Good Men, Good Women opens with the enigmatic words, “When yesterday’s sadness is about to die. When tomorrow’s good cheer is marching towards us. Then people say, don’t cry. So why don’t we sing.” A static, monochromatic shot then focuses on a group of travelers laden with baggage, singing as they traverse the rural countryside of Guangdong Province. The image proves to be a transitory glimpse of a painful chapter in Taiwanese history, as a group of idealistic students travel from Taiwan to mainland China during the 1940s in order to lend their support for the resistance fight against the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, only to be denounced, years later, as Communist sympathizers during the Kuomintang’s White Terror campaign of the 1950s under Chiang Kai-Shek. The tragic plight of these well-intentioned resistance fighters is the subject of a proposed film in modern day Taiwan entitled Good Men, Good Women, and the role of the real life heroine, Chiang Bi-Yu, has been offered to an emotionally withdrawn and inscrutable actress named Liang Ching (Annie Shizuka Inoh). One morning, Liang is awakened to the sound of a ringing telephone in her apartment amidst the background distraction of a television set (which is ironically playing Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring). She receives a disturbing fax that details her intimate thoughts from an ill fated relationship with a smalltime gangster named Ah Wei (Jack Kao), culled from her stolen personal diaries. Soon, it is revealed that Liang has been repeatedly harassed by an anonymous thief and perpetually silent telephone caller whose underlying motives remain unclear. The violative transmission of her diary entries compels Liang to reluctantly revisit her unsavory past as a promiscuous and drug-addicted bar hostess in Taipei, and her volatile relationship with the gentle Ah Wei. As Liang becomes the entrusted emissary for the story of Chiang Bi-Yu’s struggle, she gradually becomes the generational conduit between Taiwan’s turbulent past, and the decadent, uncertain future.
The final chapter of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s trilogy on Taiwanese history (that also includes A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster), Good Men, Good Women provides a poignant, harrowing, and thematically complex portrait of postwar and contemporary Taiwan. By presenting the temporal confluence of three separate historically and personally relevant time periods, Hou not only reveals Liang’s behavioral pattern of anonymous affairs, emotional isolation, and inner turmoil, but also parallels her self-destructive behavior with the national crisis of identity, hedonism, and cultural disconnection in contemporary Taiwan. In essence, Liang’s betrayal of Ah Wei’s memory is a modern day, personal manifestation of a national, historical event: the seemingly random persecution of Taiwanese people by their own government during the White Terror. Inevitably, like the nation, Liang is forced to reconcile with her own culpability and ignominious past in order to find closure and inner peace.
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