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Thematic Development of Hou Hsiao-Hsienís Films

 

----a survey by FanZhang

 

 

†† Hou Hsiao-Hsienís 1998 film Flowers of Shanghai surprised many critics and movie-goers for being a period drama (first one for him). Few of them realize that this film is a natural extension in the artistís career, not only in its formalist sense, but also in its thematic choice.

 

†† The formal development --- or rather refinement --- of Houís films is obvious. His earliest films ---- The Boys from FengKui (1985) andSummer at Grandpaís (1984) are very much melodramas, though a very healthy and grass-rooted kind. Starting withA Time to Live and a Time to Die (1986), through such masterpieces asDust in the Wind ( 1986), City of Sadness (1989) and The Puppetmaster (1993), Hou landed on the formal tour de force piece, ďGoodbye South, GoodbyeĒ (1996) which predicted the coming of Flowers of Shanghai. In this expand of more than ten yeas of time, Hou proceed from full-blooded melodrama stoy-teller , through warm-hearted local historians finally, to the calm, almost cold and detached narrator of contemporary life. He treated his subject with more and more care: music becomes more and more implicit; lightening more and more pregnant with implications; montage more and more resemble music, full of rhythm, tempo, pause and outburst; finally, dialogue becomes more and more minimalist.

 

†† The interesting thing is, paralleled to this formal refinement, we found in Houís movies a thematic kind of development. The two earliest films are really childrenís films. Both of them tell stories of the young people who face new environment. In Grandpa, protagonist Dong-Dong was relocated to the countryside from the city; in Boys, the boys was relocated from countryside to metropolitan of Taipei where was undergoing its industrial jump in the early 80sí. They are never more than family drama although they take us by heart so easily.

 

†† A Time to Live and a Time to Die is Houís first attempt to relate what is personal to what is historical. "Hou's first genuine masterpiece" (Phillip Lopate, The New York Times), A Time to Live and a Time to Die is an intensely sad, eloquent autobiographical work, filmed in the village where Hou grew up. Time pays homage to Hou's father, who during the civil war moved his family from the mainland to Taiwan, where he longed the rest of his short life for the home he could never return to. Adhering to the everyday in this portrait of his family, Hou accrues delicate observations, and moments of loss and regret. As in much Hou, the intimate becomes epic; full of oblique political references, Time is, in miniature, a study of Taiwan at a momentous instant. The final sequences, culminating in a frontal frieze of four apprehensive boys, transforms childhood remembrance into elegy. "No film I have seen this year has impressed me more than this miraculous history.... It is a spectacular triumph without anything of the 'spectacular' about it.... This is filmmaking on the very highest level" (Derek Malcolm, The Guardian).

 

†† Hou's subsequent film, Dust in the Wind, extends the theme of exile in its quiet chronicle of two young people who move from their hillside village to Taipei and find themselves exploited and adrift. Full of fugitive, unfulfilled yearnings, Dust reveals Hou's romantic attachment to the disappearing traditions and landscapes, the "paradise past," of Taiwan. A fixed shot of the grandfather, played by "national treasure," octogenarian actor Li Tien-lu, gazing into the serried green of the surrounding hills, captures in one rending image Hou's vision of an eternal Taiwan, rooted in the land and centred on the family. (Small wonder that many of Hou's critics have seized on comparisons with John Ford; but Hou's nativist cleaving to the past, the land [as garden] and the family never seems reactionary or self-consciously mythic as Ford's so often does.)

†† Martial law was lifted in Taiwan the same year Dust in the Wind was released. With a welter of mixed metaphor, Hou described this sudden freedom: "Like spring has come and a hundred flowers can't but bloom. If you have been shut up for a long period, you can't help bursting out with your feelings, and use different media, like the movies, to do so. You are like a new-born baby, full of energy and vitality." Ironically, the films Hou produced under the new democracy, including his Taiwan Trilogy óCity of Sadness (1989),The Puppetmaster (1993), and Good Man, Good Woman (1995) ó which spans the post-war history of the island, were even more meditative and elliptical than his previous work.

†† City of Sadnesswas the first film to address the event which had deeply scarred Taiwan's body politic, and which was left suppressed and suppurating in the national memory: the 2.28 Incident, as the Taiwanese call it, referring to February 28, 1947, the date on which a struggle between a policeman and a Taiwanese woman erupted into an island-wide conflagration. The rebellion was quickly crushed by the Nationalist regime, whose forces killed as many as 20,000 Taiwanese natives and broke the Independence Movement. The 2.28 Incident was expunged from official history, and became a kind of festering wound, poisoning Taiwan's subsequent history. Hou's intimate epic focuses on an extended family, the Lins, in the years between the end of the war and the invasion by the Nationalist forces, and centres on the fallout of the 2.28 Incident. Like much of Hou's late work, City demands urgent, unwavering attention, so abstruse is its narrative.

†† If City sometimes seems to require the full exegetical apparatus of family trees and background notes on Taiwanese history, The Puppetmaster is even more demanding. As he would henceforth, Hou compresses time, sometimes conflating past and present within the same frame, or leaping a decade in a single cut. The caesuras between narrative events can be abrupt, or unmarked, or provisory. He elides central events or leaves them offscreen, and collapses fact and fiction, history and performance; moves between a multitude of characters with an occasionally baffling lack of transitional devices, and fills his deep-focus, long-held compositions with so much quotidian detail that one's eye is left to roam a field of potential signifiers that may be mundane, even indifferent, but seem so implicative that they demand deciphering.

