Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien
September 12-October 17 at the Museum of the Moving Image
By his own admission, Hou Hsiao-hsien was not a promising youth. In interviews such as in Olivier Assayas’s HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hisen (1997), the filmmaker has recalled arriving in Taiwan in 1949 as a two-year-old when his family fled mainland China; his father, a low-level bureaucrat, died when “A-ha” was quite young, and the director came to filmmaking after an aimless adolescence spent gambling, fighting and running from the cops. But the semi-autobiographical films Hou made in the 1980s are proof that no life experience is wasted on a great artist. The Boys from Fengkuei (1983), about four scrappy provincial lads killing the time before their compulsory military service, and A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985), with its alternately tender and rambunctious childhood vignettes, mix spirited indulgence with passages of introspection; in both, a disabled or dead father stands as a reminder of expectations and responsibilities deferred, for now at least.
The comprehensive traveling Hou retrospective hosted by the Museum of the Moving Image traces a satisfying career arc, from Hou’s commercial apprenticeship, through the reminiscences and muted recent-historical backdrops of the 80s Taiwanese New Cinema movement, and then an opening out from the personal into the political (and beyond). In fact, it’s a nation that we see maturing, as much as the director: A City of Sadness (1989), released at the end of a decade of gradual reform, and the year following the death of Chiang Kai-shek’s son, was the first Taiwanese film to deal with the nationalist violence of the 228 Incident and the White Terror. A family-scaled, epic-length drama, the film renders the anguish of historical trauma in dispassionate, elegiac long takes; it took the Golden Lion at Venice, announcing Hou as a major auteur on the international festival circuit and at home. He and his enduring screenwriting collaborator Chu Tien-Wen followed it up with two progressively more complex layerings of past onto present, and memory onto cinema: in The Puppetmaster (1993), the eponymous “national treasure” Li Tien-lu narrates lovingly re-staged scenes from his young manhood during the Japanese occupation, while Good Men, Good Women (1995) features a far more contemporary guide, an actress preparing to shoot a historical drama, whose private ghosts guide her reinterpretation of the past in ambiguous ways.
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 Zhang-ke 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. In a signature Hou shot, the camera slowly circles characters eating and drinking together, savoring the moment as it stretches out, while challenging the viewer to take the emotional weather. (Much has been written about Hou’s enveloping long takes, rather less about his editing, though it’s often astonishing in its breadth and directness: one of the boys from Fenkguei, restless in a movie theater, suddenly remembering his father; or a cut in A Time to Live and a Time to Die, from a misty windowpane to school picture day, bridging ephemerality and posterity.)
Hou’s most conspicuously beautiful films, to opposite ends, are probably Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and Three Times (2005). The former, set entirely within a 19th century brothel, is an extended opium trance—with the typical scene lit by candlelight, covered in a single three-minute take, rounded on either side by a fade to black—running against the grain of an anti-nostalgic inquiry into political and sexual freedom. In the latter work, Hou rewrites three phases of his career, with more self-reflexive, movie-movie photography, production design, and people—Shu Qi and Chang Chen play lovers in all three parts of the triptych, from 60s pool-hall puppy romance, to a period piece, to a study of urban post-everything inter-/dis-connection a la Millennium Mambo (2001). The film also features perhaps Hou’s most sentimental use of music—a noted karaoke devotee, the filmmaker uses genres from traditional to techno to match his films’ languid pace, and provide an outlet for their sublimated crescendos.
Three Time was followed by Flight of the Red Balloon, made in Paris with French money, and starring Juliette Binoche as a frazzled single mom (“I asked Hsiao-hsien, ‘Do you like the idea of me being blonde?,’ and he said, ‘Yes, great, with the roots showing.’”) and master of Chinese-style puppetry, whose Beijing-born nanny is filming a digital remake of Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon. Cross-currents of longing for people and places are suspended in the solution of the everyday; and a ticket to the movie is cheaper than therapy.
When Flight opened in New York on the same day as My Blueberry Nights, few would have predicted that Wong Kar-wai would finish his follow-up martial arts epic before Hou. Following a Wong-like gestation period, The Assassin (2014? 2015?) is a film to be eagerly anticipated: to see what Hou, having crossed eras, generations and borders, does in a new genre; and to dissipate whatever air of the valedictory has gathered around this retrospective (though who knows how many of its featured 35mm prints will ever be projected here again).
Among other things, Hou throughout his career is one of the all-time great directors of trains. (And the history of trains in cinema is also the history of cinema.) In Café Lumiere, the sounds of Tokyo’s commuter trains cocoon the characters in a hum of routine, while the play of light on their windows makes for a daydreamy alchemy of transit and serenity. Dust in the Wind (1986) opens with the view from the front of a train as it climbs a verdant mountainside, the world flowing towards and around you; the second shot of Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) is the reverse-angle, gazing backwards from the rear platform for a full minute. An open-ended visual reverie, it’s Hou in his purest form: the individual consciousness borne through space and time.
I’ll give another example of what I mean. Two thirds of the way through Dust in the Wind, the culmination of Hou’s semiautobiographical new wave period, the young protagonist returns to the mountain village he had left two years prior, to work in Taipei. At night, everyone sits in the town square—or wanders in and out of it—to watch a scratchy, rose-faded print of an old movie, projected against a sheet billowing slightly in the wind. For about a half a minute of frame-filling close-up, you have time to watch the movie-within-the-movie and wonder about it; to think about the day-to-day life of the village, and this momentary intervention from a concrete cultural history that’s perhaps as remote to them as it is to you or I; to marvel that the protagonist has left this behind to live in an urban loft where movie posters are painted, and is young enough, unlike his parents, to be carried along into modernity by a country on the cusp of it. And maybe your mind also wanders to the last movie you watched outside, on a summer night grown unseasonably chilly by the end credits.
A decade ago, the city’s last big Hou retrospective, at Anthology Film Archives, marked my first exposure to the filmmaker, very early in my career at the L, a period I remember now as a jump into the deep end of film culture. Thrashing around with The Puppetmaster, I grasped for “history as call and response,” a phrase which I’m more confident in today than I was then—now that I’m quoting my 20-year-old self, I actually know what I meant. If my own personal moviegoing history is hardly the point here, I at least understand a little better the simultaneous distance and intensity with which Hou contemplates these sorts of passages; and have seen for myself the way his films work over time, like memories forever remembered and inhabited anew. These are movies to live your whole life with.