Director Hou Hsiao-hsien, in a 1988 New York Film Festival World Critics Poll, was voted one of three directors who would most likely shape cinema in the coming decades. He has since become one of the most respected, influential directors working in cinema today. In spite of his international renown, his films have focused exclusively on his native Taiwan, offering finely textured human dramas that deal with the subtleties of family relationships against the backdrop of the island’s turbulent, often bloody history. All of his movies deal in some manner with questions of personal and national identity, particularly, “What does it mean to be Taiwanese?“. In a country that has been colonized first by the Japanese and then by Chiang Kai-Shek’s repressive Nationalist Government, this question is pregnant with political connotations.
Hou was born to a member of the Hakka ethnic minority in southern Guangdong province in mainland China, but his parents emigrated to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, in 1949, to escape the bloodshed of the Chinese civil war. After serving in the military, Hou entered the film program at the National Taiwan College of the Arts. He graduated in 1972 and worked as a salesman until he landed a job as an assistant director and a screenwriter. In 1980, he made his directorial debut with Cute Girl, but he did not attract critical attention until The Son’s Big Doll appeared as an episode of the omnibus film Sandwich Man (1983). This film, along with another portmanteau movie, In Our Time (1982), is considered one of the first films of the New Taiwan Cinema movement, which injected a new level of sophistication and vitality into a moribund film industry previously known for martial arts spectaculars; it arose from the Foundation for the Development of Motion Picture Industry and the loosening of censorship laws in the late ’70s and was led by such young filmmakers as Hou and Edward Yang. (Bio Courtesy: All Movie Guide, Image Courtesy: Freakyflicks)
Zai Na He Pan Qing Cao Qing (The Green, Green Grass Of Home, 1983)
During the first quarter hour, The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983), undoubtedly a weak link in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s early career, seems to safely adhere to the noble-teacher-scores-over-unruly-kids-and-profoundly-changes-their-lives genre. Instead, Hou diverts the attention of the narrative from the student-teacher relationship towards the one between the kids and their parents and the romance between the teacher, played by Hong-Kong pop icon Kenny Bee, and his colleague in the primary school. There is dramatic tension in the story, which now seems uncharacteristic of the director, in the form of a environmental issue about illegal fishing in the village river, that is used to tie all the characters together in the third act. The director’s signature is barely visible and his methods seem to be in their very nascent stage. Hou shows almost none of his trademark restraint on the soundtrack, employing schlocky sentimental songs to hold attention. Of course, there is also much to take away from the film when the director is not concentrating on the star value of the film, especially when he deals with slice-of-life sequences from the children’s lives (There is a very funny sequence involving a stool test which, I’m sure, has been ripped off elsewhere). Also noteworthy is the way Hou positions his camera amidst the kids, often taking their POV of their teacher. But it is Hou’s choice of repeating certain compositions and locations throughout the film, which also presages a key technique in the director’s modus operandi, to get the audience accustomed to the film’s environment that ultimately saves the film.
