Credit: Letterboxd
by Anand Sudha Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

The Terrorizers — Edward Yang

May 26, 2023

Ever since its explosion into the Hollywood mainstream, and that of its globalized imitators, in the 21st century, hyperlink cinema has become one of the most bloviated genres, with some of its resident auteurs amassing a broad range of stories across various socio-political strata by tethering them together with the tenuous thread of “humanity” — a superficial exploration that has successfully wooed the pompous, self-important Oscar voters by tugging at their heartstrings. Depth is naturally compromised for overstuffed spectacles laced with frequent invocations of “human nature,” the mere presence of which is enough to sweep aside all the amorphousness associated with the term, itself a coinage of the 21st century superseding the modest network narrative, presumably because the overarching Theme of such a film subsumes all its constituents. The term hyperlink is disconnected from its postmodern allusions and sociopolitical implications, but its simultaneous vagueness echoes the hollowness of shameless Hollywood and those who follow.

It isn’t surprising that Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers doesn’t figure in these discussions of hyperlink cinema, as its glaring lack of distribution (though currently available on MUBI) and its title not being A Brighter Summer Day or Yi Yi relegate it to the status of a dry run, although the film is being gradually revived as something ambitious in its own right. Yang seldom provides us the comfort of a grand theme with his elliptical and ambiguous narrative, where, contrary to most interlocking narratives, connections emerge as a source of suspicion that splinter rather than suture relationships. Character motivations are deliberately obscured, and the narrative momentum is thwarted by sharp, disjunctive edits. Sociological causes are not explicitly mentioned, and narrative threads spawn more narrative threads, denying any possibility of closure. However, looking at The Terrorizers through these antiquated lenses fails to confront the paralysis and unknowability at the center of its narrative, an unknowability wrought by a rapidly globalizing world and its multi-layered illusions.

The film is loosely structured around the lives of four different characters in Taipei: an impassive doctor, Li, concerned about his professional advancement; his writer-wife Chou, struggling with inspiration for her latest fiction; a photographer living with his girlfriend and off the income from his rich father; and a Eurasian girl nicknamed “the white chick,” who poses as a prostitute to blackmail her clients with the help of her pimp. Yang establishes their linkages in various disquieting opening sequences, in which he employs long shots to frame the characters in their compartmentalized spaces. The steady drone of the city is disrupted by a police siren, and this piques the residents of the neighborhood, especially the photographer. These scenes are intercut with those of the doctor-wife couple and their palpable alienation from each other, before the camera turns its attention to a shootout involving the white chick and the police.

The photographer snaps photos of the police as gunshots are heard in the background. Even as his inferiors jolt at the sounds, the police chief, Gu, calmly instructs the photographer to stop. This attitude of composure toward the ensuing violence is reflected in Yang’s filming of the sequence itself — the awkward, unhurried violence meriting the same treatment as the dissolving marriage of the couple. The juxtaposition of these different strands, along with their meticulous compositions, long shots, and unexpected edits, imbues the sequences with a sense of foreboding as the disaffected characters struggle to assert their identities within the labyrinthine cages of their city.

If the term wasn’t bloated to mean something else, one could say that Yang puts the hyper in hyperlink cinema, in that his characters mediate their linkages with others through fiction. The white chick has managed to escape from the police, albeit with a broken leg, and her departure is captured by the photographer. Obsessed with his photograph and the mysterious glance of his art object, he enshrines her image in the form of a large portrait fragmented by several photographs on paper held together by tape. The fragments fluttering in the wind have become a metaphor for the film itself; fiction incapable of just being fiction and reality incapable of just being reality, both perturbing each other and dissolving any supposed boundaries erected by convention. The photographer converts the apartment to a dark room, fastidiously isolating his photos from even the slightest disturbances of the external world, leaving behind the illusion of “pure” fiction.

The white chick, on the other hand, is grounded by her mother. Stuck at home, she prank calls random numbers, one of whom is Chou, which, surprisingly, provides the spark for Chou to churn out a lurid melodrama from her existing marital situation and the excuse to depart from it. While the photographer and Chou deal directly with fictions, Li does so indirectly, especially since his fiction of stability and advancement are considered hallmarks of reality. It’s almost unbelievable how blind Li is to Chou’s artistic and domestic struggles, consoling her with vacuous statements on how writing should not be so deadly (an ironic statement that returns with redoubled mystery in the film’s morbid ending), but his obsession with stability pushes him down the path of non-interference, almost as if hoping the marriage would fix itself. (He’s more pointed at work, sabotaging his colleague to improve his chances of promotion.) After the prank call, however, his illusions begin to crumble as he scrambles to re-establish this stability.

Considering that all of the characters attempt to reconfigure their lives through fictions, it’s ironic that the characters who deal most overtly with fiction (Chou, who writes it, and the photographer’s girlfriend, who buries her nose in it) insist on its difference from reality, even trivializing it as a mere diversion. Part of this might be rooted in the aspect of fiction hijacking its themes from reality and autobiography — an admission that their constructed world is ultimately derivative. Yang, however, bears none of these illusions, as he shows reality and fiction to exist in an indistinguishable blur. The film revels in mirrors and reflections, along with frequent long shots of cars and roads sandwiched between buildings. The city imposes its consciousness on its unsuspecting denizens, and this consciousness follows an unfathomable logic that is accepted as “reality.” Even when characters look outside their windows, Yang’s observant camera captures their reflections on glass surfaces, their attempts at reconfiguration not moving beyond the towering skyscrapers of the city. Light itself appears to emanate from a nearby building, trapped by the towering walls and glassy sheen of the city, inspiring Fredric Jameson’s apt pronouncement of the multiplicities it illuminates as “postmodern.”

Reality in The Terrorizers is mediated through a series of socially accepted fictions, which in turn transform reality itself. Chou, a woman who couldn’t even gaze properly at her husband without being obstructed by walls and meticulously arranged objects in the living room, required a prank phone call as pretext to separate from him. The marriage was dead a long time ago — it’s impossible to understand how they came to be wed in the first place — but alienation doesn’t appear to be sufficient grounds for separation as an affair, however apocryphal, does. Chou uses fiction to move on to the next stage of her life — her first story of her high-school love affair propelling her toward marriage, and her next ending her marriage — only to return to the nostalgic comforts of her first affair. She might have come full circle, but her fiction takes a life of its own in Li’s hands, his psyche completely shaken by the fiction that lends a duality to the ending, which Yang deliberately leaves unresolved. 

The contemporaneousness of such a film makes it appear universal, especially in its piercing observations of (post?)modern alienation. But this universality does arise out of specificity, even though Yang doesn’t leave any obvious markers of Taiwanese culture, barring the language. As Jonathan Rosenbaum noted, Taiwan’s colonial history obliquely hovers over Yang’s films, despite their modern settings. The absence of the historical in some senses, brings it more to the fore, as Taiwan’s rapid industrialization and Westernization point toward an abstract future that refuses to engage with the past (unless there’s a threat of violence from its colonizer). Yang has expressed his doubts about globalization in Taiwan and wrote the following for New Left Review: “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.” In a post-historical world, his words continue to haunt the cluelessness of his characters.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.