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Analysis: “City of Sadness” by Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien Term Paper


Movies and films form an integral part of people’s normal living. Central to their fundamentalism, especially in shaping the social life of human beings, several studies have continuously concentrated on major film metrics including examining the historical significance, cultural phenomena, and filmmaking techniques incorporated in such movies.

Several traditional movies and other recent movies have constantly remained educative in spite of modern movies, which carry little social significance to the viewers. Therefore, in special attention to the aspect of ethnography, this paper seeks to provide a comprehensive film analysis of City of Sadness by Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

Overview of the Film

Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a world-renowned movie writer, dramatist, and an actor. Talking of movies acted by Hou, emphatically no one can match the antics and humor incorporated in Hou’s movies with several lessons drawn continuously from the actions. His movies are often emotional, down-to-earth, and socially compounded aspects.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien films have always addressed particular geography, history, and cultural phenomena with modern and educative cinematic elements breaking the European norms within the acting scenes, which were initially based on fictions and theater knacks.

This aspect has contributed to the increasing fame on Chinese movies especially in France and England within the European countries and across sub-Saharan Africa, which has continuously contributed to the expansion of Japanese and Chinese movie markets and enhanced their consumption as well.

One of the most famous movies and interesting movies include City of Sadness, which has become one of Hou’s most popular movies that have brought several social changes among communities across the world.

City of Sadness demonstrates an enthusing story of real lifetimes during the 1947 massacre popularly dubbed as 2/28 incident, which focuses on bloodshed portraying that the consequences of the suffering in individual families were most dependable on previous history and time.

The story concerns one of the Taiwanese families entangled in tragic incidences known as the “white terror” that engulfed the Taiwanese community in that era. It portrays the political injustices involved in the Taiwanese community that led to the killing of several people in a government clampdown that occurred in the 1940s.

Using the Chinese language to avail the message to the population has contributed much to the consumption of the movie as most of the people affected by the massacre involved the Taiwanese and the Chinese community.

The events unfolded during the crucial error of Second World War of 1945-1949, and thus the movie gained international fame because this war affected nearly all countries across the globe.

City of Sadness revolves around the story of a single-family living in Taiwan. The film illustrates the story of Lin’s family experiences during the “White Terror”, an event created in the story to demonstrate the existing picture during the World War II terror.

Four brothers form an integral part of the story. The oldest brother in the family nicknamed Wen-heung (Chen Sown-yung) tries to unite the family with the influence of Ah-lu (Li Ten-lu), the family patriarch. Unfortunately, Wen-heung undergoes a stressful moment as the Shangai mafia boss, using his political influence, orders the apprehension and ultimate execution of Wen-heung.

The second brother, Wen-sun, who mainly resides in the Philippines exists in the movie, but the movie does not reveal his whereabouts. However, the story demonstrates how the third brother, Wen-Leung (Jack Gao), suffers traumatic mental problems in jail that result from the tragic events of World War II.

Finally, the youngest brother, Wen-ching, who is deaf, involves himself in young anti-government socialists in quest of halting the KMT regime.

Aspect of Ethnography

One crucial aspect in the City of Sadness movie is eminent, viz. ethnography. The aspect of ethnography, which is core to this study, runs throughout the course of this movie. Ethnography conventionally refers to the qualitative research techniques used in exploring the cultural phenomena of certain communities.

Ethnography, as one of the most important social science subjects, encompasses several cultural aspects related to sociology, historical studies, communication studies, community composition, formations, resettlement behaviors, social welfare characteristics, spirituality, and materiality of certain communities.

Ethnography studies always ensure a substantial contribution towards making the reader to understand the social life of a given community of human beings, expressing the most convincing reality of a certain community.

Therefore, in relation to the City of Sadness movie, being a crucial film that communicates the social life of the Taiwanese and the Japanese, this study provides the movie analysis using the basic components of ethnography that may be available in the movie.