Feng Gui Lai De Ren (All The Youthful Days, 1983)
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s fourth feature stands in remarkable contrast to the banality of his previous film, The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983), and should probably be considered as the first signs of a master who is to come. Tinged with nostalgia throughout, as the title would imply, All the Youthful Days presents us the lives of a bunch of rowdy youths from the town of Fengkuei, who move to the city looking for work (in a manner very reminiscent of Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996)). Although much more restrained than the director’s previous, a few of the clichés of the genre still remain. But what really sets apart the film from its predecessor is the confidence of its approach and its formal consistency that would become characteristic of the director later on. All the Youthful Days already shows the filmmaker’s need for direct sound, which he would employ a few films later, while the visual component succeeds in capturing the rhythm of life in the city and in the town with its long and drawn-out shots, restrictive framing, use of off-screen space and employment of multiple planes of action. Hou’s camera takes a detached but ever curious gaze towards its subjects as they engage in gang wars, witness the lives of their neighbours, get cheated in the city and lead a life that is as detached from the past as it is from the future. There is much understated pathos to be found in the final passages of the film, a la I Vitelloni (1953), where the friends are forced to come to terms with the fact that they have to break up and move on with their individual lives. (Republished)
Dong Dong De Jia Qi (A Summer At Grandpa’s, 1984)
A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) is a tale of transition – from the chaotic life in the city to la dolce vita of the countryside, from the ennui of scientific modernity to the fascination with nature’s antiquity and from the blissful ignorance of childhood to the mercurial moods of pre-adolescence – and, fittingly, begins with the graduation ceremony of one of the two child protagonists of the film, who are to spend their titular summer at their grandfather’s house while their mother is to undergo a critical surgery in the city. Surely, it is not only the mother who is going to be going through a life-altering phase. The kids come across a host of alien characters and situations, including a pair of robbers and a mentally-challenged woman, that are so intricately woven into the narrative that even the adult viewer finds it increasingly difficult to locate his/her moral footing with respect to the film. A Summer at Grandpa’s is starkly redolent of Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) in the way it filters the political and moral complexities of the world though the eyes of children to paint an unsettling portrait of a society that is far from being the paradise it appears to be on the surface. Hou observes, with equal intrigue, both the carefree indulgence of the children in social games (including a hilarious turtle race) and the stark reality that interrupts these activities, as if trying to remind them that the best part of their lives is over.
Tong Nien Wang Shi (A Time to Live, A Time to Die, 1985)
Of all the early works of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, it is perhaps A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985) that most warrants a comparison to the works of Ozu given its themes of separation, loss and loneliness. First of the director’s films to be set in post-WW2 period in Taiwan, the film follows a family from mainland China that moves to the south of Taiwan after the war. Hou’s film simultaneously covers three generations– represented by the grandmother, the parents and the children respectively – each of which presents a certain kind of relationship between the present and the past. Grandma believes that she is still in the mainland and keeps looking for a bridge that isn’t there. The parents spend their lives believing that all this travail is temporary (as was the case with Taiwan itself during the period) and the past will return. The children are plainly oblivious to the past, engaging themselves in petty gang wars and bumming around. In addition to the themes, it’s also Hou’s aesthetics that seem highly Ozuvian. The architecture of the family’s house looks very Japanese (whose authenticity is intact given the place and the time the film is set in) with sparse, well-ventilated living rooms and doors, windows and other furniture made of bamboo and glass. The indoor compositions are double-framed with a ground-level camera angle that recalls the respect and humility of the Japanese director. Then there are also those major and minor ellipses that punctuate the narrative to give us a sense of time passing, people departing and life drifting away.
Lian Lian Feng Chen (Dust In The Wind, 1986)
As much as Dust in the Wind (1986) takes Hou back to the dialectics between rural and urban life styles that was present in his earlier films, it deviates starkly from the ideas underlying those films. The first five minutes of the film sits alongside the very best sequences that Hou has ever filmed. The film begins with Biblical darkness after which we see a speck of brightness approaching us, gradually growing in intensity and size. We realize soon that we are on a train moving into and out of unlit tunnels regularly. As twilight strikes, a young couple alights from the train and walks into the village. The dark and foreboding clouds gradually drift over the couple’s heads as the boy escorts the girl to her house. This extremely evocative sequence sets both the tone and the themes of the film that’s to come. The boy leaves school to go the city in search of work. The girl follows suit and ends up working in a textile firm. The romance between them is palpable and so is the seemingly unbridgeable gap. Hou and screenwriter Wu Nien-Jen, on whose teenage experiences the film is based, create a tender piece of work about the inability to escape one’s socio-economic and political status to do what one wants. They build the film around (subtly ridiculous) patriarchal structures, wherein it takes nothing more than a pair of cigarettes for males to bond while the whole world seems to be conspiring against the fruition of a romance.
