Hou Hsiao-hsien: A Retrospective


Australian film culture is full of paradoxes. Here is the most vexing: how can someone who is commonly regarded as among the half-dozen greatest living directors in world cinema manage to not have had a film shown in a local arthouse cinema since 1990? Yet this is the case with the Taiwanaese master Hou Hsiao-hsien.


Hou has been relatively well served by Australia’s Film Festivals and, for a time, by SBS television. But since the days when his magisterial City of Sadness (1989) received a tiny, independent release locally, the general audience in Australia could be excused for not even recognising his name.


Sometimes, when Hou’s movies are presented around the world, they come with a defensive apology: these films are slow, minimal and difficult to follow … but please stick with them! But no such double-talk is needed in the face of involving, moving films like A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985), The Puppetmaster (1993) or Flowers of Shanghai (1998).


Hou’s abiding topic is Taiwanese history, inside of which he places the often unbearably touching stories of individuals, groups and families. His own background reflects the turbulence of that history. He was born in Canton in 1947, shortly after the end of the Japanese occupation, in the middle of the war between communists and nationalists. His family ended up stranded in Taiwan.


All of Hou’s characters are people caught in the crossfire of history. Yet they rarely confront social problems openly, cathartically or violently as in an American epic like Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002). Hou’s films are about historical repression, the crippling weight of the unspoken.


Few filmmakers have such a keen sense of how the tides and contradictions of history affect intimate life. Often we must read between the lines to discern what is motivating the characters, pushing and pulling them in certain, inevitable directions. In very subtle ways, these people resist the dominant trend, finding their own little pockets of power and influence; or they go under, becoming citizen-sleepwalkers.


Hou translates his themes into a dazzling cinematic style. He is the master of the long take, of time felt as a presence, a weight. Within these shots, he guides his often non-professional actors into an extraordinary choreography of everyday gestures and movements. In Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996), for instance, he vividly portrays the comings and goings of members of the Taiwanese criminal underworld.


Hou is himself no stranger to this world. He grew up on the mean streets and, before becoming a director of high seriousness, considered a career as an actor or singer. Olivier Assayas has commented: ‘His manner of slipping from grown-up rationality to childish laughter is intact, as is his way of moving between intellectuals and small-time Mafiosi’. Indeed, Assayas’ filmed portrait HHH concludes with a hilarious glimpse into Hou’s favourite pastime: karaoke singing.


Currently, Hou’s career is heading in several quite different directions. His desire to leave history behind and plunge himself into present-day youth culture is evident in Millennium Mambo (2001), reportedly the first of a ten-part series. Yet he took time off from that massive project to set up initiatives designed to encourage every kind of filmmaking, from independent cinema to commercial genre exercises, throughout Asia.


The latest news is that Hou has accepted a project that will be, in large part, a homage to the Japanese director to whom he is often compared: Yasujiro Ozu. Just as Ozu’s visibility around the world long suffered from the tag of being ‘the most Japanese of filmmakers’, Hou has had to endure the mantle of being the most Taiwanese. Our local arthouse cinemas may be overly afraid of such cultural specificity, but no lover of film needs to be. The work of Hou Hisao-hisen is, quite simply, indispensable.


Postscript 1: Thanks to a French setting and star (Juliette Binoche), The Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) also attained an Australian arthouse season – just as Certified Copy (2010) became Kiarostami’s only local theatrical release since Ten (2002).


Postscript 2: The commercial failure of Millennium Mambo led Hou to drop the idea of a 10 part series. As of 2012, he has headed in another, completely new direction for him: a martial arts action-adventure film, The Assassin.


MORE Hou: Good Men, Good Women, Three Times


© Adrian Martin June 2003 (postcripts May 2012)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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