Taipei Story (1985)

Directed by Edward Yang; Written by Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and T’ien-wen Chu

Cities in rapid development are awkward beings not unlike teenage boys. Disjointed, uncoordinated, gangly in shape and size, and going through an inner turmoil its inhabitants struggle to acknowledge the complexity of. With Taipei Story, Edward Yang, in what’s only his second feature film, deftly traces a culture in said transition.

Hsiao-Hsien stars as Lung, a retired baseball player back in Taipei to figure out what’s next. He coasts with the resigned confidence that moderate wealth affords. His girlfriend, Chin, played with locked lower lip attitude by Tsai Chin, has her sights set on the future, be it career, possessions, the greater world beyond what they know. Together, they talk of moving to the States, a shimmering land of possibility, but Lung’s old-time loyalty to family and friends proves at odds with the cutthroat determination economic success requires. 

Taipei is its own character in Taipei Story, and a perfect backdrop for a story of tradition versus modernity, with its neon-lit highrises casting ghostly shadows on old temples. At street-level, people pass in front of both, the sneaker-wearing youngsters time travelers and the older citizens trinkets in their antiquity. Lung, a man devoted to baseball, an ancient game that’s seen little change since its inception, has had his horizons opened by it, but all it has done is make him a homesick astronaut.

Around Lung and Chin are missed connections, family traumas, and friends fallen by the wayside, but Taipei Story never descends into melodrama. With the hum of the city around them, Yang seems to suggest that their fates are just one of many, their stories found on every floor of the buildings that grow taller by the day. It’s a film rich in sentiment, but never sentimental, and to watch is to reminisce too, as it gently pokes at themes of family, loyalty, memory and restlessness. 

It could make for a maudlin film, and while Yang’s tone does lean towards elegiac in remembering those swept up in the winds of change, he’s also resigned to the future that will be and those who will lead it as Chin’s far from the mold of her parents, wearing masculine clothes, and decorating her apartment with western art and posters from the Monterey Jazz Festival.  

“I always thought she should be a boy,” someone tells Lung, as if to say a woman like Chin is an impossibility, and maybe she would have been one a generation before. But as Yang points out, the future is already here, and what was is already forgotten. Lingering in the doorway won’t return you home, nor will it take you to your destination. 

Perhaps Yang can only be faulted in trying too hard to put a point to the tragedy in his final act, but there is enough heartfelt insight in the preceding two to make this a must-watch for anyone keen on melancholy urbanism, and the delicate paths people take in life. 

Perhaps Taiwan at the time was perfectly poised for the kind of stories Yang wanted to tell. Europe’s been set in its ways forever, and North America was always modern. With its ancient cultures still vibrant and observed, the sudden onrush of modernity painted life with a different brush all of a sudden and provided the perfect intersection for Yang, whose fondness for tradition and family guided his sharp insight into urban upheaval and its effects across generations.  

The feelings brought on by rapid urbanization should be recognizable to anyone living in a major city in the 21st century, but the real connection will be found in how Yang can somehow summon the forgotten in the space it used to occupy and tell ghost stories in broad daylight on an empty floor of a highrise where a shiny future will soon be. That’s a rare gift. 

Some people can document that passing of time in material things, others can detail its effects on our inner lives. Edward Yang can do both. 

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