Good, good, I am listening. However, you will need more than some old memories to understand this film.
You are older now. Are you wise and self-reflective? You realise, then, how often you blame others for your own predicament? Confident in your self-righteousness; you act like a man without sin; attacking others without compunction; for their success is their moral failing – you, of course, are pure in your own poverty. You recognise that too, do you? Good. Then you know what it’s like to accuse your parents, the school, the present government, and Rebecca the class beauty, the pages of your exercise book her ever white and blossoming thighs, for your defeats and ultimate failure. You know very well the fantasies you can create and live inside quite comfortably. Once upon a time you were told you were outstanding, and everyone predicted you would rule the world; or at least appear on our television screens. But now you are just another anonymous clerk; and the country and your own generation has defeated you. So you need someone to blame; for it cannot be yourself. But you are old now, and you are wise. You are also an artist. You know it cannot be so easy; that it cannot really be everyone else’s fault; that it was you who threw your father’s inheritance away; the best champagne poured into the local river...
Blame no one and you will set yourself free. How big an artist you must be to believe that! Rejecting all that self-pity and moral condemnation because others succeeded while you failed. Oh! How tough that is. To accept we live in not some zero sum game where your failure depends on another’s success. If only it was so easy![i] But, if we are serious, we must put away such childish notions. Think like a man and you will be one. And you are artist, are you not… Therefore you will know the reasons for your failure; and will have the imaginative sympathy to portray it in your work, through general ideas represented in individual characters. For as an artist you will think about society, and all its victims, and not just about yourself; how else can you communicate your pain? If you are a great artist you might go even further. Trying not to represent this defeat as some tragedy, some extraordinary event, fit only for heroes and the unfortunate, but rather as something banal; just another everyday occurrence; like an old woman tripping over a paving slab. The dividing line between mundane respectability and quiet failure and terrible defeat and moral ignominy just a few seconds of madness in a lifetime of prosaic activity.
You follow me? Good. You will understand this film. And you may, if you are lucky, enjoy it.
Schools live inside their communities; and they cannot be separated from them.[ii] Edward Yang knows this. He understands the nature of school, he wants to capture its atmosphere, and he would like us to share its pain. So he makes a film three minutes under four hours long.
It is large family, but the story is centred on Xiao Si’r. It is a extremely long film and yet his fate is decided in the first few seconds, by his failure to get into an elite school because of his failure in one exam: Chinese literature. This is never explained; though it has a high symbolic value; happening in the year the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan. Eleven years later we see him as teenager in a night school; a place where academic excellence is unusual. However, he stands out because he is bright and is considered as the model student; although the latter isn’t quite true. Early on we see him inside a back lot watching the makings of a film; a gentle parody of Yang’s own trade. Caught he later steals a torch… He is a good, moral, normal student; but like all such – like you and me – he has his weaknesses. This is what a society or a community can play on and corrupt; and why that first failure is so important – he is not strong enough to resist the pressures of his impoverished peers.
The image of the clever, rule-abiding student stays with him, almost to the end, even as his resolve gradually, but imperceptibly (one of the miracles of the film), deteriorates. Thus his first demerit is unjustly given because against his will the gang leader copies his paper (both caught out by the mistakes he purposely included to embarrass him). His final demerit is justified and means he will not go to university – a minor disaster for his parents. This fall is reflected in the family’s responses to it. The father angrily protests the first demerit, insisting on the injustice of the case. The last one, which occurs after he has been arrested by the secret police, possibly under an anti-communism purge, and is a broken man, shows his moral decline. Then he argued aggressively for justice but now he pleads expediency – you cannot let my bright son fail. Before even to lie to oneself about the injustice of the case, even if that meant success, would be too big an evil: if you can lie about something so small and trivial how easy to lie about the important things in life; he says to his son at that time. Now nothing matters but to survive. It is an enormous fall. It is the loss of human dignity. Principles are sacrificed to survival; a man reduced to a cowed official. Of course there is an agency: the authoritarian government of Chiang Kai-shek in the father’s case, and the local environment in the son’s – the gang violence that surrounds him, and infects the school yard and classroom. And yet Xiao Si’r’s final fall is all his own work: he didn’t have to commit murder. The film knows this, the clever student’s demise is not determined by his circumstances, but it creates an atmosphere and a cluster of social factors that push him in a direction where his crime becomes possible. However, that final act is his own, of which only he can take responsibility. The artist is more insightful, as we know, than the political activist.
