SPOTLIGHT ON: Edward Yang’s 楊德昌 Terrorizers《恐怖分子》 (1986)
In the first instalment of Spotlight, the series exploring facets of Taiwanese and Chinese art and culture, we will be looking at a piece of 1980s New Wave Taiwanese Cinema: Edward Yang’s 楊德昌 Terrorisers《恐怖分子》.
Yang was one of the leading directors of Taiwanese New Wave cinema. Following the death of nationalist Guomindang leader Chiang Kai-Shek 蔣介石 in 1975, Taiwan witnessed the dissolution of the martial law that had been in place since 1949, alongside a gradual liberalisation and democratisation. One consequence of this was a growing sense of disillusionment among Taiwanese urban youth, faced with a future that appeared increasingly materialistic and technology-focused. Yang captures these fears, weaving them into a film where narrative is poetic and fragmented, characters are linked by accident and chance, and the line between fiction and reality grows increasingly blurred.
The opening scene depicts young photographer Xiao Qiang 小强, played by Ma Shaojun 马邵君, awakening to a shoot-out in the street below him; within seconds he is out of the door, camera in hand and boots unlaced. He captures a photograph of a young woman escaping the conflict, Shu An 淑安, played by Wang An 王安, jumping down from a low rooftop. However, it is not the violence which holds significance for Yang, but the art: the photograph becomes the symbol of the film’s central motif of disorder, characterised by random and disconnected acts and spaces which are inevitably, deterministically linked. Weeks later, the photographer rents an apartment whose previous tenant happens to be the woman in the photograph. One evening, she returns to her prior home, only to find her own portrait upon the wall made up of hundreds of separate, small photographs, fluttering eerily in the breeze.
The theme of connection through chaos is explored through the director’s use of space: the public is almost never shown – instead, the frame is limited to fixed, indoor spaces which emanate the characters’ inner worlds, separate and isolated from one another. Yang emphasises the pressures modernisation and urbanisation have on human relationships, as accidental meetings are accelerated by hyper-connection through technology.
In one instance of this, the woman from the photograph flicks through a phone book, looking for someone to prank call. She tells the unfortunate woman on the other end of the line, depressed novelist Zhou Yufen 周郁芬, played by Cora Miao 缪骞人, that she is having an affair with her husband. This frivolous lie unexpectedly becomes the impetus that the writer needed, resulting in her very real affair and divorce, using the events as material to cure her chronic writer’s block. Her husband, medical professional Li Lizhong李立中, played by Li-Chun Lee 李立群 , had previously belittled her writing as “just words on paper” in contrast to his own, more ‘noble’ work, dealing with life and death. However, it is her words and actions that prompt a bloody dream in which Li murders his ex-wife’s new partner, a scene which is actualised in his own, very real suicide. Yang constantly inverts and blurs the lines between truth and dishonesty, and between dreams, fiction, and reality.
Dreamy shades of white and red flood the on-screen fragmented realities: white shirts, cloudy skies, fluttering white curtains juxtapose artificial deep-red lighting of photography darkrooms, bathrooms and bars, the behind-closed-doors settings in which much of the action takes place. Yang does not provide a solution; the violence permeating the scenes – from the shoot-out at the film’s beginning to the suicide at the end – does little to tie together the plot, left as loose as the photographer’s bootlaces in the opening sequence. For Yang, these violent events are just another daily occurrence, almost incidental in a rapidly modernising urban space, no more or less significant than the dissolution of a marriage, or an artist’s vain search for fulfilment in the perpetual shadow of the military draft.
Yang famously asserted that “under authoritarian rule, you can go underground with a feeling of purpose. But now everything looks fair, yet there’s no real participation in the system.” Terrorisers’ unresolved tension epitomises this feeling of futility in the face of impending, inescapable reality. If ever there were a film to provide some perspective in the era of lockdowns, distrust, and disconnection, it is this. Our hyper-connectivity through technology is doing little to mitigate the collective grief and anxiety we feel at the state of the world and our increased sense of physical and emotional isolation. Let this film be a reminder that, rather than mindless technological development for the sake of pure progress, the post-pandemic world we build must centre on intentionality, care, and real human connection.