The second shot of Edward Yang’s 1986 The Terrorizers—which just ended a month-long run on MUBI but which is still available in the MUBI library—is a close-up of a woman’s eyes. But the image is grainy and monochrome and there are paper folds beneath both eyes that look like tears. This is followed a beat later by a similar shot of the woman’s open mouth and a man in profile, again highly pixellated. Anyone familiar with Mike Nichols’ film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but especially anyone familiar with its French poster, might recognize the faces of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
The grande-sized poster (though you never see the title or any of the other lettering) hangs on the wall of a photographer who is living with his girlfriend. Over the course of the film their lives will intersect with a number of other disparate characters, but most especially a professional couple whose marriage is on the rocks. It might seem a little too on the nose to use a poster for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a prop in a film about marital conflicts, but something more is going on here. My guess is that Edward Yang, or his production designer, was more in love with the extreme grain of René Ferracci’s design than in the more obvious thematic connections to their film.
The filmmaker that The Terrorizers is most in thrall to is not Mike Nichols but Michelangelo Antonioni. Centered on a photographer, a la Blow-Up, the film trucks in the kind of urban anomie and narrative enigmas that were Antonioni’s stock in trade.
We see the poster a few more times in the film, especially during an argument between the photographer and his girlfriend.
Later in the film the photographer becomes obsessed with a girl he has seen escaping from a police raid and covers his wall with his own version of a pointillist close-up: a giant enlargement of her face printed on a grid of smaller squares of paper. I first saw The Terrorizers back in 1989 when I reviewed it for London Student Newspaper—it was released in the UK as The Terroriser—and then four years later in a series of New Taiwanese Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, but 27 years on the only thing I remembered clearly about the film was this indelible image.
The posters for The Terrorizers itself are nothing to write home about (and amazingly only a particularly ugly post-Yi Yi French re-release poster even utilized this potent image) but the poster for the film Yang made eight years later, A Confucian Confusion, is one of my absolute favorites (it hangs on my bedroom wall). In its pixellated video pointillism it harks back to both the enlarged printing dots of Ferracci’s Virginia Woolf and the fluttering grid of photos above. A version of this would have made a terrific poster for The Terrorizers.
Virginia Woolf is not the only poster seen in The Terrorizers. There is a great sequence towards the end of the film when the abandoned husband wanders the streets of Taipei and walks past a series of giant movie billboards. These would not have been movie props but actual films that were playing in the city at the time of filming.
I recognize three of the films: The Color Purple, The Emerald Forest and Police Academy 3: Back in Training. All of these were released in 1985 or ’86. Coincidentally the original posters that the billboards are based on were illustrated by three of the great poster artists of the 1980s: John Alvin for The Color Purple, Brian Bysouth (based on a design by Vic Fair) for The Emerald Forest, and Drew Struzan for Police Academy 3. And with some help I’ve figured out that the poster second from the end is the Japanese film Legend of the Eight Samurai by Kinji Fukasaku (director of Battle Royale), though I can’t find that exact poster. (That film was made in 1983 but IMDb confirms that it opened in Taiwan three years later on 25 September 1986).
If anyone can recognize the other two films—especially the high school movie with the nun—I would be most grateful.