Film Review: Taipei Story

Young Taiwanese professionals grapple with reduced expectations in Edward Yang's influential drama, receiving its first U.S. theatrical run.
Specialty Releases

Cited by many filmmakers as a turning point in New Taiwanese Cinema, Taipei Story is receiving a belated theatrical release in a restored version taken from the original camera negative. Edward Yang's clear-eyed but sympathetic account of alienated Taiwanese is as relevant today as when he filmed it over 30 years ago.

With a screenplay by Yang, Chu Tien-wen and Hou Hsiao-Hsien (who also plays a lead role), Taipei Story takes a New Wave approach to traditional Chinese, and Asian, themes. The title alludes to Yasujirō Ozu's Tokyo Story, while the plot plays off elements of Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town. But Yang is also influenced by European filmmakers like Truffaut and Antonioni.

Yang's quiet, observant style tends to stay back from his characters, letting their stories emerge slowly. Over drinks, during meals, their guard drops, and we learn about past choices that brought them to an unsteady present.

Hou plays Lung, a former baseball prodigy who now sells fabric from a dingy storefront. Baseball gave him fans, including Gwan (Ko Su-Yun), who left him for a marriage in Tokyo. Right now Lung is thinking about moving in with Chin (pop singer Tsai Chin)—she hands him the keys to her apartment in an early scene. But Lung's relentless focus on athletics deprived him of an education and left him with a misguided sense of privilege and inferiority that makes him pick fights with strangers over minor slights.

Chin pushed herself ahead with the help of her mentor, Mrs. Mei (Chen Shu-Fang), escaping her domineering father, a failed businessman and heavy drinker. But as the movie opens, Mei has lost her job, as has Chin's architect lover. Chin herself is soon unemployed, sleeping all day, drinking with friends at night, and eventually hanging out with her younger sister's biker friends.

Lung considers moving to the U.S. to work with his brother-in-law, but lets himself be pulled into family emergencies. A baseball friend who's now driving a cab needs help with a wife who is gambling his earnings away. Chin's father is being pressured by loan sharks. "You're living in a fairytale," a friend complains, noting that Lung can pity others but not love them.

Yang and cinematographer Yang Wei-Han show both the old and new Taipei, moldering mansions abandoned by Westerners, mediocre high-rise apartment buildings, traffic-clogged expressways, ubiquitous sidewalk food stalls. But the director is more interested in pinning his characters during their moments of doubt.

Chin, who would later marry the director, has the sullen poise of someone who suspects she is being cheated. Hou, Yang's friend and later the director of many movies including the award-winning The Assassin, is more a vessel than a performer. But his Lung is always credible and often touching in his desire to please.

Yang would go on to direct A Brighter Summer Day, Yi Yi and other features before succumbing to cancer in 2007. Filmmakers over the years have copied shots and situations from Taipei Story, but what resonates most from the movie is Yang's empathy for his doomed characters.

Click here for cast and crew information.