Film / Reviews

The Terrorizers: 'a masterpiece about Taiwan under the influence of money and globalization'

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Along with Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang, Edward Yang was one of the leading auteurs of Taiwan’s New Wave Cinema. Yang, who died in 2007, was considered one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation and though most of his titles never made it the U.S., he was respected by film buffs and the darling of critics at international festivals. Now Yang’s third feature “The Terrorizers” (1986) — released in Taiwan as “Kongbu Fenzi” and Japan as “Kyofu Bunshi” — has undergone a major digital overhaul and is being rereleased locally.

“The Terrorizers” is a masterpiece, reflecting Yang’s vision of a newly emerging Taiwan swayed by the forces of money and globalization. It first opened here in 1996, when Japan still retained a whiff of the bubble economy, and while business was good in Taipei. But in both Tokyo and Taipei, many youths were disillusioned and full of foreboding about a future that seemed crassly materialistic. Yang had always been adept at picking up such vibes and weaving them into a mysterious, poetic narrative.

In “The Terrorizers,” the young characters are well-off, with liberal/Westernized values, but they can’t keep up with a society that’s rapidly becoming more complex and emotionally chaotic. A crank call from a young half-Caucasian woman to a photographer’s apartment sets off a chain of events that tragically affect the lives of total strangers.

The Terrorizers (Kyofu Bunshi)
Director Edward Yang
Run Time 109 minutes
Language Mandarin, Min Nan (subtitled in Japanese)

The visuals are gorgeous and full of shades of white: from the shirts the characters wear to the cloudy sky, the bed sheets and curtains, and, most of all, the cold, translucent lighting.

What’s also striking is that none of the characters are ever staring at screens. Instead, they seem intent on reading each other’s facial expressions. Not that they’re loving or attentive, though: “The Terrorizers” is probably Yang’s most violent film, not just because of one particularly disturbing murder scene, but in the way the story treats the characters and how the characters, in turn, treat each other. The doctor Li Zhong (Lee Li-chun), for example, is a certified jerk who frames a colleague to get his hands on a promotion. At home, he taunts his novelist wife (Cora Miao) — who is suffering from writer’s block — because she’s immersed in a make-believe world consisting of “just words on paper,” while he’s engaged in matters of life and death. The wife strikes back by reconnecting with an ex-lover. Inwardly, she has nothing but contempt for her philistine husband.

Edward Yang had a particular philosophy about art and business: He felt the two were mutually exclusive. That theme is explored in all his films, but “The Terrorizers” addresses it directly. In the Taipei depicted here, relationships are measured according to worldly success and the pressure is on to be richer, more powerful and so on as a way of procuring love and commitment.

Back in 1986 people used to worry about this stuff and feel alienated; now we’re so far gone it’s impossible to turn back. We can, however, get in touch with what used to be. “The Terrorizers” is a good place to start.