Masters of Modern World Cinema: Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Part 1)

Previous profiles:
001. Michael Haneke
002. Lee Chang-dong
003. Sergei Loznitsa
004. Hou Hsiao-hsien (Part 2)


For me, the power of creativity begins with deserting the audience. You can’t worry about the problem of communicating with the audience. That’s just an excuse.”


In a career spanning four decades, Hou Hsiao-hsien has indelibly marked the course of Asian and world cinema. His films have integrated national history (Taiwan’s) with personal autobiography, a distinctive style of arthouse modernism with specifically Chinese literary and artistic influences, and a rarefied formalism (the long-take, long-shot aesthetic) with an observational realism.  He has developed a cinema both objective and empathetic, detached yet compassionate, intimate yet epic, full of formal beauty but also poeticising seemingly mundane details. The recurring question throughout his work has been “What does it mean to be Taiwanese”, a query rich in ramifications for an island so split in its cultural identity. Yet the story of Hou Hsiao-hsien is also that of the growth of a singular artist, unpretentious and instinctive, who has constantly learnt and improved, adapted yet remained true to his ambitions.

The Green Green Grass Home (1982)

Hou’s early years and Taiwanese history:

Hou was born in Mainland China, in the late 1940s, when the country was torn apart by a civil war opposing Mao Zedong‘s Communists to Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist party (the KMT). After Communist victory in 1949, Mao declared the founding of the ‘People’s Republic of China’, forcing Chiang’s KMT to flee to Taiwan and set up a rival government-in-exile, the ‘Republic of China’. Millions of Mainland Chinese, fearful of the Communist regime, followed them in a mass migration of ‘mainlanders’ to Taiwan, including Hou’s family when he was still an infant.

For the native Taiwanese, who’d experienced colonial Japanese rule until 1945, Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT would prove a second coloniser. A militaristic regime imposed political oppression, state-approved violence against civilians, and 40 years of martial law. To the mainlanders who’d moved over, however, Taiwan represented a temporary abode until the purported recapture of the mainland, and it took more than a generation for Hou’s elders to accept these were illusory hopes. For their second-generation offspring (including Hou), Taiwan was the only China they remembered – it, and not the mainland that elders pontificated about nostalgically, was ‘home’. This already fractured identity was made even more contested by the economic acceleration Taiwan underwent in just a couple of decades, as well as its shifting political relations with the West: the UN regarded it as the official China until Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing sided relations back to the PRC.

After a difficult adolescence in which he narrowly escaped the path towards petty crime (as told in the autobiographical A Time to Live, A Time to Die), Hou signed up to the Taiwan National Academy of Arts and gravitated towards what had been his favourite pastime: movies. In 1973, Hou entered a rigid Taiwanese film industry, on the wane but still producing a high quota of formulaic films. After gaining experience as scriptwriter and assistant director (and meeting future collaborators Chen Kun-hou and Liao Ching-sung, who’d later work with him as cinematographer and editor respectively), Hou got his break directing a trio of romantic musical comedies.

Cute Girl (1980)

First came Cute Girl (1980), which, with its rich-girl-meets-poor-boy romance, slapstick comedy, frequent zooms and the occasional pop-song, adhered to the conventions of Taiwanese commercial fare. Even down to its Confucian conclusion restoring the status quo: much to the relief of the girl’s parents, the poor boy was actually the heir of wealthy parents all along. The following year came Cheerful Wind, repeating the formula of light romantic comedy, this time with an even more ludicrous plot and more emphasis on ‘rom’ than ‘com’. But the best of these three films, and perhaps the only one with the embryo of things to come, was The Green Green Grass of Home, looser in its loyalty to genre templates.

This time, the nominal romantic protagonist has to vie for narrative attention with an ensemble of mischievous kids and a proto-environmental theme championing the quieter Taiwanese countryside over the hectic city – it’s as if Hou, given a bit more freedom after two box office hits, can’t hide his fading interest in playing by the rules. Nevertheless, despite having a certain charm (of a kitsch variety in the case of the first two films), this early trilogy (since disowned by Hou himself) was an inconspicuous beginning to what would become a remarkable directing career.

The ‘Taiwan New Cinema’:

In the early 1980s, a combination of young producers trying to revitalise the state’s moribund film industry, and of foreign-trained filmmakers eager to create Taiwanese films more closely attuned to the realities of life on the island, established the emergence of a new wave, the ‘Taiwan New Cinema’. Filmmakers (the likes of Edward Yang and Wang Ren), writers and critics would meet (often in Yang’s house) to share ideas and thoughts on cinema, and Hou’s horizons were expanded in this atmosphere of artistic exchange. Rather than being daunted by the new possibilities, he actively became involved in the movement – directing the titular episode of the omnibus film The Sandwich Man (written about here), writing the screenplay for Wang’s Rapeseed Girl (1984), and co-writing and starring in  Yang’s remarkable Taipei Story (1984).

Also significant to Hou’s development was his encounter with the author Chu Tian-wen, who would become his regular co-writer. The artistic understanding with Chu was immediate, as she had the instinctive idea to recommend to Hou the writings of the major 20th century Chinese novelist Shen Congwen. As open to new inspiration as ever, Hou found, in Shen’s detached but descriptive writing style, the ideal (and culturally Chinese) framework through which to render his cinematic vision.

