Daily | “Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien”

Hou Hsiao-hsien in Jia Zhangke's 'I Wish I Knew' (2010)

Hou Hsiao-hsien in Jia Zhangke’s ‘I Wish I Knew’ (2010)

“Hou is not only Taiwan’s greatest film artist but, heir to Bresson and Ozu, arguably the greatest narrative filmmaker of the past several decades.” So writes J. Hoberman in a blurb for the New York Review of Books, alerting us to a major event: Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, opening today at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image and running through October 12 before moving on to Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archives (October 10 through December 14). Coinciding with the traveling celebration is the publication of Hou Hsiao-hsien, published by the Austrian Film Museum and Columbia University Press and edited by Richard I. Suchenski, the founder and director of the Center for Moving Image Arts. Hoberman: “All seventeen of [Hou’s] features will be projected as film, many in new 35mm prints.”

“The retrospective takes its title from a puppet troupe in The Puppetmaster (1993), a haunting dramatization of the life of the Taiwanese puppeteer Li Tien-lu (who also played fictional characters in other Hou films),” writes Kristin M. Jones in the Wall Street Journal. “Incorporating Mr. Li’s on- and offscreen narration, it follows several decades of his life, including periods when street theater was banned and when he was recruited to create propaganda. In long takes, spacious landscapes, chiaroscuro interiors and richly hued puppet plays open windows on individual and collective history. It was followed by Good Men, Good Women (1995), which interweaves the story of an actress haunted by her past with scenes in which she plays a woman who traveled to China to join the anti-Japanese resistance decades earlier, with tragic consequences.”

“Born in mainland China in 1947, Hou was brought to Taiwan as an infant, when his family fled civil war,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “That disruption is at the heart of his grand autobiographical drama, A Time to Live and a Time to Die, from 1985, about a boy growing up in remote southern Taiwan in the 1950s and 60s. As his educated family faces poverty and disease as refugees, he yields to reckless, liberating impulses. Hou’s teeming yet oblique long takes serve to conceal action as well as reveal it; his images suggest a struggle to discern the particulars of a past that holds him in its grasp.”

“Drawing upon the histories of colonialism, martial law, and post-martial law in Taiwan, Hou’s style is marked by his nostalgia for the ‘Orphan of Asia,’ its past and present,” writes Xin Zhou in the Brooklyn Rail. “After his early involvement with big-budget escapist comedies and romances, Hou plied his talents as director with the critically acclaimed The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983), his first collaboration with novelist Chu Tien-Wen…. Together with American-trained director Edward Yang and locally based writers such as Chu and Wu Nien-jen, Hou and his contemporaries gradually built a small film community, later known as the Taiwanese New Cinema movement.”

“Hou has consistently developed and refined his distinctive style of filmmaking,” writes Christopher Bourne at Twitch: “mesmerizing and meditative long takes with elaborate in-depth staging; an elliptical approach to narrative often using complex flashback structures, compressing major events or even leaving them off-screen entirely; also employing an evocative use of sound. All of these cinematic techniques, as challenging or demanding on the viewer as they may seem, are solidly based in Hou’s deeply humanistic desire to create enduring vividly rendered art out of the everyday lives of people affected by the shifting tides of history and the rapid changes of contemporary life.”

As Aaron Cutler notes in the Voice, Flowers of Shanghai (1998) is set in “a brothel in the British quarter of late-19th-century Shanghai, where a wealthy young man falls for a ‘flower girl’ despite having spent over two years as the sole customer of another prostitute, who pleads with him to keep supporting her. The camera moves in continuous circles around them and their contemporaries as it absorbs the details of low-lit red-and-gold rooms… Tales of doomed love play out before us in a way that makes the past feel like part of an eternal present.”

If you only read one piece in full from this entry, make it Mark Asch‘s. Here, just a snippet from the L: “Hou was compared by critics to Ozu before he’d ever seen an Ozu film, but the placid, fixed master-shot style he developed with his cinematographer, Mark Lee Ping-bin, evolved throughout the 1990s into the virtuousic drift often imitated by Jia Zhangke and others. Hou’s explicit Ozu tribute, Café Lumière (2003), a Tokyo-set story with echoes of Late Spring, most strongly echoes Ozu by dramatizing profound family ties self-effacingly, with restrained characters and an elliptical narrative. Hou’s films are not plotless (though many of his best ones are blessedly light on incident), but character motivations and causal connections are often swaddled in hypnotic rhythms and rapturous surface textures.”

Olivier Assayas‘s HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien (1997), part 1

Updates, 9/14: A few years ago, Reverse Shot put together an outstanding issue, “Hou Hsiao-hsien: In Search of Lost Time,” consisting of an introduction and 18 essays.

Film Comment‘s posted a piece by Kent Jones that ran in the September/October 1999 issue: “Because right now, it doesn’t get much better than Hou Hsiao-hsien.”

