Masters of Modern World Cinema: Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Part 2)

Previous profiles:
001. Michael Haneke
002. Lee Chang-dong
003. Sergei Loznitsa
004. Hou Hsiao-hsien (Part 1)


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.”

A ‘Historical Trilogy’:

Following the humanist stance of his biographical trilogy of coming-of-age films and the decline of the Taiwan New Cinema (both discussed in Part 1), Hou Hsiao-hsien expanded his thematic palette — still examining Taiwanese identity, but on a larger and more historical scale — in three films containing some of his best work, and arguably his two greatest films. His ‘historical trilogy’ showcased an increasingly ambitious artist, ever-more in command of his medium, realising elaborate visions of Taiwanese families, artists and political activists ensnared within the cogs of history’s wheels in some understated way — true to form, Hou’s approach to history would be anecdotal rather than over-arching.

In 1989, following the end of Taiwan’s 40 years of martial law, A City of Sadness became the first public reference to the previously taboo ‘228 incident’, a massacre of local protesters in February 1947 by the KMT (the ruling political party) and subsequent purges which took over 20,000 lives. This turmoil is refracted in the film through the fate of the Lin family, especially the deaf-mute son played by Tony Leung. The saga unfolds between the crucial years 1945 and 1949, when initial optimism (the film begins with a birth and a radiant lightbulb…), after the end of Japanese rule, descended into shattered hopes (…but ends with a death that shrouds the Lins in crepuscular uncertainty).

This was a counter-history after 40 years of official suppression; the cinematic telling of an oral history which survived only through people’s memories and rooted in the quotidian lives of the Lins: even as radios blare Emperor Hirohito’s speech of surrender, or the KMT’s threats of further retribution against protestors, daily life and its struggles go on. This sense of the actuality of human lives was conjured up with a richness of detail and lyrical poetry transcending the prosaic, with cinematography both distant and empathetic at the same time, and a multi-lingual polyphony of Mandarin, Taiwanese, Japanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese all spoken on the soundtrack. In sync with the film’s aim of telling the story of those who’d been voiceless for so long, even sign language adds to the lingual mix by being inscribed via intertitles.

In a sad irony, as Hou’s major breakthrough was confirmed by the Golden Lion at Venice and box office records in Taiwan, the contemporaneous Tiananmen Square massacre was a bitter reminder of history’s cyclical nature for the Chinese people.

With The Puppetmaster, a multi-faceted biopic of the master of traditional puppet theatre Li Tien-lu, Hou deepened his quest into personal and national memory by covering the half-century of Japanese occupation before the time-period of A City of Sadness. Puppets functioned loosely as a metaphor, for fate and for the forces behind Taiwanese history, but it was really Li himself Hou was drawn to. A down-to-earth artist who masterfully and yet unpretentiously depicts quotidian life — as the young Li in the film says, “Puppets are also like life” — he represents Hou’s personal philosophy of life and cinema.

Formally, few films have been so deliberately dark in lighting: the Rembrandt-like shadowy interiors are never lit more than the homes and brothels of pre-electricity Taiwan would have been, attributing the compositions with a great painterly beauty. The viewer has to probe attentively to detect who is present in any given scene — conversations can go on for minutes before one of the key interlocutors reveal themselves. Narratively too, Hou coaxed vigilance out of the viewer: rather than a simplistic chronicle of oppression and liberation, we find an intricate patchwork of episodes across Li Tien-lu’s life and puppet shows, an age-old local artform appropriated by the Japanese for war propaganda. In between are moments of the real Li casually adding, or more accurately ‘performing’, his own commentary to camera as the jovial raconteur that he was.

The Puppetmaster was thus an epic exploration of the interaction between art, performance, history and politics, whose densely visual tableaux and landscape shots flow past like an intimate cinematic haiku. It complicated the boundary between fiction and documentary in a way only the festival-feted Iranian cinema was doing at the time — perhaps small wonder then that this film cemented Hou’s reputation as an international auteur at Cannes, where Abbas Kiarostami championed it for a prize on that year’s jury.

Critical success notwithstanding, The Puppetmaster was a commercial failure that saw Hou fall out with the producer of his first two ‘Historical trilogy’ instalments, and the intended concluding part (a Rip van Winkle-esque story in which a man falls into a coma in the 1960s only to wake up decades later to an unrecognisable modern Taiwan) was shelved.

Instead, Hou found a different way to compare past and present. Good Men, Good Women goes down as his most elaborate film conceptually: Liang Qing is an emotionally fragile actress in the middle of shooting a historical film based on the true story of Chinese resistance fighters who, after fighting the Japanese in WW2, were then political victims of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime as suspected Communists in the brutal ‘White Terror’ era of the 1950s.

