DON’T GO THERE is pretty much the takeaway message from The Early Train from Taipei, a black and white melodrama which sets the dangers and seductions of the big city against the bucolic purity of life back home. Constructed like a Greek tragedy with stagey performances typical of the era, the film has enough cinematic touches to keep the main character’s downfall compelling.
Downfall is no spoiler: Hsiao Lin’s fate is presaged in the opening scene with a gothic device. Two portraits of her produced by a local artist: the first shows her in radiant beauty; the second as a gruesome freak. What has happened? asks the unnamed interlocutor. That’s the artist’s cue to tell him, and us, the whole sorry tale, beginning with those halcyon days when he offered to paint the portrait of a charming country girl.
If the character of artist, part of and yet detached from the narrative, represents the gods or immortals of traditional drama, the chorus is provided by a comedy countryside couple whose sotto voce discussions and outright goading remind us of the narrative and sometimes spur the characters into action. Another classical storytelling element is the songs which punctuate the narrative, heightening the emotion and, again, recapping the salient points. The influence of traditional Taiwanese opera gezaixi is plain to see.
But there’s plenty, too, that makes this far more than an opera with cameras. Motifs and images abound: the cleansing stream of the countryside; the haunting flute melodies of Hsiao Lin’s boyfriend back home; flowers in the nighttime rain; a single bloom trampled under a patent leather shoe. The editing shows a lovely contrast between the unhurried takes in the southern countryside and quick rhythmic cuts to the sound of hedonistic jazz in Taipei. The contrast between town and country is hard to miss and there’s little doubt which side the director is on. Things aren’t always easy back home, but people are straightforward and honest; the city is duplicitous and fake.
Director Liang Zhefu has a keen eye for irony, and the way the star-cross’d lovers keep missing each other, physically or emotionally, is played up for maximum effect, while the well-handled twists and turns of their story earn the film its right to the melodramatic exposition which forms a fairly significant chunk of the concluding scenes.
A dyed-in-the-wool tragedy, The Early Train from Taipei is full of fatalistic sadness, of characters trapped by locks, metaphorical and real. But like the best tragedies, there’s a glimmer of hope, too, found somewhere that can’t be touched by lock and key.
Original title: 台北發的早車
Year of release: 1964