A tiny wind-up toy shaped as a Pepsi-Cola can inching its way across a bedside table, Michael Jackson’s “Baby Be Mine” emanating from an unseen jukebox while a tussle breaks out during a darts toss in a bar: Even the smallest details are ineradicable in Taipei Story, Edward Yang’s aching and anomic second feature, from 1985. The film plays, in a new 4K restoration, for a week at BAMcinématek, in its first proper theatrical run in the U.S. (I first saw Taipei Story last June at a festival of rediscovered cinema in Bologna, Italy; the movie remains the most effortlessly summoned of the dozens of titles, nearly all of them delights of some kind, I took in during my week-long cine-binge of rarities and classics.) It’s the third film by Yang — one of the luminaries of the New Taiwanese Cinema — following A Brighter Summer Day (1991) and The Terrorizers (1986), that the Brooklyn rep house has spotlighted in the past year, making available key works from a corpus too little seen in this country; only the intimate multigenerational epic Yi Yi (2000), the seventh, and final, film by Yang, who died in 2007, at age 59, was released stateside. Taipei Story is another study of close ties, or more accurately, of their fraying.
Set during Taiwan’s economic boom and the dawn of liberalization in the Republic of China — still under but nearing the end of what would be 38 years of martial law, finally lifted in 1987 — Yang’s film centers on the slow disintegration of a relationship, an erosion that mirrors the abrading effects of both tradition and modernization. Taipei Story‘s loose elegiac tone — never dirgelike, and supple enough to accommodate offhand humor and moments of pure pleasure — is immediately established as a couple walk through an empty apartment; it’s unclear at first whether they’re moving in or out, starting something or ending it.
Or perhaps doing both at the same time. Attired in mid-Eighties shoulder-padded office chic, Chin (Tsai Chin, a pop star who married Yang the year Taipei Story premiered) imagines where the furniture and appliances will go. “Then you can watch movies on the bed,” she tells her boyfriend, Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Yang’s fellow eminence in New Taiwanese Cinema, who co-wrote Taipei Story with Yang and Chu Tien-wen and who oversaw the film’s restoration). But Chin’s vision of domestic coziness doesn’t stir much in Lung, whom she’s known since high school; pantomiming baseball swings, he’s lost in a reverie of his past Little League glory.
Soon to start a new job as the “special assistant” at a property development company, Chin is invested in a future as fragile as the glass panes in the luxury towers that seem to be sprouting everywhere in the city, while Lung is tethered to a past that demands ever paralyzing loyalty. Together they exist in an unstable, overwhelming present. She quits her job after a lawsuit, stemming from sloppy architectural planning, forces the restructuring of her firm. “It’s nothing. I need the rest anyway,” she coolly announces to a new supervisor of her decision. But that self-possession is belied by her escalating anguish during her sabbatical, distress brought on by a joyless affair with a married former co-worker and by Lung’s distance, whether physical or emotional.
After Lung’s trip to Los Angeles, where he hopes to secure a position working for his brother-in-law — a voyage that occurs off-screen and chronologically follows the opening apartment walk-through — he returns to the capital city. Employed by a fabrics operation, he’s burdened by doubts about his prospects in the States, a country he regards with ambivalence at best. Lung’s recounting, calm but disquieting, of his U.S. relative’s gun mania typifies Taipei Story‘s shrewd, understated sociological observations; that scrutiny becomes only more piercing after Lung, multiplying his psychic freight, agrees to help out a hapless Little League buddy and Chin’s debt-deluged father — decisions rooted in a code of honor that promises nothing but further misery.
“This long together and you still don’t know what I need or what I don’t need,” Chin cries one night to Lung, whose visits to her place — it becomes clear that he lives elsewhere — he usually spends rewatching the Major League ballgames he taped on VHS. The couple’s unraveling, so minutely observed, may register as the tiniest shift in a metropolis that is rapidly morphing, the neon-flashing city an enormous and impassive witness to their tragedy. Chin will try to alleviate her pain by mixing with her kid sister’s crew. While this group of teens and twentysomethings dance to “Footloose,” she can feign interest in their collective ecstasy for only so long, dropping her head to her arm — a searing gesture of despondence in counterpoint to Kenny Loggins’s aggressive cheer.
The presence of Hou, in one of his rare turns as an actor, deepens the melancholy of Taipei Story. In his 1983 film The Boys From Fengkuei, Hou would also explore the vast transformations of Taiwan as evidenced in their effects on a small fishing village; Yang and Hou, the two titans of New Taiwanese Cinema, established themselves as the respective geniuses of urban and rural milieus. But the title of a Hou film from 1989 — A City of Sadness — would make a beautiful alternative for Yang’s portrait of metropolitan malaise.
Directed by Edward Yang
BAMcinématek, March 17–23
More:Film and TV