The Boys From Fengkuei (1983)

His style evolved into an observational, empathetic approach but from a distant camera – displayed with aplomb in The Boys From Fengkuei, his first non-studio-produced film and effectively his feature debut as an auteur director. Boys followed a group of bored teenagers on a small shipping island, living an idle lifestyle of aimless bravado, hanging out in pool halls and flirting with delinquency, whilst waiting for their imminent call-up to national service. Building a film short on plot but rich in languorous atmosphere, Hou finds ways to reveal emotions under the surface, inventing his own film syntax. Shot/reverse-shot conventions cut to internal thoughts; the present blends into reverie-induced flashback in one continuous take; and when the boys’ migration to the big city leaves them gullibly conned into paying for a movie-hall that turns out to be the open wall of an unfinished building’s 11th floor, the makeshift ‘screen’ they look out on meta-cinematically overlooks ‘real’ Taiwanese life – precisely what Hou and the Taiwan New Cinema were trying to do.

An ‘Autobiographical Trilogy’:

Hou’s next three films were so firmly rooted in lived experiences and first-hand memories (his own and those of his two writing partners) that they can be called an ‘autobiographical trilogy’. A Summer at Grandpa’s was based on the childhood memories of Chu Tian-wen, focusing on a young boy and his little sister spending their summer vacation with their grandparents in the countryside, due to their mother’s illness. Nothing of any great dramatic import happens to the kids: they waste time away in the bucolic heat by making new friends and racing tortoises, by making acquaintance with a mentally impaired local woman (who ends up being the emotional core of the film), and by witnessing their grandfather’s paternalistic ire at their uncle’s poor life decisions. Deceptively sweet and simple, the film is nonetheless haunted by the out-of-frame hint of death and adult violence, making it the cousin of other perspectives onto the adult world seen through child’s eyes like The Spirit of the BeehiveWhere is the Friend’s Home?, and even Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, which it no doubt influenced.

A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985)

Next, Hou faithfully adapted his own early life-story, even filming in his actual childhood home. A Time to Live and a Time to Die was profoundly personal for Hou, perhaps an exorcism of past regrets, as well as a tribute to his family. It is also a coming-of-age tale relatable to a whole generation of mainlander immigrants in search of identity on Taiwan. Set in the 1950s and ‘60s, it episodically presents young Hou’s everyday struggles, chasing friends or slowly veering towards delinquency, while the precarious status of his family’s displacement take its toll – the father’s death explains the missing paternal presence in Hou’s filmography, the mother’s illness tests the increasingly loutish adolescent Hou’s filial piety to the full, and the uprooted, senile grandma still thinks the old mainland is just a bridge’s walk away.

In the background, Hou displays control of the elliptical narrative by filling in a mass of details enriching his portrait of a whole era’s social dynamics through one family (a premise realised even more ambitiously in the later City of Sadness). It also marked Hou’s teaming up for the first time with Mark Lee Ping-bing, his definitive cinematographer: every shot, often from behind doorways, windows and room-dividers, suggests a mix of detachment and intimacy gradually cultivating a powerful emotional impact for the immersed viewer. Finally, what Hou’s masterpiece showed was the cinema’s power, without recourse to symbolism nor expressionism, to inherently poeticise something as superficially prosaic as a none-too-atypical childhood.

Dust in the Wind (1986)

Third in the trilogy, Dust in the Wind adapted an incident from the adolescent years of Wu Nien-jen, the other significant co-writer in Hou’s career, who also became an actor (in Yang’s Yi Yi among others) and director in his own right. Once more the dramatic plot was slight, with the story of two young lovers quitting high school in their poor mining village, to go work in the capital city, being told through small events slowly eddying into a quietly impactful finale. By now Hou was already a master of indirect narration, creating a distilled and lyrical version of life on-screen — but the film also displayed new touches. The quasi-surreal flashback triggered by young Wu’s fever-dream, inducing a fast-cut montage of childhood memories, remains an exceptional scene in Hou’s oeuvre, while the opening travelling shots through train tunnels are both serenely beautiful as well as forming the film’s overall concern with visual and aural rhythms. Also notable was the acting debut of Li Tian-lu,  who brings earthy wisdom and humour to the part of Wu’s grandfather, and who’d reappear in Hou’s next three films – culminating in a 1993 biopic of his colourful life, The Puppetmaster.

Despite some critics, especially those who’d witnessed his success at festival screenings, already hailing Hou’s cinema as the perfect antidote to the machine-gun editing and flashy MTV aesthetic of ‘80s commercial cinema, in this period he faced a certain amount of criticism in Taiwan for being overly ascetic and uncommercial. Daughter of the Nile came partly as an attempt to make a commercially viable film after diminishing box-office returns, working with the same producer as his first three films. Despite the use of a popstar in the main role (like in those early films) of the young girl struggling to fill the boots of her late mother at the heart of a dysfunctional family, Hou used this film to hone his style and it deserves to be reassessed as a transitional film in his filmography, both looking backward and anticipating future films.

Daughter‘s attempt to engage with the younger urban generation of Taiwan through its teenage protagonist, who, disconnected from a larger sense of identity or history, escapes into a fantasy world which she parallels to her own life, would be seen again in Good Men, Good Women, Millennium Mambo, and the final section of Three Times. Stylistically, the repeated use of ‘mnemonic’ shots, from the same angle and distance, to announce recurring locations (the family’s living room space, the exterior of the Pink House restaurant, etc) was a shorthand which neatly blended into Hou’s fixed-camera aesthetic, and would be used to even more memorable effect in his next work, A City of Sadness. It was with the latter film that he would break out from the autobiographical subjects he knew best, and break through internationally with major festival success. I shall discuss that period of his career in the next part of this profile.