Martha: Truth or illusion, George; you don’t know the difference.
George: No, but we must carry on as though we did.
– Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?
Traffic lights, all red. Chance obstacles. A cop car blaring its sirens as it cuts diagonally across the screen under a bleak dawn sky.
At the beginning we see the leftovers of a violent altercation laying in an alley in the form of a fresh corpse. Like the photographer we don’t get the satisfaction of seeing the events leading up to his death. We cut away to the upper stories of some residential buildings and hear gunshots which doesn’t seem to concern one of residents on her balcony.
The first shot of the author we’re given is pulling herself out of bed sullenly. A thick wall separates the bedroom from the living room where her husband stands on the patio and exercises. Already their energies are repelling one another and the division between them is made obvious. We watch the husband sit to pull on his shoes; to the top right of the frame we see a corded phone on the wall. When we cut to the wife, she is sitting dejectedly and to her left is a rotary phone. Their methods of communicating are different. Still this estranged husband and wife pursue their careers and hope their success will somehow create a bridge over the cold waters of their marriage. The husband is concerned about her mood: “Writing a novel shouldn’t be so deadly.” And yet all the lies we are presented with, though seemingly benign, hold the potential to be lethal.
We cut to a balcony, in the chilly blue-tinted cluster of projects. An arm holding a gun slowly extends from a newspapered windows. We don’t see the gun being fired, only hear it and are immediately shown the corpse lying in the street. We are given a cause and an effect but the lack of intermediary shots disconnect us from feeling like a murder has taken place. Yang culls the connective tissue to ease us into the elliptical nature of this story and also plays with our sense of time. There is only the present and he invites us to only observe intuitively rather than attempt to weave and connect the plot points which we are instinctually trying to do.
Inside the shooter’s apartment we see a table littered with papers and cans. The windows are closed and the hanging light above doesn’t seem to sway but suddenly a pair of cans topple off the table. We see the shooter and a girl sneak through the hallway and on the floor a fan running idly. Is this what knocked the cans over? This small reverse presentation of cause-and-effect causes an eerie dissonance even though the micro-events are not unusual at all.
White Chick’s friend lifts her over the balcony and she falls. The camera follows him as he drops to the ground and is immediately apprehended by cops while the photographer snaps away, only thinking about what benefits him in this situation. White Chick lays behind a pile of crates, clutching her ankle in pain. She limps away. The author’s husband is driving to work and catches a passing glimpse, the only glimpse, of White Chick standing on the side of the road, given so little attention that she might as well be part of the landscape. She is anonymous and unassuming to him even though she is the catalyst to his death.
White Chick tries to cross the road, stops dizzily and drops out of the frame. The next shot is her lying on the ground, a car and scooter passing her by without a care. What is not shown, her hitting the ground, is jarring. Again, the absence of a intermediary shots allows for more intuitive involvement. Like the comics he is inspired by, we are only being given what we need to see and by the elimination of the in-between we are allowed room to fill in these spaces like gutters on a comic page, inserting our own connective images into these small breaks in the flow of images just like the characters will slowly inserting themselves into the small empty spaces in other people’s lives.
The SWAT teams gears up and opens fire on the shooter’s empty apartment, the first home that is physically destroyed. We cut to the author which causes us to wonder: Who is going to destroy her home? Will it be as violent? We cut to her husband’s offices and view the people inside from the outside of building, tinted a clinical bluegreen as they toil away at their desks. A woman is seen crying at her workstation. We find that the doctor’s boss has died from a heart attack. Another instant of oblique cause-and-effect. Like the young photographer in the face of another person’s pain, the doctor and his workmate take it stride, thinking more about what it means for their careers rather than. Another employee asks if he noticed how neurotic the boss had been because he had been cheating on his wife to which the doctor shrugs and says he didn’t notice. Whether it is ignorance or denial that comes easy to him, he seems practiced at it. The doctor fishes for a promotion before telling his first lie, throwing his friend under the bus in a passive aggressive in his attempt to move up in his career.