Ni Luo He Nu Er (Daughter Of The Nile, 1987)
Daughter of the Nile (1987) is an anomaly of sorts in Hou’s filmography considering the direction his films have hitherto been moving in. The film’s begins like a Markerian tone poem, especially resembling Level Five (1997), establishing a strange connection between Taiwan and ancient Egypt, and goes on to unfold as a Tsai-esque poem about physical and emotional loneliness in a pre-apocalyptic world. Ah-Sang (Fan Yang) is a college-going young woman living with her sister, a school going teenager, her brother, a lifelong thief, now escalating the ladders of the mafia and her grandfather. Ah-Sang tries to find some happiness in the relationships with her family and friends, but is continually hampered by the ever-increasing brutality of the world around her. She tries to escape the bleakness by imagining herself as Carol, a manga character who leaves her family and flees to ancient Egypt only to be killed at 22. The greenery and serenity of the countryside, which had till now played a significant part in Hou’s films, is completely absent as Hou replaces it with saturated primary colours exuded by the luminous advertisements of nighttime Taipei. The spacious and airy interiors of previous films give way to cramped, suffocating rooms. Surely, Ah-Sang is no better than the fish in the tank in her apartment. Even amidst this desolation, she remains hopeful of a meaningful relationship with one of her brother’s mafia friends, only to be disappointed later. These are, truly, victims of the neon god.
Bei Qing Cheng Shi (A City Of Sadness, 1989)
A City of Sadness (1989), one of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s finest films, is an ambitious and extremely poignant work that deals with the tumultuous years after the war, during which Taiwan was in the transit between Japanese occupation and communist China’s rule. The film concerns, primarily, with the four sons of the Lin family, the eldest of whom is a straightforward man running a restaurant. The second son has lost his sanity during the war, the third is reported missing and the fourth – a deaf-mute – runs a photo-studio. These are, of course, the most basic of characters among the tens of others that come and go in the film. Hou’s rhythmic and oft-repeated compositions, aided by the runtime of the film, induce such familiarity with the film that they invoke a feeling of having lived with the Lin family for a long time. A City of Sadness deals with the problem of communication, as would the later works of the director, in all its shapes and sizes. There is the communication gap between the past and the present in the form of numerous arrests of the Taiwanese by the new Chinese government. There is the cultural gap between the mainlanders and the islanders exacerbated by the difference in languages of the two counties. Then there is the most basic human gap between the deaf-mute son and the girl he is interested in, which the pair tries to bridge using written language, also flashed on-screen. As a result, A City of Sadness plays out as an elegy about agonizing socio-cultural limbos during an equally painful political limbo in Taiwanese history.
Xi Meng Ren Sheng (The Puppetmaster, 1993)
The Puppetmaster (1993), my favorite among the eight films listed here, chronicles the events in the life of a real life puppet master Li Tien-lu, from his birth to the year of Japanese surrender of Taiwan. Hou cuts back and forth between accounts narrated by Li himself, speaking directly to the camera in lengthy shots, and the fictional recreation of those events by the director as if trying to convey the amount of historical time that has passed. As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes, Li may a puppet master, but he is also a puppet himself. Right from the first significant event of his childhood, where he is prompted by his aunt to steal a few manuals, to his adolescent days, where he becomes a cash coughing machine for his father, and up to his mid life, where he does propaganda for the Japanese in Taiwan, Li is always under control of some higher authority, be it Chinese or Japanese. Of course, Li’s fate mirrors that of Taiwan – a country that was attached to strings held by the Dutch, then the Japanese and, finally, the Chinese. Furthermore, as highlighted by the long shots that dwarf the characters with respect to the landscape they are in, by the striking resemblance between puppet shows and stage performances within the film and also by a significant cut from the image of Li sitting in a dressing room, getting ready for a theatrical performance, to his present-day self, The Puppetmaster is also about people’s (specifically Taiwanese) near-complete loss of control of their own lives, courtesy the all-powerful political structure that oversees them and sweeps them along with its laws and decisions.