It’s All Over

Nick Pinkerton on Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers

Edward Yang, The Terrorizers, 1986, 35 mm, color, sound, 109 minutes.

EDWARD YANG DIED IN 2007, aged fifty-nine, after a long bout with cancer that cost him his opportunity to follow up on his international breakthrough, Yi Yi (2000). By any measure this would be a tragedy, and I am sometimes convinced that film culture has yet to recover from Yang’s passing. Though his films never left his native Taipei, Yang was a cosmopolitan figure unusually attuned to the benefits and perils of twenty-first century globalization and corporate capitalism, who seemed not only inclined but able to explore what effects the unprecedented changes taking place the world over were having on hearts and minds, without recourse to the antique doctrines of Confucianism and Communism.

That there will be no more Edward Yang movies is an unacceptable but undeniable truth, though there is some cold comfort in the fact that the movies that Yang did manage to complete are becoming more accessible, after years of having been tied up by issues with the director’s estate. Earlier this year BAMcinématek gave a rapturously received run to Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991), preceding the Criterion Collection’s home video release of that quotidian epic, and following its success that same venue is presenting a run of Yang’s 1986 The Terrorizers.

Made hot on the heels of his Taipei Story (1985), in a rare period of productivity, The Terrorizers is an enigmatic, upsetting movie—troubling in ways you may have difficulty putting your finger on, nagging at you days later, like a sore spot that’s hard to reach. Its ensemble of disparate characters is united by their shared enervation, as though from a lingering sickness, and a vague ambiance of crisis hangs over the film from the earliest scenes: an anonymous body lying face-down in the street; the police shooting a gambling den to pieces in brisk, businesslike fashion. The editing is curt, elliptical, and at times Bressonian, while the camera generally keeps at a laconic distance, and along with embellishments like a sudden cut from an interior scene to a window washer clinging to the outside of the building or the recurring image of a huge, spherical water tank that seems to belong on a Martian colony, this all combines to keep a viewer ever-so-slightly on-edge. A manga fan and practiced cartoonist, Yang has an eye for framings that throb with implacable loss, and he lingers on scenes of departure, on footsteps sounding in a hospital corridor, or a woman’s view from her apartment window as her lover walks away after a violent quarrel scored to the conclusion of The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a gorgeous scene in a movie full of them. (As with Taipei Story and A Brighter Summer Day, The Terrorizers has been restored on DCP, the image quality not a vast improvement on the existing South Korean DVD. This means, in all likelihood, that 35-mm prints of these movies will never be shown again.)

Edward Yang, The Terrorizers, 1986, 35 mm, color, sound, 109 minutes.

The sense that Yang doesn’t want you to settle in or get too comfortable is reinforced by The Terrorizers’ approach to storytelling, fractured in the extreme and untrustworthy to boot. The film proceeds by laying out four individual narrative strands. These involve a professionally frustrated lab technician, Li (Lichun Lee), and his wife, Chou (Cora Miao), a writer struggling with a creative block; a photographer and his girlfriend; a Eurasian girl referred to as “The White Chick” who, when not living in a kind of captivity with her mother, runs a scam of posing as a prostitute and shaking down her clients in bland, antiseptic hotel rooms; and a police detective out of central casting who has to clean up after the White Chick’s crimes.

Yang cuts freely among these stories, and occasionally lets them ricochet off one another, usually with destructive consequences. The photographer becomes fixated on the White Chick after he snaps a picture of her fleeing on a sprained ankle from the opening shootout, which is presided over by the detective. Released from the hospital to her mother’s care, the White Chick fills her days by making prank phone calls, one of which reaches Chou, and precipitates the dissolution of her marriage—though she seems happy to have the pretext to hop into bed with an ex-lover who has been trying to lure her into a job with his almost comically depressing looking business. Li, left twisting in the wind, turns to an old school friend for support—none other than the detective—and then makes off with his service revolver on a score-settling rampage which, as presented, may be nothing more than a fiction imagined by his ex-wife who, in the film’s final image, is seen vomiting, a drastic, disgorging solution to her writer’s block.

The Terrorizers presents art—and therefore itself—as a kind of ipecac, and its overall tone is one of listlessness and quietly gnawing nauseous anxiety, an unease that finds occasional expression in outbursts of violence: The White Girl, for example, keeps a knife in a concealed pocket sewn into the leg of her blue jeans, and she knows how to use it. Yang’s evident desire to situate these desperate acts within a larger social context looks ahead to his next film, A Brighter Summer Day, with its vaster and more teeming canvas, but The Terrorizers is an independent and hugely ambitious film in its own right, no mere dry run. Its interlocking stories assign it to the category of the “network narrative,” responsible for some of the most overblown, overreaching film art of the twenty-first century, though in Yang’s hands the sense of connection takes on the aspect of a threat, afree-floating menace, as he adumbrates a city of brooding isolates where an errant, idle prank can set in motion a butterfly effect ending in bloodshed.

As chains of causality whip out of control with devastating effects, the creative act can at least impose a kind of narrative order, but for Yang this appears as a brand of criminal intrusion, like kidnapping. This is evident in Chou’s enlistment of her unwilling husband, earlier heard to comment that “writing a novel shouldn’t be so deadly,” to play a character in her book, or the photographer’s imprisonment of the White Girl’s image, creating a sort of shrine to her in a mosaic portrait spread across several dozen pieces of 8 1/2 X 11” photo paper, an act of romanticization that is as vulnerable to circumstance as the shrine is vulnerable to the disturbance of the whispering wind.

All of the characters have recourse to little fictions, and their actions are spurred by these fictions. Abandoned and overpassed, Li is no innocent victim—early on we see him undercutting a friend and coworker in hopes of a promotion—and everyone here winds up with blood on their hands, sometimes quite literally. The Terrorizers is Yang at his most crabbed and cryptic, but somehow he retains that irreducible “lovability.” I know of few other filmmakers who can keep their characters at a length while remaining in such proximity to their inner lives. It is a marvelous thing to see, and Yang took the secret with him. We can only watch and rewatch the films, and mourn, and learn.

Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers runs October 21 through October 27 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.