Xiao Si’r lives within two communities; that of the adults and the children. The latter’s world is overwhelmingly shaped by the former; the school structuring their daily routines; the parents setting the values and attitudes that fix a child inside the existing society. Against this world of engrained habits and enforced moral codes the energy of childhood fights back. The gangs are its most obvious symbol. An early fight and chase, the result of a territorial intrusion by one gang member into another’s area, is a metaphor for these demographic battles, as Xiao Si’r transverses both the adult and childhood realms, and tries to keep safe from the gangs regular invasions into his own life. Somehow one must keep one’s independence from both the mob and the adults; but how easy it is to succumb to either one. And all this is so natural. We have all done it. It is the never-ending fight for freedom and human dignity; the thug and the subservient disciple equally repugnant to what is best in the human animal.
It’s over twenty years ago now, but my abiding impression of Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist was that the cops and robbers episodes were actually incidental to the film; just one other event within the central characters relatively mundane lives; the main focus of the story. Whether such an impression is correct of that film it is certainly true here. The gangs are a big presence in the schools (and in the movie) but not all the characters belong to them. And while the most shocking scene is the massacre (mostly executed in the dark – a wonderful touch); the violence does not dominate the film; at most it exists as a potential threat; and is thus a realistic depiction of school life. They are a background presence, like sea below the promenade; mostly ignored until it a very large wave crashes over the barrier wall…
He is hassled by Deuce, standing in for his brother as leader of the Little Park Gang, because he saw him with a girl one late evening in an empty classroom. Three hours later we learn the full import of this encounter, and why Deuce has been picking on him. Nevertheless, Xiao Si’r joins no gang, and continues what appears a relatively uneventful life. His brother is not so lucky, getting into debt he becomes too close to a rival gang; and resorts to pawning his mother’s prized watch to keep himself alive.
He meets Honey. The leader of the Little Park Gang. Honey is on the run for killing another gang leader but returns to Taipei, in what appears to be a bid to secure this authority – his brother is on the verge of negotiating a truce with one of the gang’s rivals. Honey is charismatic. A hard and violent thug he is also soft and intelligent. He talks about the books he has read whilst in hiding; he talks of Pierre in War and Peace who at the time of the French occupation of Moscow believed he was destined to meet and kill Napoleon. Later Honey initiates an almost suicidal confrontation with the leader of the 217 Gang… he is acting out Tolstoy’s novel…
Later Xiao Si’r looks to protect Honey’s girlfriend, Ming. An attractive and equally charismatic character; whose mother is a domestic servant – a poor and precarious post. He is in love with her. However, it is this love, set against the background of gang warfare, that leads to his gradual decline and his final tragedy. He doesn’t understand Ming, and projects, we think, something of his idealisation of Honey onto her. Honey has become a myth, and for Xiao Si’r his girlfriend must conform to the behaviour he associates with such greatness. Yet Ming is attracted to boys, and is easy with her emotions and her kisses; she is not going to be faithful to Honey or his memory. This begins what appears a quick descent for Xiao Si’r and a change in the tone of the film – we sense a slight atmosphere of misogyny. With a few exceptions the gangs are all male, yet the women seem able to navigate between and around them without any harm. However Xiao Si’r cannot accept female sexuality and Ming’s emotional freedom. She must conform to his idea! She cannot and in a moment of rage he kills her. The whole film has been the backdrop to this event, and yet the murder has a contingent feel – if that last meeting had been just a little different they would have separated safely. This is the success of the film: we can understand why Xiao Si’r thrust the knife into Ming’s guts; but we can also see that it was not determined; it was in itself a chance event; a moment of bad luck…
The film ends with a broken radio coming to life and the reading of the names of the university graduates to an elite university. It is a brilliant ending with Xiao Si’r’s eldest sister by the washing line listening to hear her own. Was it there? I don’t know!! But I think so. My guess influenced by the resurrected radio and Yang’s own That Day, on the Beach; a film that for all its melancholy has an uplifting final scene – women, it seems, can succeed. Are they the symbol for democracy and modernisation in Taiwan?
[ii] Diane Ravitch in a NYRB essay notes that US schools have always been in “crisis”; a term which always reflects current political preoccupations such as the influx of East European immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century, the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the corporate attacks of today. Her point is a simple but effective one: the schools have always been in “crisis” because they reflect the contemporary society; in this case a highly unequal one with a large population of the very poor. The one time that saw large improvements in educational performance of black children was during the time of desegregation in the 1960s and 70s, which was also a period of rising equality.