This film-within-the-film confronts Liang Qing with her nation’s traumas, while mysterious fax messages in the present dispatch pages from her diary to her apartment, forcing her to relive a tragedy from her own, more recent, past. The multiple timeframes are signified in contrasting ways: black and white and largely static camera for the struggles of the patriots in the 1940s and ‘50s, while Hou for the first time experimented with a constantly roving camera in the colour images of the contemporary narrative. These multiple strands, and the focus on an actress finding connections while embodying a character from the past, made the film an exploration of identity and the pains of repressed scars from the past, be they private or public, personal or national.

New (and diverse) directions:

After Good Men, Good Women, Hou would leave behind the historical past and political backdrops to examine contemporary Taiwan, in even more looser and liberating narratives.

What at first appeared to be (like Daughter of the Nile) a transitional film on the back of a trilogy, ended up re-defining Hou’s aesthetic for the 1990s. In Goodbye South, Goodbye, elements from Boys From Fengkuei (the aimless lives of a group of friends unsure where to go or what to do next) and Dust in the Wind (the travelling-shots through the landscapes of Taiwan, the mood of a wistful lamentation of time’s passing) were updated to the contemporary Taiwanese generation.

A pair of layabout petty criminals and their girlfriends stuck in meandering dead-end lives, alternating between risible get-rich-quick schemes and stirring up trouble with relatives, come to stand in for the uncertainty of the mid-1990s when, with Hong Kong’s handover looming, Taiwan’s own future relations with its ‘big brother’ China were a similar source of worry. These characters discuss plans to invest on the Mainland or move to the States but remain finally anchored to their precarious home-island (the South of the title refers to Taiwan).

Audiences wanting a tight narrative were left frustrated, as this was a director continuing to adhere to his philosophy of filming life as a series of moments in the process of happening. While the eventual outcome for these characters does reach some sort of crescendo in a cumulatively more affecting second half, Hou pushes most important plot events to the margins of his focus, exchanging them for languorous moments of wasting the time away or  gorgeously atmospheric travelling-shots along winding motorcycle rides through Taiwan’s countryside (the film’s highlights and among Hou’s most beautiful scenes).

Hou’s next film stands out from the rest of his filmography in many ways. While carrying out research for a never-made film about Zheng Chenggong, the 17th century ruler who defeated Dutch colonialists and settled on Taiwan, Hou came across a novel about the lives and intrigues of the residents of a late Qing-dynasty high-class Shanghai brothel. Flowers of Shanghai would thus be his first adaptation, his first film entirely set in China, and his first film set in a time beyond living memory.

It is also his most visually sumptuous film. A meticulous reconstruction of period costumes and sets render the ‘flower house’ into a claustrophobic gilded cage, its banquets and drinking games under misty oil-lamp light filmed by Mark Lee Ping-bin’s camera slowly panning in woozy arcs, made all the more atmospheric by Yoshiro Hanno’s minimalist ambient-electro score and fades-to-black (like eyelids closing over proceedings) in between every long-take scene. It was as if the effects of the opium-smoking and drinking the men enjoyed within the quarters of the flower girls had transferred onto the film’s form and style. Closer inspection of the plot beyond this immediately immersive experience, however, reveals an enigmatic but tightly structured narrative showcasing the different types of women living in such an establishment and their varied attitudes towards their male customers.

Among the flower girls are some who, sold into the trade by families they must continue to support, harbour a tentative hope that her regular customer will buy off her debts and marry her; others who came as orphans and want to strike out on their own, seeing their habitual beau as a pragmatic financial helper; others are young and idealistically naive in ‘breaking the rules’ by falling passionately in love with their first patron; others still are older flower girls, in the house for many years, and content with their status quo; and then there are the various madams, themselves former flower girls and exemplars of the future that awaits these women. Entirely set within the interior of the brothel, the film places us with the flower girls, depriving us of the physical and social mobility of their male patrons, so that beneath the opiate mist and once the spell of the film’s beauty has dispelled, we feel the tragic melancholy of these women’s lives having their potential squandered in socio-historical and existential entrapment.

Hou’s first film of the 21st century, Millennium Mambo, was another departure, rooted in the urban youth culture of Taipei and, far more than any of his previous films, revolving around the subjectivity of one central character. That his recent films would focus increasingly on female protagonists no doubt has much to do with his long collaboration with the writer Chu Tian-wen, as well as finding a muse in the actress Shu Qi. In this film she plays Vicky, whose unanchored life the film propels us into over a soundtrack of pulsating techno, following her on a circuitous odyssey of bad relationships and little certainty about the future.

