1991, Movies

Guling jie shaonian sharen shijian (1991, Edward Yang)

This Taiwanese film is considered by some to be one of the greatest films of all time. It’s been on some Top 100 lists and I believe it even topped one one-off list not long after it came out. It wouldn’t remotely make my Top 100 list but I think I understand why it’s made so many lists.

There’s a real thing in art, where the critics in countries with established artistic traditions get very excited about well-done art from countries where they believe those artistic traditions are not so well established. This happens in music and it happens in film. I know nothing about New Taiwanese Cinema but I suspect a lot of critics who view this film as one of the greatest movies ever made have only seen a few films that qualify and likely few Taiwanese films from pre-1982.

I say all of this simply because the hype around this epic film – it’s essentially four hours long – could likely confuse a lot of viewers. As could the English title. It’s taken from a line in “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” but the Chinese title translates as “The Homicide Incident of the Youth on Guling Street,” which gives us a much better idea of what we’re in for than the seemingly upbeat title.

I’ve seen few Taiwanese films and I have definitely never seen a Taiwanese film set at the end of the ’50s and beginning of the ’60s. (I doubt I’ve seen too many Chinese films set in the same period, either.) It’s a unique setting for Western audiences, which I think is another reason the film gets so much acclaim.

It’s shot entirely on location (of course) with no score. The performances are, as far as I can tell not speaking Chinese, pretty naturalistic. It’s shot well and there’s a neat repeating motif where a character encounters another character, but the latter character is the camera at first, so we don’t know how it is.

But I still absolutely struggle with the idea that this is one of the great films of all time. I’ve seen a lot of films that tell epic stories like this, and I don’t fully understand why this one is so superior to so many others.

And one reason for that is some minor nitpicks and some confusion on my part. My biggest confusion: why after the battle does nobody seem to know or care that it happened? The police, who seem largely hands-off for most of the film, care far more about the climactic, titular event than they do the gang battle. There were other a bunch of other minor things but I won’t bother getting into them.

It’s a fine film. It’s likely the best Taiwanese film I’ve ever seen and, if you can handle the runtime, it’s definitely worth watching. It’s worth it for the way it’s told and for the sense of time and place that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. But I don’t agree that it’s one of the best 100 films of all time.


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