Good Men, Good Women

Like its predecessors, the concluding (and entirely self-sufficient) feature in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s epic trilogy about the history of Taiwan in the 20th centuryone of two landmarks in Taiwanese cinema to date, along with Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Dayfocuses on a specific period and a specific art form. City of Sadness (1989) covers the end of World War II through the retreat of the Kuomintang to Taiwan in 1949 and concentrates on still photography; The Puppet Master (1993) covers the first 36 years (1909-’45) in the life of puppet master Li Tien-lu and showcases his own art. This film, whose art form is cinema itself, intercuts material from 1949 to the present. In the present a young film actress preparing to play the real-life Chiang Bi-yuan anti-Japanese guerrilla in 40s China who, along with her husband, was arrested as a subversive when she returned to Taiwan during the paranoid, anticommunist White Terror of the 50sis harassed by an anonymous caller who’s stolen her diary and is faxing her pages from it. Images evoked by her diary from her past as a drug-addicted barmaid involved with a gangster alternate with her imaginative projections of the film she’s about to shoot, seen in black and white. Despite the complexity of this haunting structure, which suggests three interwoven tenses in the manner of Alain Resnaispresent, past, and a curious blend of future conditional and speculative pastthis is the most direct as well as the shortest (108 minutes) of the films in the trilogy, and the visual mastery is stunning. A long static take showing the barmaid with her gangster boyfriend as she puts on makeup at a mirrored dressing table is one of the most ravishingly beautiful shots I’ve ever seen, with pockets of light in the surrounding room comprising a vast universe of possibilities for endless contemplation. Reproaching contemporary Taiwan politically by praising the courage of an earlier generation, this film is controversial in its home country, but it’s probably the most artistically accomplished feature I saw in 1995; if you care about the future of world cinema you can’t afford to miss it. 108 min. (JR)

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