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“Terrorizers” is a humanely nuanced take on urban malaise and toxic masculinity

Edward Yang’s Taiwanese New Wave classic is streaming on MUBI through Oct 5.

Edward Yang’s Taiwanese New Wave classic is streaming on MUBI through Oct 5.

In the pre-pandemic world where the overlapping lives of modern people were the bases of great dramas, Taiwanese New Wave pioneer Edward Yang was a master. Even today, his films serve as reminders of how the interactions of different sects of life can create rippling effects that violently change people, and his humanistic lessons stand true regardless of time or location.

Yang’s 1986 film, Terrorizers, focuses on four main characters as a cross-section of then-modern Taipei: a young gang-affiliated woman, a young photographer, and a married couple. The wife of the couple, Zhou Yufen (Cora Miao), struggles for inspiration as a novelist, while her husband Li Lizhong (Lee Li-chun) works as a mild-mannered hospital researcher. As Zhou’s lack of inspiration grows to reveal a more general depression about the state of her life, the mundanity of the couple’s marriage is juxtaposed with the comparatively intense but equally unfulfilling hardscrabble lives of the two younger characters. After witnessing Shu An (An Wang) narrowly escape from a police raid of the flat where she’s squatting, photographer Qiang (Shao-Chun Ma) begins a nascent obsession with her that grows as he lazes about. Eventually, he ends up renting the flat she escaped from to use as his darkroom.

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Qiang serves a dual purpose in the film, both as an audience surrogate who connects the plots with an omniscient perspective and as a foil for Li. While Qiang is young and detached and Li is a firm career man, both are increasingly driven by their obsession with hanging onto the idea of women they barely know, and thus their own identities. When Zhou eventually suffers a creative breakthrough after separating from Li, he discovers that her new novel involves a husband so depressed by his dissolving marriage that he ultimately kills his wife and himself. Li takes this to be a reflection of his own life, and his increasingly deranged path to win his wife back acts as a tragic endpoint of his gradual emasculation. Haunted by what he sees as a portrait of his own spousal ineptitude, Li can’t help but feel that his own destiny is tied up in the tragic hyper-masculine outcomes associated with his situation.

Amid all the complicated plotting and minimally intimate moments, Yang deploys an excellent bit of mise en scène that traces an optimistic arc through the rubble of the film’s failed relationships. Terrorizers’ recurring image of the windows in Qiang’s dilapidated flat traces his development from a passive to active participant in his life. MUBI, which is currently hosting Terrorizers for streaming (through October 5), co-presented a 2017 video essay on the use of windows in Edward Yang’s films that shows more broadly his masterful use of the image. After police shatter the flat’s windows in the film’s opening scenes, Qiang papers them over to create a darkroom so he can hermetically pursue his cataloguing of Taipei and Shu An.

Ultimately, neither Qiang nor Li can hold on to what they want, but as one man succumbs to despair and violence, the other still finds a somewhat brighter future after the dissolution of his obsession with a specter, and his windows reopen to the city outside. The film provides a path forward from the fatalistic parables of toxic masculinity provided by Yang’s (and many directors’) other films, which establishes it as one of his most nuanced and humane works. Those who recognize the most horrifying parts of our world can offer a way out.

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