In the spring of 2015, the complete retrospective on Hou Hsiao-hsien that had been travelling the world for several months made its way to Seattle in truncated form. Ten of his films, five on 35mm film and five on video, played at three theatres across town over ten days, and I was lucky enough to be asked to introduce six of the shows. The following is an edited version of the introduction to the series I wrote for Seattle Screen Scene, laying out the basic outline of Hou’s career.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s career began in the early 1980s with a trio of light romantic comedies starring pop star Kenny Bee, pleasant but for the most part unmemorable entertainments. But in 1983, after meeting up with a group of young directors who had studied at schools in America (among them Edward Yang, who studied engineering in the US and worked at a research lab in Seattle), and a fortuitous collaboration with author Chu T’ien-wen (she went on to write or co-write almost all of his subsequent films), Hou took a dramatic turn away from the mainstream and into a series of highly idiosyncratic explorations of personal memory and 20th Century Taiwanese history. Along with his fellow directors in the New Taiwan Cinema, Hou became a pioneer of a film form later contentiously-dubbed “Asian Minimalism”, typified by oblique and elliptical storytelling, extremely long shot lengths, and a preference for shooting in middle-distance “master shots” rather than the edited-together melange of close-up, medium, and reverse shots that make up the film style perfected in the Hollywood studio era and that remains the dominant film grammar the world over.
This more experimental turn began with a series of four coming of age films, each based on the experiences of Hou or one of his collaborators. The Seattle Hou series kicks off with the first of these, The Boys from Fengkuei, which, along with the third, 1985’s The Time to Live, The Time to Die, is based on Hou’s own experiences growing up in small town Taiwan, the child of Mainlanders who emigrated in the wake of World War II, and then moving to the big city for the first time. We don’t get the second of these films (A Summer at Grandpa’s, based on Chu T'ien-wen’s childhood memory), but we do get the fourth, 1987’s Dust in the Wind, based on screenwriter and occasional director and actor (he plays the main character in Edward Yang’s Yi yi), Wu Nien-jen.
After a slight detour with the unjustly-overlooked Daughter of the Nile, Hou embarked on his most famous series of films, a trilogy covering the history of Taiwan from the early 20th Century all the way through to the present moment. The first two films, A City of Sadness and The Puppetmaster, play here only on video, which is a shame as they’ve never been properly released on video with English subtitles (Sadness is available in bootleg form, and Puppetmaster only in a cropped version) so being able to see these two masterpieces on film would have been a treat. Regardless, they are must-sees in any form. A City of Sadness (1989) chronicles a family’s experiences in the interim between the end of the Japanese war and the end of the civil war in China that saw the establishment of the Kuomintang military rule over Taiwan, leading up to the February 28th Incident (events about which no film could be made until the lifting of martial law in 1987). It features the first great performance from Tony Leung Chiu-wai (playing a deaf mute, reportedly because the Hong Kong actor’s Mandarin wasn’t good enough to be convincing). The Puppetmaster (1993) is based on the life of Li Tien-lu, a puppeteer and friend of Hou’s who played memorable supporting grandfather roles in Dust in the Wind and Daughter of the Nile. It mixes Hou’s interviews with Li with dramatizations of the events he recounts (they don’t always match up though: Li was incapable of telling a story the same way twice), along with recreations of his puppet performances.
The final film in the trilogy is Good Men, Good Women, and it weaves together the story of a woman who traveled from Taiwan to the Mainland to fight the Japanese during the war only to be persecuted by the KMT as a communist in the early 1950s with that of the contemporary actress who is to play her in a movie and who herself is haunted by unresolved demons. It might be my pick as Hou’s best film, or at least the one that most encapsulates everything that is great about his work.
His next film, Goodbye, South Goodbye, was his first purely contemporary movie since Daughter of the Nile, and it tackles a world familiar from many Hong Kong films of the 80s and 90s, that of low-level gangsters as they drift aimlessly about their small-time scams and enjoy their slight freedoms. He followed that up with his first film set entirely on the Mainland, 1998’s Flowers of Shanghai. Reuniting with Tony Leung (along with a multinational cast including Carina Lau, Michelle Reis, and Michiko Hada) it’s an adaptation of a celebrated 19th Century novel as translated by Eileen Chang, set entirely in a variety of brothels, chronicling the rituals and heartbreaks of the relations between clients and prostitutes.
The penultimate film in the series is 2001’s Millennium Mambo, perhaps the most controversial (among film critics at least) of all Hou’s movies. Eschewing the socio-political subtexts (and male protagonists) of most of his earlier work, it’s a close-up study of a young woman (Shu Qi) as she drifts in and out of a bad relationship, through drugs and jobs until she finds herself, somehow, at a film festival in Japan. It’s the first Hou Hsiao-hsien film I ever saw and it remains one of my all-time favorite movies.
Finally, the series wraps with 2003’s Café Lumière, made by Hou in Japan as part of a tribute to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, a director to whom Hou is often compared (and not entirely without reason). A quiet tale about a young woman who doesn’t want to get married, her uncomfortably silent relationship with her parents and a friend who really digs trains, it forms the perfect mellow coda to Millennium Mambo’s pounding electronic trance.
Hou’s career continues of course. Later films not included in the series are 2005’s Three Times, a love story told three ways in three different time periods starring the same actors, and Flight of the Red Balloon, about a single mother (Juliette Binoche) and her nanny, a Chinese film student making a movie about the famous French short film The Red Balloon. Since that film’s release in 2007, Hou has been talking about his next project, a wuxia action film called The Assassin. Perhaps this is the year it finally gets released (note: it did, and it’s great).