The author meets up with an old friend and publisher in a sea foam green room lined with empty cabinets. The empty cabinets drive home the emptiness these character feel, looking to be filled up with something. Her friend flirts with her, guiltily noting that in her short story ‘he is the protagonist’ to which she smiles and leaves the room to look out the window. At first it looks as if it is open but she pushes it at the light shifts, giving us a reflection of a window cleaner on the building next door. Our view is unreliable, an illusion.
The author returns home. Husband and wife are in the same house but emerge from different rooms. The wife attempts to elicit a reaction from her husband by telling him about her old friends advances but he doesn’t catch on. Neither of them are in the same shot together when they talk. Though their conversation is mild, the lights in their room are orange-red and create tension especially when we cut to the restless White Chick at her mother’s home, hopping around in the midnight blue space of her room. She calls her DJ friend who tells her gang friends have gone south or are in jail, abandoning her.
Saddened, she listens to the dial tone button on her red phone before she hangs up. Her mother gets home and turns on Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, listening glumly before sitting next to her daughter, their relationship obviously strained by the ‘smoke’ of their conflicting desires in life.
We cut to a photo of White Chick and then watch the destruction of the photographers apartment by his girlfriend. An angry red light swings in front of the girlfriends eyes like a hypnotic pendulum when she is done. She turns around and the photographer is suddenly gone, coming off like a spoiled child in his hasty abandonment. The photos of White Chick lying in the street haunt the photographer not only because they are the closest he’s come to capturing something real in his work but because we find later it was he that rescued her and this plays into the childish damsel-in-distress narrative that seems to be fueling his obsession. He visits the shooters apartment where he saw White Chick escape from, now refurbished. He says he’s not looking to rent but the next shot we see his girlfriend at his apartment, all his photos and film missing.
The girlfriend finds a goodbye note from the photographer. A suicide note is then narrated over a shot of the girlfriend passed out in an ambulance but we cut to see White Chick is the one speaking this final farewell into her phone as a prank. A morbid fiction mirroring reality. We see the author lamenting over her writers block. “I’ve heard these stories and these people. I’ve jotted down lots of details…its become meaningless.” She scratches x’s into her manuscript. The author and White Chick, both in their white outfits, attempt to improve their storytelling skills.
The women in the Terrorizers are at different stages of actively trying to implement their own narrative into their life while the men are passive, trying to work within the fixed confines of their present situation. The three women are all different ages, as if showing the life span of the oldest woman, the writer. The youngest girl reads obsessively, the White Chick uses her creativity against people in real life and the writer records it.
Time becomes more distorted here until it is dead. We are only to be concerned about the present, of what is happening in front of us and the banality of it all.
The author complains to her friend how her world has gotten “smaller” since she got married, both in a spatial and social sense. When they talk, both of them are in the shot, showing a level of understanding that she and her husband lack. He touches her cheek. We cut to them laying in bed together. In bed, he tells her her novel made him feel guilty to which she responds: “Don’t take it seriously. Its only fiction, not reality.” The lack of connective shots between him touching her cheek and them in bed suggests a lack of satisfaction between the author and her lover even though they’ve been intimate. It also disconnects us from empathizing with these two people. We don’t root for their relationship we simply observe that it is a thing happening and doesn’t seem to register on a moral spectrum.
The characters starts to coalesce in small ways: The doctor lies to his friend about throwing him under the bus. Later he wakes up and finds the author smoking, saying he thought she quit which seems to drive her over the edge as she cries into his arms both with guilt and acceptance that he doesn’t know her at all. The photographer tries to get a new camera and tells the man to have his father pay his debt to which the man refuses. Both men are so self-involved that they don’t notice the changes in the people around them, even the ones they may care about. White Chick randomly prank calls the author, telling her she has to speak urgent matters with her husband. Her mother finds her and takes the phone away but not before giving her the address of the shooters apartment which the photographer is living in. Author and photographer meet but part quickly. The wife abandons her husband to which he enlists the help of the cop from the beginning of the story, a friend who he has also neglected. When asked about his wife’s state of mind he says “besides writers block there was nothing out of the ordinary.” Her novel’s story as well as the reality of her life are being overhauled. At the cop’s house a nude pinup girl sways in the breeze on the wall but the doctor seems not to see it, perhaps signaling the lack of sexual energy in their marriage as well as the obvious inattentiveness.
