Hao Nan Hao Nu (Good Men, Good Women, 1995)
Good Men, Good Women (1995), the final part in Hou’s trilogy on Taiwanese history, could well be considered as the first in a series of highly experimental films by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Dividing the film into two time lines – one set in the Chiang Kai-Shek era of White Terror and the other in contemporary Taiwan – Hou investigates both the unifying spirit and the chasms that exist between the nation’s past, present and future. A lonesome actress Liang Ching (Annie Shizuka Inoh) is to play the role of Chiang Bi-Yu, a Taiwanese resistance fighter from the 1940’s. Ching’s confrontation with the painful history of her nation coincides with a confrontation with her own dark past, where we learn about her stint as a bar host and her affair with a man named Ah-Wei (Jack Kao), whose murder she becomes an accomplice to, for three million bucks. The betrayal of a group of loyal partisans by the very side it wished to fight for serves as an agonizing reminder of her betrayal of a man who loved and trusted her. Hou’s highly stylized direction cuts back and forth between the scenes from the past that use soft, black and white footage and those from the present, shot in a bland colour stock, both of which mingle at one point, pointedly suggesting the marriage of collective and personal histories that gives a not-so-rosy picture of the future. Good Men, Good Women is a transitional film for Hou in the way it acts as a bridge between the idea of inseparability of past and present indicated by The Puppetmaster (1993) and that of absolute isolation of the two from each other that characterizes Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996).
Nan Guo Zai Jian, Nan Guo (Goodbye South, Goodbye, 1996)
With Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), Hou seems to have bid farewell to narrative cinema for good. It is safe to declare that absolutely nothing happens in the film, for right from the first shot of the film, where we witness a bunch of blasé youngsters sitting in a train and one of them losing signal on his cellular phone, to the last one where a car carrying those people crashes to a standstill, there is simply no indication that the vicious circle that the characters are treading on will break some day. Neither their choices nor their actions seem to make any difference to the drug-addicted, gamble-driven, aimless and nihilistic lives they seem to be leading. They live for the moment, without a shred of consideration for the consequences or causes of their present actions (They open a restaurant where they end up telling the customers what they should eat!). With an absurdly exaggerated colour scheme, consisting mostly of primary colours, Hou builds the film as a string of moments, each rife with dark, brutal humour (“Did she slit her wrists again?”), that gradually reveal how a whole generation is living with neither an apparent memory of the past nor a hope for the future. Alternating between scenes of motion – trains, motorbikes and automobiles – and transit, whose destination is never once clear, and utter motionlessness, shot in dimly lit, cramped interiors, Goodbye South, Goodbye is a stark and affecting portrait of a stalemated generation whose loss of identity seems to mirror that of the nation they are living in.
Hai Shang Hua (The Flowers Of Shanghai, 1998)
Could there be a more baffling and contrasting follow up to the apparent frivolity and irresponsibility of Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) than The Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou’s only film to be set entirely in the pre-WW2 era? Slightly redolent of Zhang Yimou’s magnificent Raise the Red Lantern (1991), The Flowers of Shanghai, set during the turn of the nineteenth century in the brothels of Shanghai, presents us a series of seemingly endless conversations and bouts presided by men, presumably belonging to the officer class of the ruling government, who indulge themselves by patronizing the courtesans and playing drinking games on the table. Hou’s most relentless and most rigorous film till date, The Flowers of Shanghai is shot completely indoors, with carefully orchestrated actor choreography, consisting almost entirely of medium shots and with a intensely reddish lighting scheme throughout that evoke a high degree of claustrophobia and suffocation, which perhaps mirror the experience of the flower girls themselves (the exact feeling that is induced when one watches Ten (2002)). It is hard not to think of the film as a political allegory given the fact that the whole film plays out within a single, enclosed structure and the intricate way in which relationships are reduced to ideas of ownership, subscriptions and contracts. However, even if the case for political abstraction is dismissed, The Flowers of Shanghai still remains a scathing examination of power and freedom of a highly marginalized section of people living under a decidedly patriarchal structure – an exploration that remains as potent even in the most modern of times.
Qian Xi Man Po (Millennium Mambo, 2001)
Millennium Mambo (2001) arrives, at the turn of the century, as a timely reboot to Hou’s Daughter of the Nile (1987). Like the protagonist of the latter film, Ah-Sang (Fan Yang), Vicky (Qi Shu) finds herself in a stalemate of sorts, with no relationship to really hold on to, and wishes to escape into the past as a means of overcoming the abyss called future. She seems haunted by the idea of beginning anew in a new place and a new time and is fascinated by the antiquity of Hokkaido, Japan, the old people who live there and the old cinema posters that adorn its slow-clad streets. However, unlike Ah-Sang, she seems numbed by her condition so as to not show any signs of desperation for escape. There are echoes of both Tsai Ming-Liang and Wong Kar Wai in this film in its existential overtones and (yet) brimming optimism. In stark contrast to the medium-shot rigor of his previous film, Hou’s aesthetics are freewheeling and he shoots in cinema vérité format, employing a mildly accentuated colour palette and a large number of loosely focused, handheld shots and close ups that was hitherto uncharacteristic of the director. Like some of his previous films, Hou seems to be interested more in capturing the rhythm of life during a specific time period in Taiwanese history than anything else. Consequently, Hou employs a highly evocative techno soundtrack and punctuating slow motion shots that gives one the affecting feeling that these are moments of utmost transience to be cherished for eternity, much like the evanescent face imprint that Vicky leaves on snow.
