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City of Sadness Essay


City of sadness is a film that was released in 1989 and was directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien. The film represents historical and political situation that Taiwanese faced after end of the Second World War. The film is accredited for its unique approach of engaging public in comprehension of 228 Incident, which impacted negatively on Taiwanese.

After Japan relinquished its control over China, Kuomintang government was left in charge of administration and authority. People living in Taiwan were treated brutally by Kuomintang, a situation that the film sought to represent. The essay will focus on analyzing city of sadness film and interpreting ways in which Taiwanese identity is represented. Further, themes of memory, violence, witnessing and silence will be highlighted.


Hou Hsiao Hsien successfully connects history of Taiwanese with modernity, thereby enhancing identity. Witnessing is one of the rich aspects that are incorporated in the film. Characters in the film assume different emotions after witnessing occurrences, hence communicating different themes.

In this regard, the audience is able to identify with history of Taiwanese in a modern way. Style of witnessing is effective and the film is likely to enjoy wide audience. Furthermore, audience witnesses real occurrences of historical period that are associated with violence in Taiwan Island.

Emotion has been used effectively in highlighting attitude of different situations witnessed in the film. In this regard, Hou gets audience to witness real events in aftermath of Second World War, thereby contributing significantly to history of Taiwanese. Instances of memory are brought forth especially after immediate cases of violence. The three themes are interlocked in approach of silence that Hou chooses to use.

Despite the fact that the film has been accredited for optimal representation of Taiwanese people, there are those who critique the film for underrepresentation of 228 Incident. Just like Kuomintang engaged in deceit, Hou Hsiao Hsien chose to use aspect of irony in the film. Irony intensifies on theme of witnessing.

For instance, the film highlights consecutive radio announcements claiming that Chen Yi is acting in favor of civilians and that the government will compensate those who are injured. The ironic aspect highlights decadence of political sector that caused a lot of harm to Taiwanese. It should be noted that, the ironic radio announcements were followed by highlights of real violence that led to massive deaths of Taiwanese in Taipei. Witnessing of real situation seems to stimulate emotion of sadness among viewers.

The film uses varied styles, including short shots that are meant to invoke more sensation. Prisoners who are being taken to trial are shot mercilessly by soldiers, an act that is meant to manifest intensity of Kuomintang’s brutality and violence. Despite the fact that there are scholars who attempt to critique ironic approach, director achieves goal of manipulating emotions of audience as it witnesses events (Brown 14).

There are two different degrees of witnessing that Hou Hsiao Hsien applies in the film. General witnessing refers to feelings that every human being is likely to develop when exposed to similar situation. Specific witnessing refers to feelings that are influenced by environment.

Wen-Ching and Hinome are used to reduce anxiety that is likely to rise, because theme of violence forms basis of the film. The two characters develop theme of romance and style of story within a story. Stories told by Wen-Ching and Hinome reveal their experiences and those of Taiwanese.

One of the memorable scenes of the film is when Wen-ching takes Hinome to the hospital. The film depicts beautiful scenery of hilly landscape that is enriched by dazzling sun. The scenery seems to contribute to theme development of the film. Wen-Ching is deaf and his role is played by popular artist. It should be noted that, Tony Leung Chiu-wei cannot speak Taiwanese, which could be one of the reasons why he assumes role of a deaf photographer.

Hinome assumes a weak and sensitive role to represent Taiwanese women at the beginning and seems to become strong towards end of the film. She carries a diary that is very symbolic in the film. For instance, occurrences learnt concerning incident of 228 are recorded. In this regard, we learn that Taiwanese write their history for future use.

Further, Hou Hsiao Hsien, cited other forms of history preservation like archives and official documents. He successfully identifies the gap in history of Taiwanese when he highlights that some of information released could be deceitful. Extent of violence is hidden by the government through release of untrue information. Despite the fact that the film cannot effectively ensure justice, it chooses to expose existing hypocrisy.

The film attempts to give a modern approach to the historical event of 228 that left entire Taiwan in pain. Sceneries used in the film represent those of Taiwan. Focus is on Kim-Kuei-Chiu village, which embraces traditional cultures and norms of Taiwanese. In this regard, the film seems to promote identity of Taiwanese.

Cities are hardly featured in the film and are only shown when mentioned. Hou Hsiao Hsien uses contrast and intensifies on harmony of themes. The title of the film is controversial and seeks to interpret events that influenced history of Taiwanese. Hou used private and public approaches to outline influence of history on identity.

Hou distinguishes between individual lives from public aspect. He notes that individuals who attempt to represent history are carefully scrutinized, while public approach that is less screened disseminates deceitful information to civilians. In this regard, information from public sector is preferred to that from witnesses. Despite the fact that public and private approaches are separate, Hou attempts to show how they could complement each other to yield better results.

Wen-Heung is significant in the film, since he represents private approach that resists public one. He is the first born in family of Lin. Moreover he assumes a responsible role of managing business of his family. His role represents strength of identity among Taiwanese. Chen Sown-yung has appropriate physique and structure that is required by this character. He is bossy and very confident that he can overcome all challenges.

Wen-Heung controls all affairs of the family and does not like the fact that he will be absent at Little Shanghai’s opening ceremony. He however assures his Grandpa that he will still be in control of photography, in spite of his absence. Wen-Heung highlights the contrast of public and private approaches in Taiwan society. For instance, he interacts with public domain at the time when he has to avoid being arrested for betrayal.

It should however be noted that, he was innocent and had not betrayed his society. As a matter of fact, he was trying to save his brother from drug smuggling scandal. In this regard, Wen-Heung who represents private realm resists being destroyed by public realm. The film later takes an eminent turn that triggers tension among viewers.

