This weekend the Austin Asian American Film Festival kicks off a month-long retrospective on Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien at the Austin Film Society, all but one of which will be playing on 35mm film. I wrote extensively about Hou, who would probably be my pick as the world’s greatest living filmmaker, back in 2015, when a similar retrospective rolled through Seattle. The series begins on September 8th with a DCP presentation of The Boys from Fengkuei, the 1983 film that marks the first true “Hou Hsiao-hsien” film after three fine but unremarkable light comedies. On September 11th, the AFS plays The Time to Live, the Time to Die, Hou’s autobiographical portrait of his family life as a young boy and then teenager.
Next up on September 15 is Goodbye South, Goodbye, from 1996. Named by Cahiers du cinèma as one of the three best films of the 1990s, it’s an ambling portrait of three petty criminals navigating modern Taiwan. Languidly paced yet precisely composed, it was Hou’s first film set entirely in the present after almost a decade exploring 20th Century Taiwanese history, and it looks forward to what is probably my favorite of his films, 2001’s Millennium Mambo, which the AFS is playing on September 18th. Tales of lost and alienated youth, finding brief moments of joy and peace in a chaotic world, these films form a necessary counterpoint to his more celebrated historical films, while sacrificing none of their aesthetic charm or rigor.
The greatest revelation for me of the Seattle retrospective was 1998’s Flowers of Shanghai, which plays vastly better in a theatre, on film, than it ever did on home video. The AFS plays it on September 22nd. More than any other Hou film, I would say it is absolutely essential to see it, at once his most ornate and minimalist film, on a big screen. The series concludes September 29th with A City of Sadness, a landmark film in world cinema, the crowning achievement of the New Taiwanese Cinema, winner of that nation’s first Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and a film that we unfortunately did not get a chance to see on film here in the Seattle retrospective.
Along with Edward Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien was the leading figure of a New Wave of Taiwanese directors who emerged in the early 1980s. Meeting regularly at Yang’s house and often contributing to each others works (Hou for example stars in and co-wrote Yang’s Taipei Story, while City of Sadness co-writer Wu Nien-jen appears in Yang’s Yi yi), the filmmakers took inspiration from around the world: Hollywood and Hong Kong, France and Italy and beyond. Developing a style around long, static takes and realist scenarios, the group pioneered what became known as “Asian Minimalism”, though it’s neither particularly Asian nor is it nearly as stridently minimalist as that label would lead one to believe. While Yang explored the impacts of modernization on Taiwan through studies of urban alienation among Taipei’s couples and extended family groups, Hou tended to mine the past for his material. Specifically his own and his collaborators’ memories of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, a post-war era of military dictatorship, with the island nation (for lack of a better word) precariously perched between Communist China and the West. Boys from Fengkuei is semi-autobiographical, though set in the present, while Time to Live comes more or less straight out of Hou’s past. A Summer at Grandpa’s is based on events from the life of Chu T’ien-wen, a celebrated novelist who would become Hou’s most important collaborator: she has written or co-written every one of his films since 1983. Dust in the Wind is based on Wu Nien-jen’s young adulthood, moving from rural Taiwan into the big city. This approach continued in the 90s with The Puppetmaster, a biography of Li Tien-lu, an actor who appeared in several of Hou’s films, including A City of Sadness, playing an irascible grandpa figure, and with Goodbye South Goodbye, which was co-written with stars Lim Giong and Jack Kao. A City of Sadness, though, is pointedly not based on any one person’s memory. Nor is it an adaptation like Flowers of Shanghai or The Assassin (or Café Lumière, which could be seen as an adaptation of Yasujiro Ozu’s recurring themes and scenarios into Hou’s trademark style). Instead, it’s an original historical epic, albeit an unusually intimate one. A film that uses all the techniques of personal, realist filmmaking to tell a grand historical narrative, uniting the individual and the political as well as any film ever made.
