Taipei Story

Taipei Story ★★★★

Edward Yang apparently hated when critics compared his work to Antonioni, but in TAIPEI STORY the comparisons are impossible to miss. For starters, the architectural mood of the film quite literally eats its characters alive. Massive buildings not only reduce pedestrians and automobiles to shapeless sprawl, but the buildings themselves are also impressively stable while the people who walk around them appear small and fragile. Characters are afflicted with a nameless spiritual disease as they wander the vast, volatile landscape of modern Taipei, only to find their own sense of dissatisfaction reflected back at them in the city’s contorted glass and empty spaces. Yang fixates on architecture as a contextualizing mechanism for the city’s rapidly evolving, unstable, fractured landscape, with Lung trying to recapture the praise of his past that has since vanished, and Chin contemplating a future that is rife with material gain but cold on romantic love. The depiction of broad social change through the prism of architectural abstraction makes this Antonioni-styled tale of love and modernity feel decisively avant-garde.

Lung and Chin feel patterned after the disillusioned couples of LA NOTTE and L’ECLISSE, two lovers who can’t quite seem to make their romance work in a city that feels as alien as their connection. The city itself is confused by intersecting conflicts and settings: an antiquated fabric store vs. a Wall Street-styled corporate office; western bars vs. Japanese karaoke; age-old habits of women cooking or cleaning up vs. an unmarried woman moving towards white-collar mobility. The city doesn’t even feel like it has its own culture, as if it’s already been sold to the economic bull markets of globalization. Whether it’s American music (Footloose), sports (baseball), or fashion (Marilyn Monroe calendar) influencing the common areas, or Japanese artifacts (Fujifilm billboards, karaoke bars) decorating the mis-en-scene, Taipei feels culturally rootless and increasingly ruptured by outside forces. Lung and Chin hold their severed relationship up to the severed pieces of the city that surrounds them, each clinging to a concept of “home” that has departed from its traditional values and become uncertain by its modern seductions. Yang leans into Ozu when confronting the unpleasant binaries of tradition vs. modernity, but the ephemeral way he pairs Taipei’s tumultuous landscape with the inner lives of his characters is no doubt evocative of Antonioni. 

The execution is cooly detached and almost clinical to a fault, but leaving these characters suspended in a state of endless brooding does reinforce the existential dislocation they must feel towards homeland. This is a film of personal feelings, doubts and moods, framed within the immensity of skyscrapers and the aesthetics of alienation. The past and future of Taipei is seen scattered in all kinds of directions, but where it hits the hardest is in characters who no longer feel a sense of belonging to the city, or to each other. Lung feels hopelessly removed from past athletic glories, Chin feels uncertain and possibly scared to move into future corporate glories. Their love is impossible, in one sense a relic of the past, in another sense a hostage to the future. Yang, says Andrew Chan, is “resigned neither to the reassurances of tradition nor to the enticements of modernity.” Like Ozu, he sees his country stuck between a past that only blocks progress, and a present in which a uniquely “Taiwanese identity” has all but ceased to exist. Maybe Lung and Chin can flee to another country and start over again, somewhere with more cultural cohesion and belonging, but even this, in the end, is seen for what it is — an illusion, a joke that literally evaporates into smoke as Lung takes a final drag on a nighttime curbside. In the end, there’s just this feeling of being stuck between two worlds, two generations, the friction between young and old, male and female, without the ability to bridge or reconcile them. The characters are stuck in limbo like the city itself, resigned to either living in the shadows offered up by their apartment walls, or in the city’s skyline that reflects a twisted and distorted reality of what they call “home.”

Yang Ranked 

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