The brief connections between these characters happen purely by chance. The characters lives are patched together at the edges of their worlds, brushing up against one another just enough to cause discord. The nature of Taipei is alienation, indifference and obscuration, each character floating on their own island amid the cold, urban clutter. The only time we feel the sea of humanity is in the mall or in the streets where these characters stand alone in the drifting mass of estranged people.
The photographer seals off his room in darkness, using only his red light while he arranges his photos. He has finally closed himself off to everyone else and is concerned only with nursing his desires, obsessions. The author starts arranging her books and the husband tries to assist her but she says to leave them (her) alone to which he responds he “can’t stand a mess”, both missing her meaning and revealing the deep denial of his lack of understanding. She informs him shes leaving because she needs change. She is rewriting her story. The confrontation takes place at a table with the husband is looking into the camera, pleading, saying everything was for her. She is silent and he begs her to ‘talk to him’. She tells him she hated her job and writes to ease the pain of losing the baby. Both of them look into the camera as they talk. She asks him (us) whats the point of telling him this, he’ll never understand, that he only knows ordinary routines, tedious repetitions. Her eyes lock on us: “Do you understand? You don’t.” Yang reminds us that we are not here to empathize with these characters, only to watch as chaos pools in around them and they struggle to maintain a sense of control and order.
White Chick sheds her cast and goes to a strip mall where she gets picked up by a guy. In a hotel room he catches her trying to rob him. He wraps a belt around his fist, ready to beat her and stares into the camera as he lights a cigarette, creating a strange awareness of the audience. Suddenly she leaps out from the left side of the frame, a direction he wasn’t looking, and stabs him. We almost feel implicated as a distraction in her assault because of the surprise on his face. White Chick escapes back to the shooter’s house where she discovers the massive portrait of herself, the startling power of self-reflection causing her to faint.
When she wakes up photographer tells her he’s the one who took her to the hospital and he knows she’s been placing prank calls. She sleeps with him, a meaningless act to her, and he is instantly possessive, demanding she “wait for him”, trying to impose his desire/narrative on her. She robs him but brings back his cameras and leaves on a motorcycle. This shot mirrors an earlier one when the author also drives away up a street, spurned men watching mysterious women in white ride away down a long street. Her blown-up portrait ripples in the breeze, distorting her image now that he realizes he doesn’t know who she is and never will. We cut to a pool, the surface a shimmering and impermanent state just like the shifting levels of understanding and trust between these characters. Still, he dives in headfirst; the photographer has returned home, broke. As he eats breakfast he sees he has received a draft notice, a form of chaos he had been trying to escape, and goes to see his old girlfriend who by chance is alive.
When the doctor is asked about his wife’s novel he says he doesn’t know, that he doesn’t read novels. For all his good intentions and love, he doesn’t know a thing about his wife. The author wins first place for best novel. On her TV interview she has incorporated her experiences with the prank call and divorce. Her face is collaged on a stack of small TVs like the collaged portrait of White Chick.
The photographer’s girlfriend tells him about the novels plot which is the plot of the film so far and goes so far as to tell us the ending, that the husband kills the wife and then himself. As she explains how “the story is so close to life” we see the author meet her husband for lunch. “It sends chills up your spine” she says and it does because up until the point we haven’t seen any aggression from the doctor and yet we are presented with the potential for such a dark conclusion. The photographer, like us, is in a state of shock at being able to recognize the real life elements of this story: “I’m the only one who knows what this is all about.” The photographer contacts the doctor and explains about White Chick. The doctor starts reading the novel leading him to say “It’s all there”, finally understanding the situation. The doctor goes to talk to wife where they speak inside the same green glass cabinet room except this time its filled with books. “Can’t you separate fiction from reality?” She antagonizes him and his out of character exclamation for her to ‘stop it’ scares her. Her question is meant for him now as well as us later. The doctor has figured out the entire story and yet he is still forced to acknowledge that he doesn’t understand everything, will never understand it and that it is too late.