Vicky, like Hou’s film grammar, lives voraciously in the moment, but feels trapped in its cyclical emptiness. It was tempting, but somewhat facile, to compare her lack of drive with Hou’s earlier historical and more politically aware characters, and interpret it as an indictment of the modern youth generation and their aimless lifestyle — yet this ignores certain elements countering this reading. The most original narrative conceit of the film is Vicky’s voiceover from 10 years into the future, speaking about herself in detached third person as if to imply her future self had settled into being somebody completely different. This, and the final note of her having made a possible connection with a pair of Japanese brothers, offered a strong sense of hope.

Mostly though, this is Hou’s objective examination of a sub-culture and way of life, which with a de-dramatised narrative heavily dependent on the presence of Shu Qi, on its pared down editing, and on its moments of luminously captured atmosphere, still finally offered plenty of emotional resonance.

International/Transnational Auteur:

In more recent years, Hou has embraced his status as a transnational auteur by accepting various commissions to make films outside of Taiwan in a foreign language. Cafe Lumiere, made for the centenary of Yasujiro Ozu at the request of Shochiku Studio, was a gentle renewal of the Japanese master’s themes of cross-generational conflict. Yoko, an independent-minded writer researching the life of Taiwanese composer Jiang Wen-ye, who had studied in Tokyo in the 1930s, is dealing with a pregnancy on her own after refusing to marry her Taiwanese long-distance boyfriend. Gravitating around her are a small network of friends and family: Hajime, a doting bookstore owner and train aficionado, and her father and stepmother — concerned but unsure how to reach out to her.

This is a film of connections, both fulfilled and missed. Its connective tissue consists of train rides, phone calls, Yoko and Hajime’s platonic relationship, and an exploration of ties between Taiwan and Japan that are other than colonialist — represented by the artistic legacy of Jiang Wen-ye (whose music is played on the soundtrack and whose real widow appears in the film), by the baby Yoko is carrying, and by Hou entering into dialogue with Ozu. Yoko’s parents visiting her from the countryside recalls Ozu’s Tokyo Story, and Hou fits in his own versions of pillow shots, tatami mat angles and other Ozuian motifs like clocks and sake — but it never feels like anything other than a Hou Hsiao-hsien film. An observational slice of life, Cafe Lumiere remains Hou’s most ‘positive’ portrayal of urban life, with its recurring shots of Tokyo’s intertwining railways feeling like a symbol of connectivity rather than of technological alienation, as well as his most minimal and de-dramatised film in which the succession of scenes wash over the viewer without any narrative drive.

Hou’s next film, Three Times, was received by many as a return to form but was in some ways a return to the past, both of Taiwan and of Hou’s career. An omnibus of three love stories across three different historical periods with the couple played by the same actor (Chang Chen) and actress (Shu Qi) each time, its episodic structure already recalls the anthology films (In Our Time and The Sandwich Man) which began the Taiwan New Cinema. Each of the three segments also seemed to self-consciously refer back to different periods from Hou’s filmography.

The first, hypnotic in its formal beauty and nostalgia, was set in the 1960s and reminiscent of the ‘Autobiographical trilogy’. The pool halls which Chang’s military service-bound romantic frequents in order to court Shu’s coy, girlish hostess came directly from Hou’s personal memories of that period, already present in A Time to Live, A Time to Die and Boys From Fengkuei. The second part, in which the setting of a lush brothel in 1911 and the plot of a courtesan hoping for her regular customer to buy her freedom connected back to Flowers of Shanghai, attempted to reimagine the silent cinema from a modern perspective by muting dialogue and using intertitles (previously used in City of Sadness to convey the communication of Tony Leung’s character). Finally the third part, set in contemporary Taiwan with its cold urban aesthetic and disaffected youth, extended Hou’s vision of modern life from Millennium Mambo, with Shu’s character once again being marked by indecision — this time between her needy girlfriend and her male lover.

Taken as a cohesive whole, the three parts combine, contrast and rhyme across past and present, as Good Men, Good Women already had, but this time to form an outline of unfulfilled romantic connections and the various ways of expressing love: letters and shy glances in the 1960s, calligraphy and song in 1911, emails and cellphones in 2005. The two actors infuse their characters with subtle modulations to differentiate across the three settings, although each time they fall somewhat short of ending up together, but for different reasons: these characters, like all of Hou’s, are inevitably conditioned by the times they live in.