A City of Sadness wouldn’t have been possible three years before it was released. Only in 1987 did Taiwan’s regime of Martial Law come to an end. In earlier years, the subject of A City of Sadness, the consolidation of power by the Nationalist Kuomintang in Taiwan in the wake of victory in World War II and a losing civil war against the Communists on the Mainland, culminating in the February 28 Incident, a violent crackdown by the Nationalist Army against anti-Mainlander protestors, would have been taboo, and Hou’s film was the first to address this past. A City of Sadness begins with the end of the war, the Japanese surrender playing on the radio while we hear, simultaneously, the sounds of the newest son of the Lin family being born. His father is the eldest of four brothers, two of whom fought in the war (one in the Philippines, missing and presumed dead, one who will return home shortly), while the youngest, played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai in one of his first major roles, is deaf and mute. There’s a rumor that the character was made mute because the actor’s Mandarin wasn’t good enough, and as A City of Sadness was also the first major Taiwanese film to not be overdubbed, Hou didn’t want to break the illusion of verisimilitude. Whether or not that’s true, the character is far from a mere disabled witness to events on-screen, rather he is its very center.
A swirling cascade of side characters come and go with novelistic depth, but essentially the film follows two primary plot threads: Leung’s friendship with a Japanese-Taiwanese leftist activist and his sister, who falls in love with Leung; and the family’s decline from a place of respectable gangsterism into petty violence and repression at the hands of Mainland gangs and, eventually, the state. The former plotline, with its conflict between love and duty, is a familiar one: Leung wants very much to join the leftist resistance struggle, but is pulled into conventionality by love and family. The latter plays out mostly in the shadows, with first the returning veteran son (played by Jack Kao) recovering from his wartime traumas only to suffer even more greatly at the hands of rival gangs (with shades here of Lau Kar-leung’s otherwise very different Eight Diagram Pole Fighter). The implication being that the psychological after-effects of war lead to the kind of nihilistic self-destruction reminiscent of so many gangster films. The wider political events and discourses of the time are conveyed in short bursts, as part of the texture of everyday life, as in a lovely scene that begins with Leung preparing a meal for his friend and their fellow activists as they discuss the government’s latest outrages. After serving everyone, Leung wanders to the back of the frame, where he plays a record for the sister. The two discuss the song (Leung’s favorite as a child, before he lost his hearing), and Hou, in what is to this day a rarity in his work, cuts within the scene to a new angle, centered on the young couple. Seamlessly Hou moves from the general to the individual, from politics to romance, the grand and the intimate woven together in a scene of small moments from everyday life.
Throughout the film Hou returns to certain locations, set-up and shot in exactly the same ways, which brings a sense of continuity to his characters’ chaotic world. The places (the family kitchen and dining room, a raucous table at their nightclub, a hospital hallway) become charged with meaning, especially when he breaks from the routine and films them from a different angle or distance. The film builds to the peak of the 228 Incident, a night of terror for all involved, where Hou refuses to pull back from his intimate perspective: there are no sweeping vistas of a city in flames, no spinning newspaper headlines, only caught snatches of overheard conversation, glimpses of gangs and bloodied victims, lights fading in and out to the sounds of distant screams. It’s all the more harrowing because we don’t really know anymore than the characters do — we are just as caught up in events beyond our control and understanding as they are.
This approach, blending the personal and political to present a new kind of historical filmmaking, would set the stage for the rest of Hou’s great trilogy exploring 20th Century Taiwanese history: showing the first half of the century through the eyes and life of Li Tien-lu in The Puppetmaster and the aftermath of 228 (the violently anti-Leftist “White Terror” of the 1950s) and its echoes into the present with 1995’s Good Men, Good Women. At the same time the film is a kind of companion piece to Edward Yang’s lone film set in the past, 1991’s A Brighter Summer Day, which further individualizes their conception of the past to build an entire world out of a single act of violence, a killing Yang remembered hearing about in his youth. A Brighter Summer Day was, after years in the wilderness, recently restored and released into the world, where in a few short years it has received the kind of widespread acknowledgment it long deserved, a hidden masterpiece taking its place in the canon of world cinema. It remains to be seen if A City of Sadness will join it any time soon. It’s never been properly released on home video. Rights issues are complex, especially among the films of the Taiwanese New Wave era, which almost always worked outside conventional funding sources (there’s a rumor that A City of Sadness hasn’t seen the light of day because Hou and its producer had an acrimonious falling out). One should therefore take every chance available to see it when and wherever you can. Like on 35mm at the Austin Film Society on September 29th.