The powerful Wen-Heung is seen powerless and in the hands of Shanghai bandits. Wen-Heung is unable to defend himself and is shot by one of the gangsters. He experiences seizure before he dies and shocks entire audience at how public realm destroys the private one.

City of Sadness plays a crucial role in highlighting the 228 Incident. The film manifests history of Taiwanese and challenges they went through in process of securing their identity. The film is interesting and captivating, due to use of contrasting styles that enhance harmony.

Despite the fact that Hou may have been reluctant to narrate real occurrences of 228 Incident directly, choice of cast and role setting are enough to convey experiences of Taiwanese and represent their identity (Hallam and Marshment 54). Since the film is pioneer move to create awareness of 228 incident in the public, it plays role of pace setting effectively thus encouraging emergence of other styles.

City of Sadness assumes an inactive and silent approach in relaying historical events that contribute to identity formation process of Taiwanese. Hou uses a deaf character to portray silence of Taiwanese in regard to oppression that they faced. Women are portrayed as sensitive and silent individuals in society of Taiwanese.

Women seem to be resistant to public interference. Hou highlights role of women directly and indirectly. Women in the film choose to suffer silently and represent family institution that is crucial to identity of Taiwanese. For instance, despite the fact that Wen-Sun is missing, his wife acts normally by cleaning his clinic in hope that he will one day return home.

It should be noted that, the clinic is used to manifest devastating effects like loss that Japanese government had on Taiwanese. The endurance of Wen-Sun’s wife demonstrates how people in Taiwan are expected to move on and triumph over oppression. She chooses to resist emotion and trauma of losing her husband.

Women keep themselves occupied with chores, as a way of dealing with violence in the city. They play a crucial role in maintaining identity of Taiwanese. For instance, Ah-Shue attempts to stop Wen-Leung from eating ancestors’ offerings with no success. Wen-Leung continues with this habit until it becomes normal way of life. After murder of Wen-Heung, many people go to witness the funeral and remain silent due to trauma of his death.

Hou uses silence to highlight sadness and noise to highlight normal life of the city. For instance, there are loud sounds at the wedding of Wen-Ching and Hinome (Brown 19). It should be noted that, women in Chinese families are expected to be enduring and supportive, just like women’s role depicted in the film. Hou further, highlights Taiwanese cultures that feature many rituals. For instance, there is a scene that shows men eating while women are standing beside them.

Hinome assumes role of observation in the film and directly narrates happenings of 228 Incident to audience. As a matter of fact, the occurrences are given a feminine touch that intensifies on emotion. Stories told by Hinome and Wen-Ching create awareness on events prior and post 228 incident.

Hinome’s written diary highlights memories, thoughts and emotions in a unique way (Brown 27). She trends on barriers or challenges that people in Taiwan are likely to face, like that of language. For instance, she effectively communicates with Wen-Ching, despite the fact that he is deaf.

Hou however, shows her silence whenever men are around. In this regard, silence of Hinome represents exclusion of women from formation process of Taiwanese society. Silence could also represent reluctance of Taiwanese in redeeming themselves from suppression.

On the other hand, Hinome represents strong identity of Taiwanese. For instance, she engages in writing of events that play a crucial role in defining history of Taiwanese. She also demonstrates quality of courageousness, especially in instances of violence. She takes her brother home after he is injured in the 228 Incident.

Despite the fact that Hinome’s parents warn her against leaving the house due to political tension, she courageously goes to see Wen-Ching after she learns that he is out of jail (Burns 126). In this regard, Hinome represents determination of Taiwanese in preserving their identity. Further, Wen-Ching marries Hinome as a way of respecting his brother’s advice.

Hou chooses to intensify on silence towards of end of the film. Series of images are shown in utter silence and occasionally combined with sorrowful music. Despite the fact that there is terror and tension, Taiwanese remain united and determined to defeat Kuomintang’s oppressive rule. They try to comfort themselves in the warmth of their identity. For instance, Hinome says that she is okay because her family is with her.

Further, help is accorded to those in need as a way of maintaining Taiwanese identity. For instance, Hinoe received financial support at the time when he hid in the mountains. Upon Hinoe’s arrest Wen-Ching and Hinome are devastated, since they feel that one of them will be exposed to torture. Hou’s film make audience witness violence especially in scenes that show police arrests. There is a shift to theme of memory, as Hinome reminisces about a family photograph that had been taken before arrest of Wen-Ching.

Hinome’s letter to Ah-Shue relays news about Wen-Ching’s arrest in a very calm way (Burns 129). In this regard, the film depicts women’s silence in Taiwan and their role of ensuring order when there is violence. It should be noted that, Hou contrasts role of Hinome at the beginning with the one towards the end of the film.

Towards the end, Hinomi seems courageous and composed. In this regard, style of contrast could be used to represent transformation of Taiwanese from end of Second World War to white terror period. The film attempts to represent history and identity of Taiwanese in snobbish yet strong manner.


City of Sadness is a dramatic approach that highlights events after end of Second World War. Taiwan Island witnessed violence that was based on political, economic and social situations. The film is unique and has been acknowledged for its attempt to shed light on 228 Incident that claimed lives of many people in Taiwan. Despite the devastating effects that aftermath of the war had on Taiwan, Taiwanese tried to remain calm and preserve their identity.

Characters used in the film represent Taiwanese in different ways. Hou succeeds in engaging audience, since they witness atrocities that took place during this time and their effects on Taiwanese. He connects past with present, thereby promoting identity and history of Taiwanese.

Works Cited

Brown, Melissa. Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power, and Migration on Changing Identities, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Print.

Burns, Rob. Turkish-German Cinema: From Cultural Resistance to Transnational Cinema, London: Continuum, 2006. Print.

Hallam, Julia and Margaret, Marshment. Realism and Popular Cinema, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000. Print.

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