You truck along through your life, stepping over the wounded and cold-shouldering the crystalline, and then you happened upon a Hou, and it all comes into focus, alive and hypnotic. This 1986 memoir-film, his first widely beloved masterpiece, is a recreation of childhood memories, from when Hou’s family relocated from China to the wild, ramshackle outskirts of Taipei in the late 40s, never to return, as the children ran wild in the dusty streets, Communist-battling troops and tanks always seem to be passing in the near-distance, and the clan’s grandma keeps looking for a bridge back home that doesn’t exist.
Deaths accumulate, dreams get dashed, and Hou’s observational style locks into place, crafting more of a place-and-time portrait that a story, but one also subject to uncured time-leaping cuts and details you must hunt for, every man for himself. In Hou, every shot is a real-time habitation experiment, to see how actions and reactions and space will play off each other, and often enough the upshot freezes you—when the world halts on its axis for as long as it takes a girl walk down a sun-dappled street, or when the children discover their neglected grandmother dead, and tend to her rigor-mortised corpse, its folded hands sticking up in the air, in a poignant non-gesture, as she’s rolled over. A cathedral built out of haiku tiles, the movie is rivaled only by Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes as a retrospective auto-biopic that dares to be artful and even chilling in its sentimentality.