The City as Escape Room: Yang’s ‘The Terrorizers’ Remains a Puzzle Without a Solution


By way of global stars Hou Hsaio-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, the elliptical gravity of new-wavey Taiwanese cinema is with us still, some thirty years later, but the back catalog of one of the prime movers, Edward Yang, remains largely unseen. Yang died in 2007, after making just seven films; only his last, Yi Yi (2000), saw stateside release, while his mysterious magnum opus (and the nation’s keynote epic), A Brighter Summer Day (1991), has only lately been restored and hoisted onto Greatest-Movies-Ever lists.

Yang’s third film, The Terrorizers (1986), feels almost French by comparison, a pre–Claire Denis–Michael Haneke–style urban weave of unease, duplicity, lostness, and poisoned serendipity. Yang himself called it a “puzzle,” but don’t search for a tidy endgame; the story strands are glimpsed in inconclusive bites, and confounding connections arise suggesting another film altogether, or at least other off-screen stories, that we’re not privy to. In every case, these maddened Taipei residents are battling the sense of being caged — perhaps by the city itself.

The inciting incident seems to be a police bust of a ramshackle drug den — the exchange of gunfire leaves several bodies in the street, photographed by a young slacker (Wang An) living a Blow-Up-style life-through-the-lens. Escaping from the bust with a broken ankle is a willowy delinquent (Shaojun Ma) who starts to make possibly premeditated prank phone calls to mess up the other characters’ lives. An older couple tries not to face their marriage’s dissolution: A simpering hospital administrator (Lichun Lee) craves order and stability, even as he frames a co-worker in a bookkeeping debacle in order to climb the ladder, while his wife (Cora Miao), haunted by a stillbirth, stays at home writing semi-autobiographical women’s fiction, edging toward implosion, and soon enough reignites an affair with an old flame.

And then things change — the punkette flies the coop and begins seducing and fleecing pick-ups off the street; the photog (who knows the writer, somehow) moves into the old drug den and becomes obsessed with shots he took of the girl (her portrait on the wall, composed of dozens of taped-together smaller photos, flutters in the breeze); the administrator begins to see his life play out in one of his wife’s published books. Yang keeps all of the balls in the air, resisting definitive answers and conjuring a lean-in sense of intimate dread. Practically every sneaky, off-center image seems to hold a clue, but the takeaway is failed connections and disastrous modern discontent. Always chillingly tasteful, always hyperalert to our expectations (a prank answering-machine suicide note turns out to be the soundtrack to another character’s very real ride to the E.R.), Yang was searching for his country’s erratic alpha wave in the waning days of the Kuomintang’s martial rule, as Taiwan emerged as a bona fide democracy in the mid-Eighties. Of course the prognosis is, like other people’s lives, unknowable.

The Terrorizers
Directed by Edward Yang
Opens October 21,