Update, 9/15:Cute Girl (also known as Lovable You) was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1980 debut feature, and it’s quite startlingly different stylistically from the sort of films he would begin making just a few years later,” writes Christopher Bourne. “In contrast to the more contemplative, complex and weighty themes he would tackle in later films, Cute Girl is a light, romantic comedy with frequent musical montages. It’s a commercial, star-driven vehicle featuring two pop stars very famous at the time—Hong Kong’s Kenny Bee (here dubbed by another actor) and Taiwan’s Feng Fei-fei. Hou would pair them up again in his next feature, Cheerful Wind (1981).” Still, “one can see here some of the hallmarks of his later films, such as the depiction of rural life, and a sense of the landscapes of Taiwan’s countryside that would fully come to flower later in Hou’s career. We can also see here indications of what a fine director of children Hou is.” And “it’s quite a wonderful and entertaining film in its own right.”

Updates, 9/20: J. Hoberman now has a full entry at the NYRB blog: “It was for The Puppetmaster that Hou first developed a startlingly advanced form of montage that has been compared to the movement of clouds drifting across the sky. Narrative coalesces and dissipates; dramas merge and comment on each other, not least from the perspective of fifty years later. At a certain point, every cut comes as a surprise, spanning perhaps a dozen years even as the voiceover loops over and around the scene to knot the story with an invisible thread. Is there another filmmaker who can so fluidly celebrate the moment as well as the epoch, and do so in the same shot?”

Part 2

“Hou’s quietly disenchanted vision of the present does not explain why his films are so moving,” writes Nicholas Elliott for BOMB. “One easy answer is that he provides emotional inflection by repeating fragments of simple melodies at unexpected times. In Dust in the Wind (1986), a relatively conventional tale of a boy and girl from the country moving to the big city, the familiar acoustic guitar pattern does not return to nudge you when the boy receives a letter telling him the girl has married another man, but rather later on, over a shot of their village, so that the music is more of an echo chamber for all the struggle we have witnessed, as well as the small acts of kindness between the boy and girl, than a direct comment on a specific moment. The music helps you mourn, and there is a lot of mourning in Hou’s films.”

Updates, 9/25: Justin Stewart on Café Lumière: “Hou sliced 18,000 feet of footage down into this Tokyo story of a young woman (Yo Hitoto) and her interaction with trains, history, pregnancy, a resignedly platonic male friend and her parents (she is no more urbanly alienated than her glum father). Dexterous cinematography and superficialities like fluorescent lights distance it from Ozu, but the empathy is a bond.”

Also in the L, Vadim Rizov on Wu Nien-jen’s A Borrowed Life (1994), executive-produced by Hou: “Remembered through his son’s studiedly detached gaze, [Taiwanese coal miner] Sega’s saga is a landmark exercise in filial and historical remembrance, building to a devastating climax that brings home the despair of the dying like nothing else.”

Update, 9/29: The retrospective arrives at the Harvard Film Archive on October 3 and runs through November 2.

Update, 10/1: Writing for the Notebook, Jonathan Kiefer points out that the retrospective “poses a sporting challenge to determine exactly where and when this elusive but exalted director made the leap from obedient studio functionary to peerlessly humane, historically astute Taiwanese New Wave pioneer. Well, I’ll tell you. It’s about an hour into Hou’s 1983 film The Boys from Fengkuei, which also is known as All the Youthful Days and is rightly thought to be his breakthrough. As a tale of feckless provincial proto-adults, listlessly at large in the city for the first time in their lives, the film isn’t radically original. But for Hou, it’s manifestly personal—particularly in one galvanizing scene which stems from the lads’ uncertain transaction with a scooter-puttering, street-wise operator.”

Update, 10/8: Jake Cole in the L on A City of Sadness (1989): “Hou’s elegiac overview of the handover of Taiwanese rule from Japan to China is a historical film not only about a time period but time itself.”

Update, 10/9: “Hou’s extraordinarily controlled and well-constructed long takes blend revelation and opacity; his favorite trope is to shoot through doorways, as if straining to capture the action over impassable spans of time,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. A City of Sadness “conveys the director’s intensely personal struggle at the crossroads of large-scale history and private memory; with understatedly bitter irony, he depicts the birth of a nation at the price of a family’s dissolution.”

Update, 10/10: Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s posted an overview of Hou’s work that he wrote for the Chicago Reader in 2000. As well as his own thoughts on several of the films he offers this: “Assayas describes Hou’s paradoxical personality well in his preface to a recent French collection about him. He recounts meeting Hou in Taipei as a film critic in 1984 and again for his recent documentary: ‘His manner of slipping from grown-up rationality to childish laughter is intact, as is his way of moving between intellectuals and small-time mafiosis in a sort of studied uncertainty, hazy with grass, alcohol, or bin-lan (a plant-based kind of speed). But here where only instinct matters, theory and philosophy assume a growing importance; and it isn’t simply a matter of a notion about perception—generally interesting only to filmmakers—but also the classical Chinese tradition, with the gravity and intensity peculiar to autodidacts.'”

Update, 10/12: Dana Ter talks with Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Taipei Times: “‘Although Hou is very widely recognized among American cinephiles as a master, his mainstream reputation in the US remains unfortunately limited, because of the low distribution of his films and the confused and partial understanding in the US of Taiwanese history,’ Rosenbaum said. Richard Suchenski from Bard College also noted that the distribution of foreign art cinema in North America over the past decade in particular has been increasingly sparse. As the main organizer of the retrospective, he spent two years searching for and compiling Hou’s films on the best possible 35mm prints in preparation for the retrospective.”

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