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Hidden History, Modern Hedonism: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien

Author(s): Robert Sklar

Source: Cinéaste, Vol. 27, No. 4 (FALL 2002), pp. 11-12
Published by: Cineaste Publishers, Inc.
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Accessed: 10-07-2019 15:02 UTC

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Hou's historical films, who speaks what can
be a highly charged signal of allegiance or
betrayal. In several of Hou's works, linguistic
miscomprehension places lives in danger.
(On Wellspring's releases, new subtitles indi-
cate when different languages are spoken.)

s The United States backed Chiang's repres-

sive regime during the Cold War as a bulwark
against Communism, until Nixon's trip to

China and the eventual U.S. diplomatic


go recognition of the mainland government in


cu the 1970s sent shock waves through Tai-

wanese politics and cultural life. Taiwanese
cinema, largely controlled by the state,

inevitably was affected. Moralistic melodra-


mas made by Nationalist filmmakers as vehi-
cles for government propaganda lost favor
1 with domestic audiences, who preferred

Hong Kong films. Seeking renewal, a mori-

bund industry gave opportunities to young
filmmakers, and a New Taiwanese Cinema
movement ostentatiously was launched.

Hidden History» Modern Hedonism: province, China, and moved with his
Hou province, familyfamily
was the following
born China,
to Taiwan,in 1947 and year moved in Guangdong to with Taiwan, his

The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien

where they settled in the southern part of the
island. His father died when he was twelve
years old, his mother in the year he finished
by Robert Sklar high school. After compulsory military ser-
vice, he studied filmmaking at an arts school
essary foundation for understanding. It'sand in the mid-1970s began working at entry-
underrated- not with his multiple inter- understandable that Taiwan's history, exceptlevel jobs in the film industry. His first two
I t's underrated- prizes, difficult
regular festival
prizes, appear-
to not argue regular with that his he's festival multiple neglected appear- inter- or in broadest outline, may be little known fromfilms as director, Cute Girl (1980) and Cheer-
ances, frequent film-society retrospectives, afar, yet it's also the case that a legacy of cen-ful Wind (1981), seem not to be currently
and a reputation, among critics and program- sorship and suppression has left many Tai- available. Not much is known about them
mers who follow global filmmaking, as one of wanese uninformed about a past that Houbeyond their titles.
the two or three most significant figures in has reconstructed in several of his most He gained domestic and international
world cinema today. Yet in comparison to important films. attention in 1983 with two films and a seg-
others of such preeminent stature - Abbas Taiwan - an island off the coast of China,
ment of a third. Green, Green Grass of Home
Kiarostami from Iran and Wong Kar-wai of if that need be said - became a colony
nominated for a best-picture award at
Hong Kong are two most frequently named Japan in the 1890s and, under the name Taiwan's
For- equivalent of the Oscars. The Boys
- there's no question that Taiwan's Hou mosa, remained under Japanese dominationfrom Fengkuei (also known as All the Youthful
Hsiao-hsien is insufficiently known in the until the end of World War II. After 1945, the won the best film award at the 1984
United States, outside a small circle of cinema Festival of Three Continents in Nantes,
allies ceded power over the island to China's
cognoscenti. Over the past fifteen years not Nationalist party, the Koumintang (KMT), France, in that era a major venue for promot-
one of his major works has had a theatrical under Chiang Kai-shek, which was engaged ingat
world cinema in Europe. Even more in-
release in the U.S., and availability of any of that time in a civil war with communist fluential within Taiwan was a three-part film,
his films in homevideo formats has been forces for control of the mainland. On Febru- The Sandwich Man , for which he directed
severely limited. ary 28, 1947, the arrest of a woman for illegal- only the first episode, "The Son's Big Doll."
Now things are changing for the better. ly selling cigarettes sparked protests against With its focus on marginal workers and on
Wellspring Media has released four of Hou's Nationalist rule that were brutally sup- the U.S. military presence in Taiwan, the film
recent masterworks in video and DVD for- pressed, with mainland troops killing thou- raised previously taboo subjects and marked
mats - The Puppetmaster (1993), Good Mensands , of Taiwanese (an official investigation, the New Taiwanese Cinema's fresh sensibility.
Good Women (1995), Goodbye South , Good- years later, placed the number of dead at A Summer at Grandpa's (1984) also won a
bye (1996), and Flowers of Shanghai (1998). 18,000 to 28,000 in 1947 alone). Martial law best film award the following year at Nantes.
(Wellspring's Wendy Lidell first brought Hou was declared and remained in effect until Hou's early films have often been called
to U.S. attention in the 1980s by distributing 1987, as the Nationalists, defeated on the autobiographical in their subject matter, but
A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985) and mainland in 1949, retreated to the island and it's worth pointing out the extent of his col-
Dust in the Wind ( 1986) through her Interna- ruled for decades with an iron hand. laborations with screenwriters, whose names
tional Film Circuit.) Lee Ellickson's interview One key element of this history that Hou sometimes don't get subtitled during Chi-
in this issue marks one of the director's mosthas made central to his work is the politics ofnese-language credit crawls. In fact Hou has
comprehensive career discussions ever to language - something that a spectator follow-taken a (co) screenplay credit on only one of
appear in English. To accompany the inter- ing dialog through subtitles may miss entire-his films, the undeniably autobiographical A
view, this article offers an overview of Hou's ly. While the native Taiwanese populationTime to Live and a Time to Die. A woman
works and historical context for his films and spoke several distinct dialects, Japanese hadnovelist, Chu Tien- wen, has collaborated on
his comments about them. been imposed as the dominant official lan-every one of Hou's screenplays since The Boys
Cultural and historical contexts provide guage until 1945, Mandarin Chinese sincefrom Fengkuei, eleven in all. Screenwriter Wu
important background for appreciating anythen. Dialect soundtracks were in disfavor Nien-jen is also co-credited on several major
international filmmaker, but for Hou, per-during Chiang's heyday, and when Hou films.
haps the most historically specific of majorbegan making films in the 1980s he brokeIn these early works, a principal motif is
contemporary directors, they establish a nec-with the old ways by using spoken dialect.the In contrast between city and country, with

