A City in a Box

What’s in the box?

The label on top reads “No Commercial Value, Tourism Promotion Material from Tourism Bureau, Taiwan.” The first part of that statement is cruelly ironic, given that the film and its director are seen as box office poison in Taiwan and the film has never been released commercially on DVD with English subtitles anywhere in the world. And the latter part is technically true: the town of Jiufen, where much of the film was set, saw a spike in tourism after the release of the film, and I can think of few better pitches for Taiwan tourism than the gorgeous, sublime landscapes captured by Hou Hsiao-hsien’s generous camera.

But the label only goes so far in telling us what’s inside. In the box is a national treasure. The winner of the 1989 Venice Film Festival. The greatest Chinese-language film of all time. A formal delight. A certified “Modern Classic”. A history of an island undergoing dramatic change. A story of a family. A meditation on a traumatic past so that a nation can learn to live in peace.

What’s in the box? A stack of 35mm reels covered in bubble wrap. Celluloid printed with images of hospitals, tatami mats, dining tables, and tropical greenery; an optical soundtrack of radios and residents speaking in at least five languages.

We open the box soon. Come see what’s inside.

A CITY OF SADNESS, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Presented in a new 20th anniversary print. Free screening and reception at the 2011 San Diego Asian Film Festival on Tuesday, October 25. Reception at 5:30pm, screening at 7:30pm. Mission Valley UltraStar Cinemas. Pick up your free tickets at the theater box office starting October 20.