Ethnography in the Film

City of Sadness unveils a compelling reality about the Taiwanese and the Japanese communities, which are the two communities that form the most important part of the film.

The movie reveals several cultural aspects of the two communities, which tend to share almost similar cultural behaviors, with the Japanese culture being more popular as compared to the Taiwanese culture.

Using the City of Sadness movie, this study explores the general social life of Taiwanese, describes the communication patterns of values, behaviors, beliefs, and language of the Taiwanese community among other ethnographic related issues demonstrated in the City of Sadness.

The study unveils the historical issues related to the Taiwanese community as portrayed in film in relation to the current and previous situations that existed within the community.

The historical aspects of community and the cultural values provide an ideal insight into the background of the movie, which demonstrates that the suffering experienced resulted from the two aspects.

Historical Background of Taiwanese Massacre

Historically, Taiwan endured suffering during the historical occupation of the Japanese colonists who dominated Taiwan after the Qing Dynasty regime suffered a defeat in the Sino-Japanese War dating back to the 1894-1895 epoch that finally ended during the World War II.

During this moment, the Chinese nationalist government of that era took control of Taiwan. The Japanese mainlanders replaced the Taiwan government of that period, most of which the selection of the government officials included relatives or friends of topmost officials of the Japanese government.

There existed serious tension between the Kuomintang government (KMT) and the Taiwanese population that was unclear and of minor terror, until 28th of February the year 1947, which resulted into a violent confrontation that the Taiwanese popularly dubbed the war as the “Two-two-eight” 2/28 incident.

This incident broke the silent war between the two communities after police ransacked a poor Taiwanese woman, who vended cigarettes to support her single-family of two children.

On this date, the Taiwanese widow retailing on legal cigarettes and some contraband tobacco around the market to supplement her income, which purposely supported the welfare of her low-income family suffered trepidation after police from the Alcohol Monopoly Bureau confiscated her goods and apprehended her.

From the incitement of the KMT officers who dominated the illegal tobacco business, the police confiscated the woman’s goods, both legal and illegal, on top of taking away some amount of cash.

The incidence called for tension, which followed the moment of confrontation between the widow and the police officers, and this move enraged a crowd of passersby who followed the police officers to defend the woman.

Ultimately, this incident triggered a chain of events, which in turn resulted in chaos amid police and the crowd. The police officers fired angrily and aimlessly at the crowd, which tragically led to several deaths of citizens.

This aspect led to serious public processions to the Monopoly Bureau headquarters appealing for justice, but the police retaliated with gun firing leading to the terrible massacre.

The Taiwanese problems did not stop at that incident as unfortunate events unfolded in the continuing days. The president of the Chinese Nationalist government, Chen Yi, declared martial law aiming at protecting legal residents in Taiwan.

Chen Yi declared a war against the Taiwanese rebellions through reckless slaughter, careless arrests, and other forms of mistreatments that finally resulted in white terror.

Come the following year, the Chinese nationalist government forbade public discussion over the 2/28 massacre incidence and the media refused to highlight the issues as instructed.

Typically, the City of Sadness is a true movie version based on a real-ife story that unleashes the painful truth about the agonizing moments that the Taiwanese experienced during the Chinese nationalist government regime under the governance of Chen Yi.

Hou screened the movie in 1989 and it elicited a sharp public reaction, but the government refused to agree with the public. The victims recalled the incidence by erecting the Taipei national museum after the unfolding events of the 1947 massacre.

Cultural Phenomena of the Chinese

The City of Sadness divulges some cultural aspects related to the Chinese, Japanese, and the Taiwanese lifestyle, even in the current world that predominantly results from their historical background. The movie incorporates the knowledge of modernity and Taiwanese identity eminent in the existing Taiwan community.

Currently, the political landscape of the Taiwanese community reflects the democratic culture embedded in the community of which a majority believes in critical condemnation towards the government activities to restore sanity and national identity in political governance.

