with a rather bemused look, joyfully takes the smoke into his lungs in what he now recognizes will be his last few breaths. 
      No garbage truck arrives, but a brightly lit ambulance picks Lung up almost as if he were now a piece of tossed-away debris left by the side of the street.
     Yang leaves us with no answer concerning what choices, after she hears of Lung’s death, Chin will make for her future, whether with Mrs. Lei she will rise up to a manufactured paradise in the towers of Taipei or if she might, like her boyfriend, fall down in an almost humorous grief recognizing the meaninglessness of her aspirations. Will the possessive nameless young man return to haunt her? Those are the rich and somewhat ironic possibilities with which this profound director leaves us. In a city determined to transform its past into the future, what has happened to the all-important present, the now in which people can love and live?

Los Angeles, July 23, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2020).

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