Emotion, both authentic and synthetic, in the films of the Taiwanese New Wave master.
Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Good Men, Good Women (1995) was the first film to have such a devastating emotional impact on me that I had to hide my face from my fellow spectators to avoid setting off a sanitation panic. I’m sorry to admit my reaction was at least partially brought on by the comedown from the MDMA I had indulged in at a Goa trance club in Brixton the previous evening. MDMA provides a momentary rush of global solidarity, which at that time in London was manifested in the sharing of water bottles with total strangers and, I assume, a lot of chemically-enhanced sex. The morning after was rough. The love of your fellow dancer was replaced by the disdain for your fellow commuter, and the knowledge that the glow had been utterly synthetic rolled in with a forecast of heavy depression. My memory of strobe-lit celebrants with pinhole eyes and whistles in their mouths fit well with the contemporary half of Good Men, Good Women, which edged Hou’s cinema into a present of neon nights and fuzzy dawns. My general disillusionment also helped me relate to a film in which Hou moves back and forth between the stories of the fictional Liang Ching, a present-day actress and gun moll who has been paid a large sum of “blood money” following the murder of her lover, and real-life Chiang Bi-Yu, a Taiwanese communist who fought the Japanese in mainland China in the 1940s and returned to Taiwan to lose her husband to the bloody anti-communist purges of the 1950s. Though my state of mind felt appropriate to Hou’s juxtaposition of a not-so-distant time of fervent ideals and sacrifice with a present in which convictions were replaced by karaoke, I still felt ashamed that my response was artificially boosted. It was the kind of movie I wanted to live up to under my own steam, because what makes Hou’s gaze so valuable is that the contrast between Chiang Bi-Yu’s and Liang Ching’s circumstances was shown without judgment. In front of Hou’s camera, Liang Ching is as much of a good woman as Chiang Bi-Yu. It’s not her fault that the times she lives in are unheroic.
I was comforted that the tears and snot poured forth again when I returned to Good Men, Good Women a few years later, then even happier that the film survived the degradation of DVD when I saw it in preparation for this article. I had dreaded subjecting Hou’s wide compositions, long shots, and ambling pace to the reduction of my home entertainment system and the pervasive noise of an apartment surrounded by the Latin music enthusiasts of Woodside, Queens, but once again I was suppressing sobs as the credits rolled. My voice was still thick with bodily fluids when I answered a call from a Capital One banker offering me a federally insured certificate of deposit. As we discussed financial returns, risks, and penalties, I felt I was entering the next phase of Hou’s filmography, the sensual but sad duo Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) and Millennium Mambo (2001), in which the past has been erased and the present is a blurry transience delimited by inevitable capitalism (goodbye socialism, goodbye). In Goodbye South, Goodbye, Hou provides a matter-of-fact and unglamorous equation of capitalism with gangsterism by following the small-time exploits of Gao and his sidekicks Flatty and Pretzel (the names say it all, but I’ll add that one shenanigan involves a pig-selling scam). Early on, a group of “businessmen” divvying up two million New Taiwan dollars complain about the recession. The line between legal and illegal activity is more than indistinct, it is irrelevant: what matters is the bottom line. Yet there is a melancholy beneath the bottom line, a restless feeling that always stirs Hou’s protagonists as they shuttle between the countryside and the city, or between the past and the present. Though everyone in Goodbye South, Goodbye is on the phone talking about buying real estate and making plans to settle down, most of the movie takes place in cars and trains and on motorcycles. Even when the characters are not in aimless motion, Hou’s shots are characteristically dense with activity, dispelling the illusion of a quiet place to call home. If two people are talking in a matchbox of an apartment, then someone else is coming and going, TV lights project other worlds onto their bodies, voices leak in from outside, and a boxing bag is swaying for the duration of the ten-minute shot. Not so different from an apartment in Queens in terms of ambience, and pretty close to 2014 in terms of impossible dreams and questionable values. Which makes the film’s inevitable ending—a clown act of a car crash in a field—seem distressingly current as a metaphor for where we’re headed.
But Hou’s quietly disenchanted vision of the present does not explain why his films are so moving. 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.