CINEASTE, Fall 2002 11

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the countryside designated as 'south' as dis- voice-over and the use of black-and-white
war and Chiang's relocation to the island.
tinct from the capital city, Taipei, in the Taiwan's brutal transition from one repres-
and color. In present-day Taiwan, an actress
north. In Green, Green Grass of Home a young sive occupation to another is conveyed prepares to perform in a historical film re-
man journeys south from Taipei to teach in a through the complex fate of the Lin family,
creating actual lives and events: her character
primary school. In A Summer at Grandpa's , a is a Taiwanese woman who went to the main-
whose three surviving brothers are in various
boy and his younger sister are sent south land in 1940 to join the anti- Japanese resis-
ways victims within the larger story of the
from Taipei when their mother becomes ill. Nationalist assault. tance, and who then, back in Taiwan, was
In The Boys from Fengkuei, three callow rural Acclaimed internationally, and winner of imprisoned during the 'White Terror' follow-
youth move to a (southern) port city and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival,ing the Nationalists' post- 1949 consolidation
grapple with responsibility and maturation. City of Sadness caused a sensation in Taiwan of power. With scenes of the actress's trou-
Train travel, arrivals and departures, and for its dramatization of suppressed history, bled private affairs, flashbacks to her recent
scenes on railroad platforms, figure in most and marked a popular highpoint for domesticpast, and visualizations of historical events in
of these works and in later films. Hou's em- interest in Hou and New Taiwanese Cinema. her character's life as she imagines them, the
phasis on the countryside perhaps marks There a were also dissenters who chastised Hou film contrasts a gangster-dominated, hedo-
break from Nationalist melodrama, just as onfor breaking the long silence about Februarynistic present with the sacrifices endured and
the mainland the Fifth Generation's early28 in too oblique a fashion, as well as throughlosses suffered by idealistic Taiwanese in the
films, made in the same years, took Chinesethe scrim of private life, thus, in their view,past. In an end credit, Hou dedicates his film
cinema outdoors into distant locations, far missing an opportunity to communicate fullyto "all the political victims of the 1950s."
from conventional studio interiors and back- the devastating extent of political murder and Hou has made three films since the histor-
lot settings. imprisonment. Most viewers are likely to feelical trilogy. Goodbye South, Goodbye cast a
From the beginning, working with differ- that this didactic critique pales before Hou'srueful, sardonic eye on contemporary low-life
ent cinematographers, Hou demonstrated a artistic achievement, yet it's also true that gang members, who could be slightly grown-
sophisticated mastery of the cinematic frame even a spectator steeped in Taiwan's politicalup versions of the hapless Boys from
and mise-en-scène, utilizing medium-long history may require multiple screenings toFengkuei, surviving on petty scams. (Refer-
and long shots with action often occurring far absorb the film's intricacies. ences to Hou's earlier 'south' films abound,
away in the image. A Time to Live and a Time Hou followed City of Sadness with twosuch as the gangsters' train ride south from
to Die and Dust in the Wind pared this style more historically based films, The Puppetmas-Taipei at the beginning. When they arrive, a
even further, eliminating most panning cam- ter ánd Good Men, Good Women, forming acompatriot, expecting them to have come by
era movements except for unobtrusive, slight trilogy on Taiwan's twentieth century trans- car, asks, "When did you become so roman-
reframings. At the same time he cut back on formations. In both works, the director tic?") Flowers of Shanghai marked a remark-
soundtrack music, using musical scores spar- offered new formal innovations. The Puppet- able shift for the filmmaker: his first film with
ingly. Commentators at the time became master dealt with the decades of Japanesea non-Taiwanese subject, it was based on a