†† The final panel in Hou's historical triptych, Good Man, Good Woman, explores another topic long taboo in Taiwan, the period known as the "White Terror," during which fifties cold war paranoia escalated into full-scale repression. The Chiang Kai-shek regime imprisoned or executed many leftists and nationalists, and Hou's film, characteristically merging past and present, examines the legacy of this brutal time in current Taiwan. Hou is less interested in how red scare intensified into "white terror," than in how the inhibition of political memory continues to exact a psychic toll decades after the event.

†† Contemporary life has emerged in Good Man, Good Woman as Houís main thematic interest. Itís not that contemporary life is really interesting itself to Hou, in fact , to Hou , contemporary life is gigantically petit. However, the main subjects of all great arts --- human and humanity are still there, as heavy as before , or even more weighty due to the slightness of daily life. In Goodbye South,Goodbye, Hou follows the journey of smalltime crook Gao, his tattooed body a knot of unease and anger, and his punk protťgť, the aptly named Flatty, as they screw up every scam and scheme, from a Shanghai arcade to an ill-fated plan to skim cash from the sale of swine in their ancestral village. In Hou's lament for "money crazy" Taiwan, cell phones ring incessantly but nobody communicates; people are constantly on the move, in trains, cars, and on motorbikes, but go nowhere; men gamble on mahjong, lotteries, and chancy investments, while a woman named Pretzel is a suicidal baby doll, ready to kill herself when the debts from the risks come due; and the sun-blasted lassitude of the day gives way to the night in which Gao and his sidekick try to drive their way out of their futile lives. Hou here frees his stationary camera to capture the aimless lives of a band of petty urban "entrepreneurs." At an elegant remove, with slow, insinuating dollies and pans, and bold use of colour filters. The movie paints the urban colourless life with most exotic paint and turns itís meaningless noise into primitively simple intense rhythm and tempo.

 

†† Here in the end can we question why Hou made this historical feature, Flowers of Shanghai. To me, this film is far more earthy than historical. This even shows in its titled location --- Shanghai --- a clear metaphor of contemporary Taiwanese social energy. The story is set in the brothels of 19th-century Shanghai, known as "flower houses," where men escaped to drink sake, smoke opium, feast, and play mahjong. Hou focuses on the courtesans who serve the men, and he presents the stories of three such "flowers," narratives that are mostly independent from each other. Hou fixes on the rituals of this isolated, ornate world, and with methodical rigour reveals the social structures, commercial concerns, and muffled emotions that these "ceremonies" conceal. Exquisitely shot and acted, Flowers of Shanghai discloses the inner lives of its inhabitants through an obsessive focus on the lavish trappings of this closed, amber-lit world. The pain of this world is exactly whatthis director, who came from the countryside with great landscape as shown it Dust of Wind , and who went alongside through an intense urbanization during 80sí , finally reach the ultra modern and ultra cold environment ,sensitively feels. He tries to catch it in camera, through historical metaphor but whether the audience can well- understand himis a question.[1]

 

†††††††† Filmography of Hou Hsiao-Hsien

††† †††††††

††††††† Qianxi manbo (2001)

††††††† ... aka Millennium Mambo (2001) (France) (USA)

††††††† Hai shang hua (1998)

††††††† ... aka Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

††††††† Nanguo zaijan, nanguo (1996)

††††††† ... aka Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996)

†††† †††Haonan haonu (1995)

††††††† ... aka Good Men, Good Women (1995)

††††††† Hsimeng jensheng (1993)

††††††† ... aka Puppetmaster, The (1993)

††††††† Beiqing chengshi (1989)

††††††† ... aka City of Sadness (1989)

††††††† Niluohe nuer (1987)

††††††† ... aka Daughter of the Nile (1987)

††††††† Lianlian fengchen (1986)

††††††† ... aka Dust in the Wind (1986)

††††††† Tong nien wang shi (1985)

††††††† ... aka Time to Live and a Time to Die, A (1985)

††††††† Dongdong de jiaqi (1984)

††††††† ... aka Summer at Grandpa's, A (1984)

††††††† Erzi de Dawan'ou (1983)

††††††† ... aka Sandwich Man, The (1983)

††††††† Fengkuei-lai-te jen (1983)

††††††† ... aka All the Youthful Days (1983)

††††††† ... aka Boys From Fengkuei, The (1983)

††††††† Zai na hepan qingcao qing (1983)

††††††† ... aka Green, Green Grass of Home, The (1983)

††††††† Feng er ti ta cai (1981)

††††††† ... aka Cheerful Wind (1981)

††††††† ... aka Play While You Play (1981)

††††††† Jiushi liuliu de ta (1980)

††††††† ... aka Cute Girl (1980)

††††††† ... aka Lovable You (1980)



1 [1]In 2001 Toronto Film Festival, his latest , Millennium Mambo ( 2001 ),was screened as one of the Masterís Series. The theatre was full in the beginning but gradually deserted. By the end, there were about less than halfof the audience have enough interest --- or enough patience to sit through. This film is almost an exact remaking of Flowers of Shanghai , though in a contemporary so less exotic setting. Hou seems to be challenging his audience: Do you really understand what I Ďm talking about? If you you donít, letís say this again!Ē--- F.Z.