It’s telling that many of the interactions between the central characters in Edward Yang’s Taipei Story revolve around money. In the first scene, Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien), a businessman, ponders how his childhood sweetheart whom he is about to move in with, Chin (Tsai Chin), will afford to furnish her new place. The first interaction between Chin and her younger sister entails the latter requesting financial help from the former. Money acts as the driving force behind the film’s central narrative, quickly ripping a hole in Lung and Chin’s already delicately balanced relationship.
The talk of money points to a wider issue between the two: the absence of a meaningful, personal connection and the great dissatisfaction with their current lives. When Chin tells Lung that she has quit her job, his immediate reaction is to ask whether she needs any money, to which she wonders if he really knows her at all. They speak constantly of America where they plan to move – perhaps things between them can improve there, or at least not worsen. Yet you feel America is not the utopian panacea they are both hoping it will be – their problems are deeply rooted. Chin asks Lung one evening how Los Angeles was. ‘It’s just like Taipei,’ he shrugs.
Their alienation is compounded by Ozu-esque pillow shots of the city. A massive, impersonal urban jungle by day; a neon-soaked fun fair by night. Yang’s eye for composition is truly wonderful. Characters are swallowed up by buildings and frames; Yang’s penchant for shooting characters behind windows and in reflections are present, of course. All of it indicative of characters struggling with identity, to find a place in the world. Everything seemed easier in childhood: Lung was once a star baseball player, and a fellow teammate he stumbles upon one afternoon is now a low-paid taxi driver struggling to support his children and gambling addict wife. These children have grown up in a flash and have been dropped into adulthood – we watch the baseball scenes wondering what will become of this next generation of children, all of them with so much still to look forward to.
A significant factor in the ever-increasing chasm that develops between the Lung and Chin is Lung’s slavish loyalty to tradition; he lends most of his money to Chin’s father out of a perceived obligation to his family and this proves to be disastrous for everyone. Chin rejects these traditions. The entire relationship between Chin and her father is perfectly encapsulated in an early scene in which her father drops his spoon at the dinner table. Chin does not move an inch to pick it up for him. As Lung’s inertia widens the gap between the two, Chin retreats to her younger, even more westernised sister and her friends as they party in abandoned houses and nightclubs to popular Western music.
Taipei Story is bookended by empty rooms. Empty spaces that promise new starts for its characters. As Chin stands in a vast office space at the end of the film, her old boss imagines where everything will go and asks Chin if her and Lung still plan to go to America. She says it doesn’t look likely. This fresh start promises better things to come, but it’s now met with a guarded cynicism as to whether they can be fulfilled. (10)