He arrives late to work to find he has not been promoted. As he waits to talk to his boss he is boxed in by the waiting room door frame, made to look small and petty and is then refused by his boss. He goes to see his cop friend and tells him that he got the job. “For men, a good career is everything. Nothing else matters.” The doctor realizes that this mindset has ruined his life and now even that is gone. After a night of drinking, he wakes up crying and finally looks at himself in the mirror instead of compulsively washing his hands.
A little girl runs down a sidewalk, reminding the doctor of the child he couldn’t give his wife. Death comes in a cold blue color again as we hear a gunshot and see the doctor’s workmate shot in the head. Back at his house, the cop wakes up and sees his gun missing. The doctor finds his wife and shoots her boyfriend through the door, shattering a glass vase filled with water and flowers (Water breaking? A foreshadowing of her pregnancy?). He finds her in the bedroom and fires but we don’t see what he has shot until he leaves. A mirror. His identity has been destroyed by the story she has imposed on him but he finds one way to defy it and that is to let her live, leaving her with a crippled sense of self. He finds White Chick and goes to a room with her, intent on killing her. The cop finds them and kicks in the door just as blood spatters a wall we don’t recognize. We cut back to the cop waking up, as well as the author. The doctor has killed himself in the cop’s bathroom and we see the blood seeping into the bathwater. The chaos of this story has been neatly framed by gunshots at dawn. The author sits up in bed and then vomits.
She is sick, a sign of both something hopeful and guilty fatigue. The process of escaping the terror of having someone elses narrative and identity forced on you (the happy wife, the successful husband, the dream girl, the heroic boyfriend) has taken its toll in the form of pain and death and yet this was the necessary sacrifice the author made to find some change. The narrative we are told to expect is given to us and then taken away violently because reality does not allow for complete stories or obvious morality. The story is about the absence of story and our desperate attempt at constructing narrative out of chaos and imposing it on ourselves and those around us. Yang approaches these characters neutrally, letting us empathize not with them but with the terror of being wrapped up in the treacherous fabric of human nature. Everyone is portrayed with their agency in tact and still it means nothing in the face of entropy, discord that they cannot keep out regardless of how well they conceal themselves in their rooms. Their identities are dissected by these lies and their nature is made plain the way a breeze rolls in through the photographer’s window and rustles his cobbled together portrait of White Chick, destroying his perception of her and shattering the structure of his desired narrative.
Yang’s characters strive to restructure their homes, organizing their belongings and people in order to find relief and stability, to sate obsessions or incur any sort of feeling to puncture the blandness of everyday life. Each of the characters spatial enclosures lets us peer into them at a cellular level. We look at pieces of their identity scattered or arranged around them: posters, books, magazines, photos. As we watch the surrounding objects grow, change or disappear, we find we are able to see what each character’s focus is. Even some people become props to the other characters and the objects themselves take on a sort of life, spreading throughout the rooms like a fungus.
The density of Taipei only creates a more terrifying environment where violent accidents and change encounters become more and more frequent while people try to find solace within the confines of their homes. Everyone is literally compartmentalized into their own claustrophobic space: looking out of their window at the margins between buildings. The author standing in a door way, her husband barely squeezed into the frame in the background. Office window panes frame the the author and her lover together and place the husband on the other side of them. The author’s repeated image on the TV is noisy and fragmented, her visage broken and distorted to others. The photographer’s house is filled with pictures of White Chick, negatives hung across his living room so the he can see her but never completely.
Everyone is only given a two-dimensional view of everyone else. Even we, the audience, are made aware multiple times we are watching a film, a series of images that we think we have figured out. We look through layers and layers of obscuration and are bold enough to think we understand. As the author reminds her husband that her work is only fiction, Yang reminds us that our perception is unreliable and our understanding of each other is fallible at best. He presents us with what we do not acknowledge in our own reality, that our lives are made up of intersecting events and people and places and we string them together in a way that makes sense to us so we do not feel the absence of purpose that this movie forces us to feel. Our reality feels cliched and predictable before this film, a looking glass which reflects back to us the obvious tropes of our patchwork lives. The chaos of the film reminds us of the faux order we’ve constructed in our own. The answers we’ve clung to feel intangible and disappear before us. There is no solution to this story because there is no equation from which to solve, only the romantic intangibility of coincidence and the terror of being unable to separate the indifference of reality from our contrived fiction.