Kôhî Jikô (Café Lumiére, 2003)
Café Lumiére (2003) is the kind of film that I would have expected from Jarmusch, given his preoccupation with Japan and, specifically, Ozu (No wonder he cites Hou as one of his idols). However, in retrospect, it looks like that no other director deserves making this film as much as Hou does. That is because Café Lumiére serves both as the updation of Ozu’s themes for the new century and as the next logical step in Hou’s body of work. Most minimal in terms of plot in all of Hou, Café Lumiére continues Hou’s exploration of the new generation that has been cut off from its past and that seemingly unbridgeable generation gap that exists between the members of two generations – a characteristic Ozu theme that had its cultural roots in Post-war Japan – in this post-globalization world. However, Hou examines this chasm from an outsider’s point of view, as and through a person straddling the cultures of Japan and Taiwan – a stance that permeates the whole film, tying what is quintessentially Hou to that which is quintessentially Ozu. Hou’s stylistics, too, become inseparable from the Japanese director’s as he concocts similar ground level compositions, with meticulous actor choreography filmed in long shots and separated, at times, by major ellipses. Like Jarmusch’s latest, Hou’s film is also one about transition – one without any particular destination – and he adorns the film with images of trains and railway stations. In fact, Hou’s film is the cinematic equivalent of the painting that Hajime (Tadanobu Asano) creates in the film, indicating a generation that rests within the womb of a dense network of trains, slowly bleeding.
Zui Hao De Shi Guang (Three Times, 2005)
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s most acclaimed film, Three Times (2005), brings him back to overtly political filmmaking after a hiatus of, arguably, four films. Divided into three segments – set in 1911, 1966 and 2005 in Kaohsiung, Dadaocheng and Taipei respectively – Three Times seems like a distillation of three of the director’s earlier films. Hou’s aesthetics change with the time period the film deals with (in a highly cinematic sense too). He uses a green filter, a mixture of outdoor and indoor shots and a soundtrack composed of romantic songs for the first segment, a red filter, largely medium shots filmed indoors with a static camera and a classical soundtrack for the second and a blue tinge and fluid camerawork with a number of close-ups for the third, reflecting the spirit of each age. But Hou’s film is far from a simple comparison of lives in three distinct time periods. Hou is more interested in the underlying similarities and ironies more than the apparent and inevitable differences. Like many of the director’s previous films, Three Times is an exploration of the distance between individuals, the communication gap that separates them and the ways those distances and gaps are bridged. In the bittersweet, first segment, letters and boats serve the purpose of bringing people together, with words complementing when stretches of silence aren’t enough. In the second segment, voices are entirely muted as intertitles replace conversations. In the final one, despite the infinite means of communication and commutation available, characters don’t seem to be able to connect either with each other or with their past, as they ride off in their contraptions to nowhere.
Le Voyage Du Ballon Rouge (The Flight Of The Red Balloon, 2007)
The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) might just be Hou’s greatest accomplishment to date. Hou’s second film on foreign soil is aptly set in Paris, France – the city of arts – and takes off from Lamorisse’s childlike short The Red Balloon (1956). The latter trivia is very important and provides thematic context to Hou’s film. The balloon in Lamorisse’s film becomes a symbol of beauty and of art, abandoning a cruel world that rejects it and embracing and protecting those who recognize beauty in the mundane. Likewise, in Hou’s film, Simon (Simon Iteanu) is surrounded by a number of art forms – music, literature, photography, puppetry, cinema and painting – and mother figures – his actual mother, his nanny, his piano teacher, his “pretend sister” and, of course, the all-mysterious red balloon. Hou, evidently inspired by the city, creates a fractal of art forms around these wonderful people in the film who seem to be striving to capture instantaneous reality and achieve peace and perfection through the art forms they practice. Hou uses semi-transparent, partially reflecting surfaces and has melodious music pieces accompany the most quotidian of images to underscore both the impossibility of life to attain the utopia of art and the presence of art in everyday life, all around us (The dense, final scene of the film employs Félix Vallotton’s painting, The Ball, to highlight how art is created out of the ordinary and how it embodies a desire to overcome the imperfection of reality). When Suzanne (Juliette Binoche) asks the blind tuner if he can tune the piano back to normal, she might well have been taking about her life.