“Where Godard wrenches out, a saturator stirs in.” This suggestive statement, adapted from an article by Jean-Pierre Gorin, can trigger a close study of the work of Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien—winner of Best Director award at the recent Cannes Film Festival for his magisterial The Assassin. In this audiovisual essay, however, we return to a movie of his that has yet to receive its full due: Millennium Mambo (2001)—and we pick not one of its most spectacular or lyrical passages, but an “ordinary,” long-take scene that, on inspection, reveals a multi-layered complexity of construction.
Some filmmakers proceed by fragmentation, sharp turns, sudden changes of mood: Jean-Luc Godard, Samuel Fuller, Lynne Ramsay, Jerzy Skolimowski, Olivier Assayas. They set up a scene in order to radically change it by the end. Hou, by contrast, is in the company of Maurice Pialat or Béla Tarr: he sets up a scene not in order to transform it, but to contemplate and study it, to slowly unfold its levels and implications. Like a master chef, he stirs in the ingredients, the background information, the poetic motifs, the signs of historical and narrative context. It is up to us, as spectators or analysts, to intuit and draw out all these elements.
In order learn how to really see and hear Hou’s cinema, we too need to proceed in a saturated way, playing the scene over and over, attending to each of its levels in turn. In this pedagogically-inspired audiovisual essay, which we initially prepared as part of our presentation for the Belgian conference Just Noticeable Differences: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien (May 26-27, 2015), we begin by playing the scene just as it is, without commentary. Then we go through it again in its entirety, this time pointing out salient features. And then we begin to fragment it selectively, so as to bring out Hou’s special, intricate work with gesture, colour, texture, camerawork and sound.
We hope, in this way, to give a sense of the rich volume of each Hou film, with its lucidly created, dense world of sensations, forms, feelings and meanings.