This aspect is eminent in Wen-Ching involvement in young anti-government socialists. The Japanese culture definitely influenced the Taiwanese culture for democracy and propriety of the economy is a culture that originated from the Japanese culture, which influenced the Taiwanese to react to Chinese governance.

In most cases, people of Taiwan have been demonstrating against poor governance in their country, a culture that dates back from the demonstrations that led to the 1947 massacre.

Taiwanese, like the Japanese, have always been very aggressive towards social issues affecting the community, which force them to engage in risky economic activities.

The Taiwanese have been aggressive in pushing the government to understand issues affecting the national economy, as well as how employment problems affecting individual behavior and the entire national rapport.

The City of Sadness acts as an essential reflector to the issues affecting the Japanese community by revealing the character of Wen-Leung, who struggles to fight Shanghai drug smugglers but is later framed by political superiorities leading to the loss of his mental balance.

The Japanese, who are very influential towards the Taiwanese cultural phenomena, have been engaging in risky activities in a bid to respond to the socio-economic crises issues affecting the community including drug smuggling malpractices of which the current world is looking at China as the most affected country in the drug abuse and trafficking menace.


The Taiwanese are renowned for their humble communication tactics that resulted from their interaction with the Japanese. The deaf aspect of Wen-ching, who operates photo studies, reveal how communication of political issues affects development.

Wen-ching is more attracted to the geographical beauties of Taiwan rather than demonstrating the real zeal of the political menace affecting the nation when he sets out to join the young anti-government socialists.

In several cases, camerapersons in Taiwan have been in accusation for their poor communication techniques in how they handle political issues leading to confusion and public confrontation.

Taiwanese camerapersons have been diverting from the contemporary political situations to taking geographical sceneries, which aim at displacing the actual position in the political ground with the beauteous geographical zones within the geographical cover.

The communication aspect tends to elicit sharp reactions within the political arena and the public domain as photos and videos provide perfect evidence on certain occasions in case of a mishap.

Believe Towards Light

Taiwanese, similarly to Japanese, share the same belief towards “light” and its importance to life. Taiwanese have a cultural belief that light is the most important thing in a person’s life and that one should respect God’s ability to develop light.

Light in Japanese means power to see reality. Light is a symbol of peace that importantly bonds human beings together.

Hou’s movie reveals the aspect of light through the agreement of Yin (lunar power) and Yang (solar power) that depicts how most Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese have to date concentrated on enhancing industrial production of lighting appliances in their technologies.

The memoir reveals the atrocity against the poor political issues that led to the massacre and finally overcame the condition.

Taiwanese associate the sad moment of the massacre with darkness and after undergoing this trauma their victory associates with light. Hou believes that light is born out of darkness and silence out of the noise.


Movies play an important role in shaping the social, political, and economic realities in the world with several of them providing lessons that viewers can draw from the movie events.

City of Sadness by Hou is a perfect example of a movie that significantly demonstrates the socio-political life, which resulted from the historical background of the Taiwanese after a confrontation of the political injustices that Chen Yi practiced during his regime.

The movie demonstrates how the historical-political background influences the current social, political, and economic life of the Taiwanese, especially how people from Taiwan behave currently to respond to socio-political factors affecting them.

The Taiwanese culture is eminent in the political life and democracy practiced by in Taiwan in responding to political issues regarding their country. More often, Taiwanese hold peaceful processions while confronting political issues affecting their nation.

The 2/28 incidence remains ingrained in their lives and has consequently affected their current political dimension.

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IvyPanda. "Analysis: “City of Sadness” by Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien." January 23, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/analysis-city-of-sadness-by-dir-hou-hsiao-hsien/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Analysis: “City of Sadness” by Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien." January 23, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/analysis-city-of-sadness-by-dir-hou-hsiao-hsien/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Analysis: “City of Sadness” by Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien'. 23 January.

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