With Flight of the Red Balloon, commissioned by the Musée d’Orsay and ostensibly a riff on the classic 1956 short film The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse, Hou continued his evolution into a transnational auteur, now a globetrotting artist of the world just as he had once been the historian and poet laureate of Taiwanese identity. His first film made outside Asia, Flight consolidated his approach of conjuring the sense of real lives through isolated moments and an atmospherically shot poetic naturalism. Juliette Binoche starred as a mother juggling, with a hectic energy, the various facets of her life: her duties as a single parent to her young son, as a landlord whose tenant is increasingly making her life difficult, and as a voice actor for a puppet theatre. The film owed much to her warm performance, as it did to the boy whose occasional run-ins with a seemingly sentient balloon updated Lamorisse’s original fable of childhood, and to the character of his Chinese au pair discovering Paris with the curiosity of unjaded eyes just like Hou was through this film. On a more abstract plane, the film’s rhythms (of life and of light), its roaming camera and textured cinematography of glass reflections, its airy piano score and its breezy plot, all seemed to share in the buoyant freedom of the titular red balloon, and combined to make this his most exquisitely impressionistic film of the 2000s.

It then took Hou another eight years before his next feature film, The Assassin, a wuxia picture which had long been in the works. Shu Qi returned as a Tang-dynasty female assassin sent to eliminate a regional warlord. Whereas the average genre flick is a minor mutation of a well-trodden formula, Hou rarefied the wuxia rules and stamped his imprint upon them — the action scenes showed off the briskest editing of his career but remained few and far between and mostly unresolved, the takes were still long, the shots still from mostly afar, and Hou’s primary concerns seemed to be the hazy, ephemeral atmosphere and philosophical repercussions of his heroine’s moral dilemma.

This, his last film to date, enjoyed a wider international distribution than most of his previous films while also picking up a prize at Cannes, and can thus be regarded as a remarkable swansong of a career uncompromisingly dedicated to a singular artistic vision. Interested in both autobiography and history, in memory and mood, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s cinema is a cinema of attention to minute granular details, of long takes and elliptical storytelling that evoke life out of a series of present-tense moments, always refusing to manipulate the audience emotionally and perhaps paradoxically because of this ending up all the more profoundly moving. For all the supposed objectivity of his camera, his films do not reveal all and still require us, as active viewers, to interpret, respond, ponder and feel. For all their refined aesthetic qualities, all have the potential to evoke entrancing atmosphere and strike a visceral gut-punch, becoming, in the words of Robin Wood, films to live the rest of your life with.


Hou’s aesthetic innovations developed far beyond his beginnings within the Taiwanese film industry, but he nonetheless first learnt his trade from its veterans such as Li Hsing, famous for his idyllic rural-set melodramas (one of which, Beautiful Duckling, is glimpsed during the outdoor screening scene of Hou’s Dust in the Wind). His collaboration with fellow Taiwanese artists such as the writers Chu Tian-wen and Wu Nian-jen, and his regular DoP Mark Lee Ping-bin, has also been a recurrent source of inspiration.

While Hou has a reputation for being an instinctive auto-didact, he still has shown certain cinephilic sensibilities even in the early parts of his career: both Boys from Fengkuei and Dust in the Wind contained direct references to classics of Italian Neorealism (Rocco and his Brothers and Bicycle Thieves respectively). He has also professed an admiration of the French New Wave and of the films of Maurice Pialat, whose unsentimental realism and lack of establishing shots make his cinema worth comparing to Hou’s. Often likened to the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, Hou has himself confessed in interviews to not becoming acquainted with his work until the late 1980s.

His influence on Asian and world cinema is incalculable. His trademark style of long takes and a distant camera has stimulated the innovation of many potential ‘disciples’ from across Asia: Jia Zhangke, Hirokazu Koreeda, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hong Sang-soo, and many more. Olivier Assayas, who helped Hou become better known in Europe with a 1984 profile of the Taiwan New Cinema he wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, has remained a friend of Hou’s and made a documentary feature about him in 1997. Various other filmmakers, such as Abbas Kiarostami or Jim Jarmusch, have expressed their admiration, and the impact of Flowers of Shanghai on French cinephilia was evident in Bertrand Bonello’s own take on the theme in his 2011 House of Pleasures. As a producer and mentor, Hou has continued to help bring through a new generation of Asian filmmakers, such as Anthony Chen or Hung Chih-yu.

Recommended viewing:

While City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster and Flowers of Shanghai are the most essential films of this latter part of his career, it is ideal to work through his filmography in chronological order so as to detect the ways his style incrementally shifts from film to film. Otherwise, as a potential ideal starting point, Three Times works best in its showcase of Hou’s three principal phases.