fond of linking his austere approach to the occupation, as experienced in his youth by1890s Chinese novel (or rather, a 1960s ren-
famously unmoving camera style of Japanese renowned puppeteer Li Tien-lu (nearing dering into Mandarin Chinese by another
director Yasujiro Ozu, a comparison that ulti- eighty years of age, Li became an acting regu-writer of the earlier work written in dialect).
mately failed to convey the distinctive ethos lar in Hou's films beginning with Dust in the The setting was the brothels, or 'flower hous-
of each that set them apart. Wind, portraying crusty, garrulous familyes,' in Shanghai's foreign concession, where
A Time to Live and a Time to Die and Dust patriarchs). Part documentary, part fictionalrules of courtship, etiquette, and refined con-
in the Wind began Hou's exploration of the re-creation, the film intersperses scenes ofversation held sway. Sumptuously lighted and
past, and also introduced voice-over as a sig- actors portraying Li at various ages with shotsphotographed by Mark Lee Ping-Bin (also
nificant stylistic element in his work. The for- of the dapper and jaunty old man, recountingknown for his work with Wong Kar-wai), the
mer film begins with a speaking voice saying, past travails and adventures. Utilizing hisfilm depicts the subtle ebb and flow of power
"This film is some memories from my youth, long-shot, long-take, stationary camera style and desire between the male visitors and the
particularly impressions of my father," and at its most extreme, Hou creates a rigorous 'flower girls.'
many of its narrative details coincide with but limpid narrative that ends in muted, per- With Millennium Mambo (2001), Hou re-
Hou's own family history. The latter work, sethaps ironic triumph, with Japan's defeat and turned to modern-day Taiwan. It's a curious
in the 1960s, clearly also draws on Hou's the end of its half-century colonization. aspect of his penchant for the past that the
experience of military service. Both films are Good Men, Good Women is a work of film opens with a voice-over explaining that
suffused with a sense of loss, of hidden intricate temporality, structured throughits events "happened ten years ago in the year
knowledge and failed communication. 2001," casting the present as history. Having
Hou's first effort to depict modern Taipei previously probed so deeply into the secrets
was the bleak Daughter of the Nile (1987). of a colonized, brutalized island, Hou's strat-
With their mother having died and their stern egy for taking on today's chaotic, incoherent
father absent in the south, a brother and two postmodern culture - as he makes it appear
sisters seek to cope largely alone amid the to be - involves viewing it as evanescent, as
city's vast highways, nêon-bright pleasure dis- having already happened and, presumably,
tricts, and American fast-food outlets. Gang- later been transformed into something else.
sters murder the brother over gambling The film's story of a party girl who can't seem
debts. At the end, the older sister's voice-over to get away from an abusive boyfriend is
quotes the biblical prophet Jeremiah, who perhaps the least compelling of his narratives,
protested his peoples' moral degeneration but it's reassuring to know that the film casts
and forecast their doom. his remarkable artistry and moral seriousness
Did the end of martial law in 1987 make at least another decade into the future. ■
possible City of Sadness ? Following Daughter
of the Nile, Hou expanded his purview on the Thanks to the following individuals for assistance or
past to take on Taiwan's most tragic, forbid- for making available films screened for this article:
David Callahan, Donnell Media Center, New York
den subject: the February 28th Incident and
Public Library; Gary Crowdus, The Cinema Guild;
its significance for postwar Taiwan's history. Ann Harris, Department of Cinema Studies, New York
City of Sadness begins in April 1945 with the University; Richard Havis, East Asian Bureau Chief of
Emperor's radio address announcing Japan's Moving Pictures International; Tommy Lee, Taipei Eco-
surrender and ends in December 1949 with nomic and Cultural Office; Wendy Lidell, Wellspring
the Nationalists' defeat in the mainland's civil A scene from Millennium Mambo (2001). Media.

12 CINEASTE, Fall 2002

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