Asian cities, it is often noted by urban planners and science fiction writers alike, are the metropolises of the future. They are also, as demonstrated by this outstanding four-weekend series, cities of sadness—sites of swooning heartbreak (Wong Kar-wai), deranging alienation (Tsai Ming-liang), and numbing stasis (Jia Zhangke). More than anyone else’s, Jia’s tender, rigorous films convey the sensation of being swept up—and left behind—by Asia’s so-called economic miracle. Mapping the effects of post-Mao convulsions on powerless individuals, they provide street-level chronicles of mainland China’s deepening free-market scars. Unknown Pleasures (2002) prowls the moribund coal-mining town of Datong in the company of a few desultory teens. The World (opening July 1 and also screening at BAM June 17) escapes the dusty provinces, but in Beijing, Jia’s rootless young adults find themselves stranded in a theme park that falsely promises “a new world every day.”
Two somewhat more superficial accounts of Chinese city life can be found in the black-comic nihilism of Andrew Cheng Yusu’s DV Welcome to Destination Shanghai (2003) and the grungy glamour of Lou Ye’s confident Vertigo update Suzhou River (2001). The series makes pit stops in Bangkok (Penek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe) and Tokyo (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s discreetly apocalyptic whatsit Bright Future, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s gorgeous Ozu homage Café Lumière). But its hub—and Asia’s de facto capital of alienation—may be Taipei, a city of evocatively anonymous public spaces and the setting for four of the series’ 13 films: Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000), a domestic epic that supplements the urban anomie of the director’s earlier films with a full-bodied humanism; Tsai’s 1994 breakthrough Vive L’Amour, a deadpan erotic triangle that resolves in an unforgettable current of tears; The Missing (2003), a ghost story of sorts directed by Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-sheng; and Hou’s Millennium Mambo (2001), a techno-scored slow burn that derives its narrative rhythms from its raver heroine’s E highs and hangovers.