Hou leaves you plenty of room to feel how you want to feel, whether it’s with the music, the length and breadth of his shots, or, most importantly, the generosity of his gaze. It seems like everyone is equally important to Hou, which sometimes makes it challenging to figure out at whom to look. I cannot think of a single instance when Hou’s camera has moved to direct my emotions or suggest I give special attention to someone—in this regard he is both the anti-Scorsese and the inadvertent progenitor of a glut of really boring films that crowd international film festivals. Yet the camera does move, picking up information in a seemingly distracted manner that matches his characters’ aimlessness. In Good Men, Good Women, Japanese soldiers storm across a field to attack the village where Chiang Bi-Yu and her fellow communists are hiding. We see the soldiers from behind a tree, their backs to us in the distance as they scuttle through the tall grasses. Then the camera tilts up and away from them to follow the tree into the bleached light of the sky. This unforgettable shot could be interpreted as a rejection of violence, an intentional turning away. It’s clear that Hou does not relish depicting violence—when he has to do it, it is generally filmed from a distance, so that a bloody fistfight looks like a fatuous tangle—but in this case the camera’s motion feels less like a move away than a move toward. In reaching up to the tree’s branches and the sky, Hou suggests the persistence of things good and bad, and invites you to experience a nuanced range of emotions you probably wouldn’t feel by watching the staged slaughter of a group of Chinese communists.
Hou’s style of directing is that of an omniscient narrator who does not wish to stand in his characters’ place (POV shots are rare in his mature style), let alone intrude on their thoughts. The omniscient style is most obvious when Goodbye South, Goodbye’s Flatty is sitting on a rooftop looking at a train go by. Suddenly, the camera is filming from the train—reprising a classic shot from Dust in the Wind—as it is engulfed in the darkness of a tunnel, then a pinpoint of light appears and expands to reveal more track curving into the lush mountains ahead. None of the film’s characters are on board the train, but the sequence tells us something about the feelings of unrest that nag them, while its beauty attests, despite it all, to the fullness of life. As such, it is another emotional resonance chamber, a place within the film to collect your thoughts and feelings.
With the commanding trilogy of City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993), and Good Men, Good Women, Hou took different, increasingly adventurous formal approaches to telling his country’s recent history, but always remained true to a sensibility best encapsulated by the earlier title Dust in the Wind. Hou’s films are not about makers of history, but about those who are stoically buffeted by its forces. And while Hou looks at all his protagonists as good men and good women, I don’t think he would know what to do with a “hero” if he found one. People push on. Hou’s restraint in telling their stories is a mark of respect, even when it feels counterintuitive. One of his most accessible, affecting films is the autobiographical A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985), which follows the fortunes of a family displaced from the mainland to the Taiwanese countryside in the late ’40s. One scene features the ailing matriarch telling her grown daughter about the long-ago death of one of her children. Many filmmakers would inch in on the characters, cutting closer and closer between shots of the storyteller and the listener to milk the sentiment. Hou does the opposite, unfolding his sequence in an elegant spiral of four shots that move from a close-up of some mementos on the ground to the mother and daughter’s hands, then from their faces in profile to a distant wide shot of the two women sitting side by side, partially turned away from the camera as the mother begins to speak. When she finishes her story with the death of the baby, Hou cuts to a shot of a window and the rain trickling through the black night beyond it.
Perhaps the most significant thing about A Time to Live, A Time to Die is that it is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s own story. The film begins with a brief voiceover in which Ah-hsien, Hou’s stand-in, says that this is the story of his boyhood, particularly as it relates to his father. In a sense, Ah-hsien is a classic unreliable narrator: his father seems to be a remote figure who dies about a third of the way into the film. But if we track the parsimonious use of close-ups of Ah-hsien, we realize the film is the story of the dawning of a moral consciousness, and that Ah-hsien’s father is inextricable from that story. The first close-up of Ah-hsien is when he is still a child, looking on as his mother mourns his father. It is immediately followed by a close-up of a teenage boy—standard film syntax to indicate that a few years have passed and we’re looking at the teenage Ah-hsien. But the two close-ups’ proximity also maintains the connection with the father. As we discover that Ah-hsien has become a petty gang member, we have to wonder if things would be different if he had a dad. Ah-hsien is far from a monster, but he has gone astray. So there is something startlingly touching about the next time we see him in close-up, looking from a safe distance at a schoolgirl he fancies. The hardness has vanished from his face and the little boy who used to go guava picking with his grandmother is back. Later, a simple comment from this girl whose life barely intersects with Ah-hsien’s own sets him back on the right track. The absence of the father and the momentary presence of the girl, along with the loss of his mother and grandmother, turn Ah-hsien into the young man whom we can imagine becoming Hou Hsiao-hsien, an artist comfortable in modest and morally ambiguous settings, with empathy to spare but the humility to recognize empathy is not knowledge. So he keeps his distance, letting the rest of us feel with him—if we can.
The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens is hosting a Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective from September 12—October 17. The films discussed above are playing after September 19.
Nicholas Elliott has been New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009 and is Contributing Editor for Film at BOMB.