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Random Thoughts on Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers (1986)


Who are the terrorizers? The word “terrorizers” in the title is in plural form, meaning there are more than one. Our stereotypical understanding of “terrorizers” is that they are radicals, most often of Middle Eastern background, who employ violence for political purposes. However, we would consider the main characters of the film ordinary people, even though the Eurasian girl has some connection with crime. The lives of a novelist, a chemist, a slacker and a photographer intertwine by chance, coincidence and accident, weaving an extraordinary narrative out of ordinariness.


The shooting in the opening links the distinct destinies together. After several off-screen gunshots are heard, there is a shot of a dead body lying on the road with the sound of splashing in the background (Fig. 1). The next shot is of an inhabitant doing the laundry, who does not seem to be interrupted at all (Fig. 2). What shocks me in this sequence is not the violence but the coldness and distance. Rather than using emotional music to amplify the terror of the violent death, Edward Yang depicts the criminal incident in a quiet way – only diegetic sounds are heard throughout the sequence. A number of wonderful shots, like the empty shot of the round fuel tank (Fig. 3), the POV shot of Li Li-chung looking at his colleagues in a conference through the glass (Fig. 4) and the shot of Chou Yifen looking at a cleaner cleaning the glass curtain wall of a modern building through the window (Fig. 5), convey a sense of coldness and alienation. The city is portrayed without emotional colours and the city dwellers are merely indifferent bystanders. Such a gloomy atmosphere can turn individuals into the film’s eponymous “terrorizers”.


Fig. 1


Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Fig. 5


The open-ended ending is thought-provoking. I made the assumption that Li would kill his wife and then commit suicide in the end because I thought the ending of the film would echo that of Chou’s novel. Unexpectedly, Yang makes it more sophisticated by blurring the boundary between reality and fantasy. Does everything actually happen in reality? Or is it merely a dream? Just like the big picture of the Eurasian girl combined by many 4R photos the young photographer takes (Fig. 6), the so-called truth is fragmented, which needs to be collected piece by piece. Perhaps instead of asking who the terrorizers are, I should ask: what are the terrorizers? What are the things that make us terrified in the era of post-truth politics?


Fig. 6


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